Jim Keet Brian Chilson

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, Governor Hutchinson and the Arkansas Department of Health directed restaurants across the state to suspend dine-in service March 20. As a result, many area restaurants switched to curbside delivery and pickup only, and some restaurants — like Catfish City and Brown’s Country Store & Restaurant — decided to close.

Now, seven weeks later, under the governor’s Phase 1 guidelines for returning to work, restaurants are being allowed to open if they meet a number of rules: All staff must be screened daily and employees who come into contact with customers must wear a mask. The restaurant must have a sign at the front to alert patrons not to enter if they have symptoms such as cough, sore throat, fever or shortness of breath. Customers must also wear a mask until after they’ve placed their order, and restaurants may decline service to patrons who refuse to mask as they enter. Customers must be 6 feet apart from those seated at other tables. Bars may not open. The restaurant must limit seating to 33 percent of total capacity.

We talked with six local restaurant owners about how they’re planning to proceed on Monday and thereafter.  

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Chris Tanner (Samantha’s Tap Room, Cheers in the Heights, Oyster Bar)

Chris Tanner closed all three of his restaurants on March 20. As of last week, he reopened Cheers for pickup and curbside orders. The Oyster Bar is undergoing some renovations and will remain closed for the time being. Due to the lack of traffic and travelers downtown, he sees no reason to open Samantha’s at 33 percent capacity. 

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“With Cheers, I’m not planning on opening,” he said. “I just want to see what’s going to happen with other states that have already opened. Everybody’s saying, ‘Oh, 30 percent, you can’t do anything.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t think you have to worry about that because I don’t think that many people are going to go out to eat at the beginning anyway. And if they do, again, it’s 30 percent. Yeah, it sucks, but if you have the PPP money, you have no overhead, so it doesn’t matter.’ So with that said, yesterday, as I’m driving, I’m thinking I’m going to continue doing the to-gos, but I am going to put two tables on the side deck, two or three on the patio, and maybe one over by the tent on the other side of the patio and do dine-in, but it’s going to be outdoors only. So I might do that sometime in the middle of next week. And I’ve got another idea because there’s a separate entrance for my party room. It has a garage door and a screen. So for those that have a party of 10 or less, if they want to go back there, if families want to get together and eat out, finally, they’re totally isolated back there. So I’m going to promo that for anyone that might want to do it. And if they don’t, so be it. We’re going to be there. I’m just going to kind of lay low. Technically, what I’m looking at is June 1. Then we’ll have a good idea of what’s going on for the other restaurants and for Cheers at that point, too. And I’ve been on those conference calls with other restaurants, and pretty much everybody felt like May 11 was too early. And I kind of did, too. I was like, ‘You know, you open May 11 and then you have Memorial Weekend, and everybody’s closed on Sunday and Monday anyway. And that’s kind of a dead weekend, so let’s shoot for Monday [June 1].’ ”  

“The Oyster Bar,” painting by Marc Hatfield.

Tanner asked what we’ve been hearing from other restaurant owners. I told him that I’ve heard a lot of hesitation, but that some people are comfortable with limited outdoor patio seating. 

“It’s easier to do the patio,” he said. “You’ve got fresh air and a breeze, you know. I think that would be a good starter. And Cheers is so small anyway. Even if I set off three of four tables, whoop de doo, it’s not like that’s a big money-maker. It provides something for the neighborhood — if they want to do it. And if they don’t, it’s no big deal. I’ve been up at that restaurant every day. Friends are coming up every day because everybody’s going crazy. But we’ll see. I’m just going to take baby steps. And I know the fear for everybody, I guarantee you, is they don’t want to open up and shut it down again because it’s a pain in the ass. And even when [we] do open up, I’m going to open up with abbreviated menus for all of the [restaurants]. You know, ease into it because it’s a lot of work to close down and reopen. It takes several days to get everything together. That’s a big fear of mine, and if it ever does happen, there’s going to be a shit-load of restaurants closed down then. So that’s the fear.”

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When asked about how his employees are doing, Tanner said, “I had a meeting with all the employees at Oyster Bar. They’re all sitting on go. I’ve been employing some of them from Samantha’s and Cheers and they’re helping out at Oyster Bar with some work we’ve been doing there. Some of them are helping out at Cheers a little bit. But yeah, everybody’s in a good place. We started kicking out some of this PPP money at Cheers, and we’re getting ready to start at Oyster Bar. Some are on unemployment. It is hard for a server — if you’re going to only open 30 percent of your restaurant, you can’t employ all the servers, so what’s the point? ‘Hey man, you can get two nights but you have to report [it] to unemployment.’ It’s either we’re in or out. It’s just too much to try to juggle. So right now, Cheers is kind of going a little bit. The others, we’re just kind of sitting there in a holding pattern. And I told them, if anybody gets in a bind, call me. Nobody’s called me. And we talk, everybody’s ready.” RB

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Alex Atilano (Señor Tequila)

Alex Atilano, manager at Señor Tequila on University Avenue, estimates that the restaurant’s sales fell about 60 percent after its move to carryout-only service. Being able to serve beer and wine with to-go orders has helped, Atilano said, but spending the last several weeks without dine-in service (and with the popular margarita bar temporarily decommissioned) has taken a toll. They’re planning to reopen Monday, Atilano said, “with all the regulations. We can do only 33 percent of our capacity, but we’re going to try, because we’re having a hard time just doing to-go orders. [Business] has been a little better after the last two weeks, but I mean, not enough.”

