Restaurants Struggle During Pandemic as Winter Arrives

The Owl House on Marshall St. in Rochester. Photo by Connor Zerniak.

ROCHESTER- The COVID-19 pandemic has forced businesses to adapt to rapid change, endure, and overcome obstacles over the past several months. As winter approaches, restaurants in the region are facing the challenge of closing outdoor dining and new state regulations being implemented as coronavirus cases continue to rise again. 

Many restaurants are dealing with a huge financial burden and some have already had to shut down permanently. Now as winter arrives, restaurants may have to backtrack to initial regulations that were implemented back in march. 

For Brian Van Etten, owner of The Playhouse//Swillburger and Pizza Wizard, he has found the businesses have taken a financial hit and is worried that the restaurants may have to close soon. 

“For Swillburger, the biggest challenge has been in retaining enough business to stay open. One of the biggest components of The Playhouse was our video game arcade. The arcade brought in families, college students, and large groups,” Van Etten said. “While virtually every other sector of business has been given the green light to open in some capacity, the arcades are still on the short list of businesses that have not been allowed to reopen. Without the revenue from the games, we have consistently been losing money.” 

While The Playhouse//Swillburger has been struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic, Van Etten has found that Pizza Wizard has been doing relatively the same in business as it had before the March shutdown. 

“Pizza has always been a high volume of ‘take-out’ business, and I am confident it will continue to be successful. Both restaurants offer very limited in-house dining, and will likely switch to take-out only if the current rates of infection continue to grow,” Van Etten said. 

For Candace Doell, executive chef at The Owl House, the pandemic has been difficult both at work and in her personal life. As COVID-19 cases rise going into winter, she feels that it may become as challenging as it was back in March. 

“We will likely have to go back to the initial phase of reopening which was take out only. We only recently started seating guests indoors. We have a patio which we had six socially distanced tables set out this summer which was going well and everyone felt safe for the most part,” Doell said. 

The state recently added a 10 p.m. curfew for dining in restaurant. For small places like The Owl House that have already had to significantly reduce the amount of seating available, this continues to cause the restaurants to lose money. For Doell, she is worried if these small restaurants will be able to recover from this. 

“The restaurant and team have to constantly maneuver through difficult changes and ordinances set by the state. We can only seat a fraction of the guests we used to. The biggest challenge is no matter how hard we try, we continue to lose money,” Doell said. 

Leigh Ann Kaminek is the head chef at The Owl House. She came into the position right before the pandemic hit the nation. 

“I was the sous chef at The Owl House for almost two years prior to stepping up as Head Chef in February. As the pandemic hit, it was more my responsibility than ever to keep the operation running smoothly, but to also be emotionally available for staff who were scared about the pandemic and their jobs,” Kaminek said. 

The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on many restaurant workers, both from losing hours and money, and from being potentially exposed to the virus every time they go to work. For Regan Wagner, a barista at Café Sasso, she feels that the pandemic has been stressful for herself and her coworkers. 

“The biggest issue has been getting people to maintain a social distance and follow guidelines,” Wagner said. “The most upsetting part as being someone who works at the business is that some people will refuse to wear masks, but they’ll also yell at you when you ask them to put a mask on, which really just feels like common curtesy at this point.”

Many restaurants have had to deal with the difficulties of enforcing regulations set by the state and CDC. As the winter causes restaurants to open up more indoor dining and close their patio options for diners, the challenge may be that people will be confined in a smaller space that could potentially increase the risk of getting the virus. 

“For Pizza Wizard, the biggest challenge has been in getting our ‘dine in’ guests to abide by the state rules. Guests will constantly remove their masks, walk around without them, and sit more people at a table that allowed. Enforcing these policies has been very stressful,” said Van Etten. 

The pandemic has been tough, stressful and exhausting for restaurant owners, staff and customers. 

“We have worked hard to adapt to the new ‘normal’ for restaurants including flexible, socially distant dining as well as contactless take out. This flexibility constantly challenges the staff to be knowledgeable about changing policies both government mandated and restaurant policy,” said Kaminek. “We have struggled not only with the operations changing, but we are all learning what our limits are in terms of face-to-face guest interactions, work hours and flexibility, and availability.”

For restaurant employees, the pandemic has also been devastating for their personal lives. For Doell, her family has experienced the damage that COVID-19 can do firsthand. 

“My father-in-law is 85 and contracted COVID-19. He miraculously beat it, but it took nearly two and a half months in the hospital. He is now wheelchair-bound due to being bed ridden for so long,” Doell said. “My partner and I both have sustained serious cuts to our income and working hours. We stress constantly about the future of our industry and whether or not we will have careers to go back to.”

As we move into the holiday season that is normally a time for large gatherings, this winter will be different and difficult for businesses that thrive off of these social events. 

“For The Playhouse, I see the winter being very difficult. The large group gathering nature of that business just does not exist within this pandemic,” said Van Etten. “Virtually all of our savings have been depleted, and unless the vaccine is successful, and somewhat quickly, I am not certain that it will recover.”

The future of many restaurants in the area has been at stake throughout the pandemic. People in the business are worried, living paycheck-to-paycheck, and wondering if they will continue to have a job. As winter forces many restaurants to revert back to guidelines placed in the beginning of the pandemic, Doell sums up how many restaurants are doing in the area. 

“I really want to stress to everyone that the only objective and goal of small restaurants at this time is to simply break even,” Doell said.



Categories: Business, The Community, Uncategorized

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