‘Back on the menu’

Grovers turned out at The Brewstation May 15 for the first day of the county’s Phase One reopening, which allows restricted sit-down service in food and beverage establishments. While some local businesses have made adjustments to come into compliance with state requirements, others have delayed reopening as they strategize ways to meet the guidelines.

Area restaurants reopen amid uncertainty

With the United States enduring plummeting economic activity and a historic rise in unemployment due to responses to the novel coronavirus outbreak, forecasts of the nation’s economic health remain a consistent point of uncertainty.

Despite turmoil at the national level, however, the food and beverage sector in Cottage Grove seems determined to bounce back.

“Actually, I’m pretty optimistic,” said Cottage Grove Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Shauna Neigh. “It seems everybody is coming back to business.”

Since Gov. Kate Brown issued an executive order March 23 shutting down all non-essential services and severely restricting food and beverage sellers, restaurants and bars in Cottage Grove have either resorted to take-out services or shut down all together.

On May 15, Lane County was among several Oregon counties approved to begin Phase One of the state’s reopening blueprint. Among guidelines for restaurants and bars are the requirements to implement six feet of social distancing, limit groups to parties of 10 or fewer, end food and drink consumption by 10 p.m. and instruct workers to wear masks.

Each Cottage Grove food and beverage business has responded differently and, though the Chamber has not received news that any local businesses are folding, Neigh pointed out that the reopening is far from normal.

“It’s not going to be business as usual,” she said. “I don’t think anybody really knows what the ‘new normal’ is going to be. Everybody’s just trying to play it by ear right now and keep everybody safe.”

With the challenge of meeting safety guidelines, many businesses throughout town have opted to simply continue offering take-out. Downtown establishments, though, have begun to see more traffic as some are trying to optimize the opportunity.

Main Street pub Axe and Fiddle, for instance, now offers limited seating (though none at the bar) and encourages reservations for dine-ins while still offering take-out services.

Likewise, The Brewstation has taken advantage of its spacious outside seating area while trying to maintain social-distancing measures and accommodate an isolation-weary public.

“Phase one has reduced our footprint of table space, partially because of the updates/remodel we are doing in the music space of our pub and also because of spacing of tables and chairs to meet the safe distancing requirements,” said Brewstation owner Dale Smith. “We are set up to clean between all customers including tables, chairs, menus and the bar area. Hand sanitizer is available inside and out in the beer garden and safe distancing is marked on the floor.”

In addition, staff at both pubs will continue to be outfitted with masks.

Stacy’s Covered Bridge Restaurant has also seen an uptick in customers as the business has adjusted its seating and opened up to limited dine-ins.

“We’re big enough that we can social distance,” said owner Stacy Solomon. “And we’ve still got the to-go orders, which we’re hoping to continue because there are still some people not quite comfortable going out in public yet.”

The restaurant’s reopening on the first day of Phase One saw a robust turnout, one which Solomon said nearly overwhelmed the limited staff.

“I think people are just excited to get back out again,” said Solomon.

Other establishments like Buster’s Main Street Café, though, do not have such a spatial advantage. Buster’s closed well before the governor’s executive order and reopened May 19 providing only take-out. Unfortunately, the county’s shift to Phase One has not been a financial boon for the café.

“We didn’t open for dine-in because of the way the tables have to be situated,” explained owner Paul Tocco. “There’s no space and it’s not worth the risk.”

As such, the café continues to offer its take-out service exclusively.

Lingering Impact

Though there is a relative return to stability among some establishments, the impact of the lockdown has taken its toll on both businesses and their workers.

Brewstation, for example, was forced to lay off nine of its 13 employees, said Smith. A skeleton crew continued to offer take-out growlers, canned and bottled products and eventually made-to-go food, but Smith estimates business dropped to 25 percent of its usual revenue stream. Brewstation’s adjoining feed store has continuing to bring in revenue, though, and Smith attributed part of the business’s ability to ride out the storm to the community.

“Business was still greatly reduced in the pub, though our community was very generous in the frequenting us for to-go and their tips and concern for our team,” said Smith, adding that business has increased to about 50 percent of its usual stream. “It’s inching up day by day.”

Other businesses have reported similar layoff rates and drops in sales. Even with the reopening attracting more customers, some business owners cannot yet afford to rehire their former employees.

In Tocco’s case, the limited seating at Buster’s would not make up for the cost of bringing staff back.

“It would be just ten seats and then I’d have to hire someone to come in and the money would just be a wash,” he said.

Tocco detailed his thin margins by recalling the roughly $58,000 he made in sales last year in May. So far this month, Buster’s is on track to make about $14,000 and Tocco said even the layoffs of seven employees have not come close to offsetting the losses.

When asked if the current climate was cause for existential concern, Tocco didn’t hesitate to answer.

“Oh, for sure,” he said. “Every day is the question: ‘Are we going to open today or not?’ Because we don’t have a clue.”

On the other end of downtown Main Street, Stacy’s Covered Bridge Restaurant laid off about 12 workers during the lockdown and still runs the operation with just three people.

“I think we lost about 70 percent of our business during that period of time,” said Solomon, who worries that the cancellation of Bohemia Mining Days festival this year will further impact those losses.

Still, Solomon feels his business has achieved some stability, in large part due to community turnout.

“Cottage Grove, for us, really stepped up,” he said. “I thought I was just going to shut down and ride it out until it all blew over, but after the first two days, it surprisingly went well considering we weren’t really known as a to-go restaurant.”

As business owners adapt their reopening strategies, they are relying not just on community member turnout, but on the resurgence of tourist traffic as well – the latter of which may not come.

Owners like Tocco are concerned that if the customer slump continues through the summer, the loss of the biggest revenue-generating season of the year will put businesses in a tight spot come winter.

Already, the Memorial Day weekend, which Tocco said normally generates around $11,000 for Buster’s, had a notable drop in sales as the café came up just shy of $2,500.

“So, every event that gets canceled like that, it’s like getting sicker,” he said. “And then you can’t get out of it. There’s no increase.”

Tocco has plans to adapt, however.

Though conversations about a “new normal” tend to lack definition amid a period of uncertainty, Tocco has considered making online ordering and take-out a permanent part of his service model.

“My plan is to change and develop a model that is for the new world,” he said. “I’m going to do whatever I can to work on the take-out and then when we can have full dine-in again, then I’ll work on both.”

For his part, Solomon is looking forward to rehiring staff and beginning catering services again at his restaurant, but for now is looking to continue working with the tools he’s been afforded through the end of the summer.

“It’s just nice to be open and see people again,” he said. “That’s the best part of it.”

In the meantime, Neigh is hopeful the community will remain understanding about the restrictions businesses have instituted.

“When consumers are out there and they are asked to meet certain requirements in order to patronize a business, I ask that people just be patient,” she said.

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