Memorial Day weekend marked a milestone for many restaurants across southeastern Wisconsin that began reopening to diners, under a new set of operating guidelines aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19.
As of Friday, May 22, bars and restaurants in Milwaukee County's 18 suburbs could reopen their doors for dine-in service, with a recommended 50% limit on capacity, according to a joint order issued after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers' "Safer at Home" order. It excludes the City of Milwaukee, where bars and restaurants remain closed indefinitely under its own stay at home restrictions.
Paisano's Italian Restaurant in South Milwaukee reopened its dining room on Monday. Business was OK, but expectedly slow due to the holiday, which was part of the reason why the restaurant waited a couple days, said manager Michelle Litza.
"We were allowed to open up technically the Friday before, but we wanted to ease into it and do a soft opening just to get the staff used to the different guidelines and requirements," she said.
Following recommended limits on capacity, the restaurant's indoor dining room has every other booth and table available for seating. Litza said its first day reopen brought no issues with capacity restrictions and diners were understanding, but having a smaller crowd helped.
"We understand there's going to be a lot of people that are going to be really cautious before they start coming out again, so we know that it will probably be slow the first couple of weeks, but are hopeful that it will pick back up and maybe get back to a more normal setting come July," said Litza.
Kegel's Innin West Allis hasn't reopened its dining room yet, but its outdoor beer garden opened on Friday and Saturday with limited seating for to-go orders only. Diners could also order drinks and cocktails from the bar.
"We said that if people want to sit and eat their to-go meals, they can eat outside, but we're not serving people outside, so we're kind of in that gray area," said co-owner Stephanie Kegel.
The business hadn't planned on being open Monday for Memorial Day, but Kegel said 30 people showed up to enjoy a beer at the beer garden.
Currently, the plan is to reopen for dine-in service in about a week. But that's not a simple decision.
"Its a moral dilemma for us in the way that we don't want to put anybody at risk, our staff or our customers," Kegel said. Seeing the (COVID-19) cases rise already is pretty intimidating, but we're getting to the point where if we don't start getting people back to work, we're going to face real hardship."
Kegel's has seen a 70% drop in customers coming through its drive-thru for to-go fish fry in the past few weeks as the weather has gotten nicer and more restaurants have reopened, so the pressure to expand operating capacity is on, she said.
Luckily, having the option of outdoor seating provides patrons a dine-in experience, with lower risk. Tables are spaced out and wiped down after every party with service-grade sanitizer. And serving food with disposable tableware reduces the amount of surfaces the restaurant would need to sanitize, said Kegel.
The Blind Horse Restaurant & Winery in Kohler had a similar idea for its reopening weekend. The restaurant has been open for curbside for the past week. The winery's expansive patio reopened for outdoor dining service on Friday.
"We had a very successful weekend," said Thomas Nye, general manager and master winemaker.
Social distancing guidelines have reduced the number of tables available, but the winery has enough space to expand its outdoor seating footprint enough to make up for the reduced capacity, said Nye.
On a busy Friday evening prior to the pandemic, the winery's patio would typically fit about 175 to 180 people. On Friday, it seated about 130 people.
That will also be the case when the Blind Horse's restaurant reopens for dine-in service next Friday, June 5. Private tents and additional tables outside will increase outdoor dining capacity for the restaurant and bring its total capacity back up to what it would normally be.
"Of course, we're going to be more held to weather events now than we ever have been, but we feel like we're doing this in the most responsible way possible," said Nye. "(Outdoor space) certainly does give people an option if they're uncomfortable being indoors."
The Blind Horse recently installed a cleaning treatment throughout the indoor portions of its entire property that uses ultraviolet light to kill bacteria and viruses on surfaces. Nye said The Blind Horse is one of the first restaurants in the country to install the Shock & Shield system, which is distributed by Butler-based Green Up Solutions. In addition, all indoor surfaces have been sprayed with an antimicrobial disinfectant that kills any bacteria for up to 90 days. UV filtration systems have also been installed to sanitize the air flowing throughout the property's indoor spaces.
"We really feel like we have the safest restaurant in Wisconsin," said Nye.
In addition to enhanced cleaning procedures, all staff is subject to a temperature check upon arrival to work each day and is required to wear masks. Nye remarked that he saw only four customers come to the restaurant wearing face masks on Friday.
Meanwhile, two Whitefish Bay restaurants, Moxie Food + Drink and Trouble and Sons Pizzeria, are just dipping their toes into the reopening process.
Both concepts, located a couple blocks apart on East Silver Spring Drive, launched curbside pick-up service on Tuesday after having been closed since mid-March. Their dining rooms and outdoor patios will reopen May 31, at 50% capacity.
A temporary shut down isn't easy for any business, but the time gave co-owners Anne Marie Arroyo and Tamela Greene a much-needed opportunity to execute some items on their business plan, including an online ordering system, which also launched Tuesday.
They see the online option as a crucial part of the business going forward as the threat of COVID-19 looms, keeping capacity limited and some diners at home. But that aspect of the business is new to them, as will be full-service dining amid a pandemic, so they didn't want to rush.
"We're going to have one chance to make a great first impression and, in this case, that first impression is making people feel safe when they walk through our doors-- making them feel like we're doing our due diligence, doing everything we can to help them to be safe and help our staff to be safe," said Greene.
Launching curbside about five days before reopening the dining room will give the restaurant and its staff a chance to work out the kinks of the new online ordering platform before diners are welcome back inside and on the patios, said Arroyo.
The closure also allowed for some exciting changes. Moxie will now be open for dinner service only. Its menu has been refreshed and paired down in an effort to reduce waste and cost. It now features a mix of top-sellers and new items, such as a nicoise salad.
When full-service returns, tables will be separated by six feet and, at Moxie, which is the smaller of the two restaurants, plexiglass dividers have been installed between each table for extra protection. With party size is limited to six people, Moxie can now only fit one table of six outside. Greene said halving capacity puts a strain on bringing back the two restaurants' 40 staff members-- only two servers will work each shift, as opposed to six.
At full capacity during normal times, the patios at Moxie and at Trouble and Sons each seats 36 people. Even at half capacity, those outdoor seating areas are still vital sources of revenue. There's been discussions of installing a tent over Moxie's patio for the summer, so diners could still be seated outside in cooler or rainy weather, said Greene.
"And that comes with a cost," said Arroyo. "We have to rent those tents and they're commercial grade, so with already thin margins, we're picking up this additional cost... This is our time to shine, in the summer at both restaurants, this is our busiest time of year and we won't see that volume, but we're hoping to make some of that up with the curbside," she said.
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