Restaurant, bar owners share reservations over closures

Oba Ramen staff distribute meals to school children alongside members of the school district on Tuesday. The restaurant has closed its doors in reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak.

On Monday Gov. Kate Brown announced a four-week ban on seated dining in Oregon’s bars and restaurants and prohibited gatherings of more than 25 people in a dramatic effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

By the next day, when the ban went into effect, Cottage Grove restaurants and bars had already readjusted to a new take-out and delivery model to continue serving the community. Despite the speedy adaptation, though, many business owners are concerned how the drastic change will play out.

“It’s going to be bad for our economy,” said Axe & Fiddle owner Bart Caridio. “It’s going to bad for everything that I can see.”

Caridio regards the governor’s move as an overreaction and lacking planning.

“It seems like it would have been good for the people who are shutting all this down to have things in place for all these displaced employees,” he said, referring to the staff layoffs occurring locally and throughout the restaurant industry.

As majority owner of Plank Town Brewing Company in Springfield, Caridio said he had already been forced to lay off around 90 percent of employees.

Around the block, owners of The Brew Station & Coast Fork Feed Emily Rinck and Dale Smith are faring somewhat differently.

“We have a very different floor model than a lot of other pubs,” said Rinck.

With half of the business dedicated to animal feed and an array of gardening supplies, the owners have actually seen an uptick in sales as concerns about the coronavirus grew.

However, with the governor’s order, the pub is anticipating a drop in the weeks to come as The Brew Station switches to a take-out system. This may be bad news for employees.

“We’re hoping for federal and state support for our employees,” said Smith. “Small businesses have the resiliency of the community, but they don’t have the resiliency of the dollars. … I would hope policy makers are looking to the other side and realize that it is small business that is the backbone of community.”

The owners also hope to continue to provide a sense of community despite the social distancing.

“I believe it’s going to be something that’s missed, but it’s not something I feel is going away — it’s just something that’s going to be delivered in a different manner in the next four weeks,” said Rinck.

More traditional restaurants and cafes downtown are also bracing for stormy economic weather.

Stacy Solomon, owner of Stacy’s Covered Bridge Restaurant, is cautiously optimistic for his business.

“It’s a pretty big impact,” he said. “We’re not a really a to-go type restaurant. … We do have our share of it, but for the most part that’s not how we’re set up.”

Still, Solomon described the sudden statewide ban in unflattering terms.

“I thought it was a little extreme,” he said. “They could have taken some time and let the restaurants prepare for it instead of just dropping it on them at one time.”

Solomon acknowledged the shift as having a potential existential threat to business and emphasized the importance of such establishments in the city.

“It’s tough on all the restaurants,” he said. “In smaller towns, the restaurants are kind of the hub.”

Like other businesses, Solomon is concerned for his employees.

“I’ve had to pretty much lay off most of my crew,” he said. “A lot of them don’t rely just on a paycheck. They rely on tips, too. Unemployment doesn’t really make up for it.”

Downtown restaurant Jack Sprats, too, has seen the laying off of several employees as the business transitions to take-out.

Outside of downtown, Oba Ramen, a relative newcomer to the Cottage Grove restaurant family, has closed completely for the next four weeks.

On Tuesday morning, Oba Ramen General Manager Joseph Suk and restaurant staff stood in front of Cottage Grove High School delivering food to families of school children alongside the district’s “Meal for Kids” program.

In anticipation of its closing, the restaurant had emptied its stock of perishables and cooked a selection of restaurant items to pass on to the community. Though not providing any take-out services during the seated dining ban, Suk was confident when asked if the closure might permanently hurt the business.

“Honestly, I don’t think so,” he said. “If this goes on for more than two months … it’s going to be hard getting back open. But if it’s just a month, we can do it.”

Instead, Suk hopes attentions will turn to others who might be struggling.

“I feel like the businesses that are open, the community should go to them and help them out,” he said.

Downtown businesses that have remained open are doing so with enthusiasm, hurriedly putting together to-go menus and some even considering delivery options.

 “[We] can at least keep a few people employed by putting out food to go,” said Caridio, speaking to the need to keep the local business energetic.

The Brew Station, too, will put the take-out model to trial for a few days to see how the community responds.

“If it doesn’t work for us, then we will cut off the kitchen and still stay for growler fills that people can access from the feed store,” said Rinck. “We’ll go down to a skeleton crew, most definitely. We want this business to be here and viable for our employees when this is over.”

Enduring the economic hit will require not only innovation by local businesses, but effort from locally-minded community members who want to participate in the city’s economic vibrancy.

While health authorities urge citizens to practice social distancing and take hygienic steps to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, Smith expressed a worry that a sense of isolation may set in for some.

“I’m concerned this will be divisive. To avoid a divisive situation, we will have to purposefully unite and find those touchstones that are necessary to unite around,” she said. “We have a community that looks out for one another, but I think communication right now — a united communication that is consistent in theme and tone – is incredibly important.”

For many business owners, this means maintaining common sense vis a vis the coronavirus outbreak, but also reaching out to the establishments they enjoy through the safest means possible, either to communicate needs or to extend patronage.

“It would be really great if [people] adjusted their habits to think locally and support those businesses they want to see still here once we get through this,” said Caridio, stressing possible repercussions if the community overly isolates. “I could see that restaurants and bars that are on the edge aren’t going to survive.”

Solomon remained optimistic economic stability would prevail.

“I think the support is there in the community. I really do,” he said. “We’ve been here 21 years and they’ve always supported us, so we’ve been pretty fortunate for the most part. And I’m sure it’ll continue.”

For her part, Rinck sees employees’ welfare as a key to emerging from the situation economically unscathed.

“They’re at the forefront of our mind,” she said. “The best way to support our businesses is by supporting the people that we employ.”

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