CORONAVIRUS

Iowa restaurants scramble toward reopening

'It's like opening a new place all over again'

Manager Kenyon Thorp greets a regular customer Wednesday while power-washing chairs outside as the staff deep cleans Moc
Manager Kenyon Thorp greets a regular customer Wednesday while power-washing chairs outside as the staff deep cleans Moco Game Room & Hot Dog Bar in Cedar Rapids. Moco has been closed since March 17 and plans to reopen for takeout on Monday while deciding whether to further reopen. Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Wednesday that restaurants in 22 of Iowa’s hardest-hit counties can reopen on Friday — but with restrictions — joining the 77 other counties that were able to reopen earlier. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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It takes a lot of work to scale down a restaurant’s operations, as thousands of business owners across Iowa did when they were ordered closed March 17 to dine-in service to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

And it takes a lot of work to scale back up after nearly two months, especially when they need a whole new operations plan first.

“It’s like opening a new place all over again, except you have to do it more quickly,” said Jordan Caviness, a co-owner and operator of several area restaurants including Sam’s Pizza and Mister B’s Bar, Stadium Bar and Grill, Mulligan’s Pub and Vito’s on 42nd in Cedar Rapids as well as Shuey’s Restaurant and Lounge in Shueyville.

After an announcement Wednesday by Gov. Kim Reynolds that restaurants here could reopen as of 5 a.m. Friday, joining restaurants already allowed to reopen in 77 other counties, Caviness and his team members were scrambling to figure out how to do so while meeting the social distancing guidelines also in the order.

Those include requirements that restaurants operate at half capacity, limit party sizes to six people or fewer, seat parties 6 feet apart and eliminate self-serve options like salad bars and buffets.

“It’s very short notice to get everything done, but we’re doing our best. We’re going to try to open as soon as we can as long as we can do it safely and meet the requirements,” Caviness said. “Some places may have to wait a couple of days to open, until we can get all the food and alcohol orders in. … As soon as we can safely do it and keep our staff safe and our customers safe, we’ll do it.”

At Cedar River Landing, manager Joab Upah and his staff were busy moving tables Wednesday to make up a new socially distanced seating area. The business has been closed completely since March 17 — he said it tried carryout the first week, but was losing money at it.

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“All our bills kept coming in, so it was becoming a strain financially. Even at 50 percent, we can start having something come in and get some of our regulars back in,” he said.

Normally the bar and restaurant also is a live music venue, but that part is on hiatus — it would be too much of a challenge to monitor crowd sizes, Upah said.

Justin Zehr, co-owner of LP Street Food, Moco Game Room and Hot Dog Bar and Bricks, in Cedar Rapids, said he and business partner Tim Kindl needed time to figure out the logistics before reopening LP Street Food to dine-in customers on Wednesday.

“Our main concern is making everyone safe, and the next one is surviving as a business and being profitable. It’s very limiting. If you were to create a business model off 50 percent of your seats, you wouldn’t be staying open. It’s a regulation that’s designed to make us fail,” he said.

He said carryout business has been going well at LP Street Food, but Moco hasn’t been open at all since the shutdown. Most of the business there comes from drinks, though it has a small kitchen. Staff were in the process of a deep clean Wednesday, preparing to reopen for at least carryout, while the owners decided whether reopening for dine-in at half capacity would make financial sense.

“With this, we are now put in a position where we have to create another position to manage this — maybe a hostess we didn’t have,” he said. “We’re not only managing a restaurant, we’re managing all these other moving parts. … It’s tough water to navigate.”

They’ve made modifications at both locations, adding touchless sinks and hand dryers, hand sanitizer stations at each table and even foot-operated mechanics to open doors.

“Anything that can minimize touching things,” Zehr said.

At Popoli Ristorante and Sullivan’s Bar in Cedar Rapids, that includes adding touchless menus. Managing partner Jude Villafana said the operators worked with food supplier Sysco Foods on the menus, which use a QR code that customers can scan with their smartphones or tablet to read the menu on their own devices. They also will have single-use paper menus for those who prefer them.

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“We’ve been spending the last 10 days or so working on getting all the safety and sanitation systems in place to make sure we can provide the best and safest experience for our guests and our staff,” he said.

He said business has been challenging for the restaurant, which normally relies heavily on business travelers and catering events and weddings — all of which have evaporated. However, it has had success with curbside pickup up and virtual wine dinners and events, where guests pick up their meals and wine to go and then follow along with a video at home. Those options will continue, he said.

“We’re aware there’s a portion of the population that will prefer that over coming in,” he said.

Not every restaurant is ready to reopen, with numerous places posting on Facebook they would stick to carry out orders for the time being.

“We decided not to reopen for now,” said Ana McClain, co-owner of Lion Bridge Brewing Company in Cedar Rapids. “Over the next couple of weeks we’ll be coming up with new policies and new plans and bringing in the staff one by one to go over the new training. Then we will feel a lot more ready for this new world.”

The governor’s order excludes bars, which must remain closed. Bars are defined in the order as places where “the serving of food in incidental to the consumption of those beverages and is limited to the service of ice, snack foods and the reheating of commercially prepared foods such as frozen pizza, prepackaged sandwiches, or other prepackaged, ready-to-serve products.”

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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