Ranchero Special at Senor Tequila

Atilano said the restaurant’s bar will remain closed for seating, but that dine-in customers will be able to order from it. They’ll stagger seating across the large floor plan to meet the restrictions on capacity. “We have to keep all the restrictions on,” Atilano said, “and keep everybody safe. That’s on one hand. But on the other hand, we have to do a little bit more business. We’re just not going to use all the tables, and just try and keep enough space around each table.” SS

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Jim Keet (Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe, Petit and Keet, Paninis & Co.)

Plexiglas shields, 10,000 gloves, 2,000 masks, no-touch thermometers and “a drum’s worth” of hand sanitizer are what it’s taking to safely open fast-casual Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafes and upscale West Little Rock restaurant Petit and Keet to customers May 11. That’s an $80,000 investment to restart dine-in business, owner and JTJ Restaurant CEO Jim Keet estimates.

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“Every responsible restaurant owner is looking through their own lens and everyone has a different take, and so do their guests,” Keet said. “The approach that I have taken is in talking with both the mayor [Frank Scott Jr.] and the governor, as well as the A and P Commission,” Keet, who also serves on Little Rock’s Advertising and Promotion Commission, said. “We all want to open responsibly and make sure our guests and staffs are protected.”  

“I’m not sure opening at one-third capacity makes sense,” Keet said, because that may not provide needed operating revenue. But, he said, restaurants “are bleeding cash right now. My fear is that what I believe will be a 25 percent [restaurant] mortality rate will be accelerated if they’re not allowed to reopen.” The University of Arkansas’s Walton College Insights analysts have estimated that restaurant losses in Little Rock, North Little Rock and Conway for 2020 will be $178.8 million, $111 million of that total in Little Rock alone.

To keep customers safe, Keet said, the wait staff at his restaurants (including eight Tazikis in Arkansas and three in Oklahoma, and Paninis & Co.) will double up to bring plates to tables and will change gloves after removing plates.  

Staff will be paid “welcome back” bonuses; Keet said he expects to be able to use 85 to 90 percent of his pre-COVID-19 closing staff.

Brian Chilson
Petit and Keet

Keet said he will wait until May 18 to reopen Petit and Keet for dine-in service. There will be “exciting new” items on the menu and the mixologists are making new drinks for when the bar opens back up. That is a Phase 3 move; Arkansas is still in Phase 1 of returning to business.   

He’s not worried about getting sued in case someone comes down with COVID-19 because, he said, that’s “not going to be an issue,” thanks to sanitization procedures — “we’ve always received extremely high marks on cleanliness” — and “acting responsibly.” LNP

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Ron Settlers (Sims Bar-B-Que)

Sims Bar-B-Que switched to carry-out only after the dining room shut down. “It’s been working for us,” Settlers told me by phone. “I have enough room inside where I can spread people out and keep it socially distant. I can fit about 12 to 13 people in at one time. It’s been working fine. We suspended call-in due to the fact that I didn’t want anyone to call an order in and then when they get here, they can’t get in because I’m full to my capacity. So everything right now is just first-come, first-serve basis.”

Pork Ribs at Sims

When asked if he was planning on opening at a limited capacity on May 11, Settlers said, “We’re going to stay the same [carry-out only] until there’s a cure or control over this thing we’re facing right now.” 

Sims didn’t have to lay off any of its employees due to the shutdown. 

“We just shifted people around a little bit,” Settlers said. “You know we have the John Barrow store — it did temporarily shut down. They’re swinging all the flow to the other two stores. So we are staying busy.” RB

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Brian Chilson
Big Whiskey’s

Daniel Bryant (Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, Big Whiskey’s, HAM, Hill Station, The Fountain, Whole Hog North Little Rock)

While The Fountain — as a bar that doesn’t serve food  — will not fall under the May 11 lift on closures, Bryant’s other establishments will phase into reopening on a case-by-case basis, and tentatively, Bryant stressed. “You really can’t make any long-term plans right now. You can make them, but the medical information that comes out, or if there’s a spike, all this could be re-evaluated. … It’s tough, because in our business you want to get the word out, but with the information changing so quickly, it’s dangerous to get too far ahead of yourself.”

“They’re each different, so I don’t have a blanket plan for all of them,” Bryant said. “They’re all different sizes and have different types of offerings and different clientele, and different geographic locations.” In fact, Bryant said, the idea that a single-occupancy percentage applies to all restaurants in the same way is “a red herring. … I think the city has done a good job, the state and the city, but it’s really about social distancing. You and I could take 500 of our closest friends and get together at War Memorial, and we’d be fine. It doesn’t matter about occupancy, it matters how far away you can get people from one another.” 

Right now Gus’s Fried Chicken is the only one of Bryant’s restaurants that is open for carryout. Its menu is built for pickup anyway, and Bryant can operate there with a smaller staff. “There’s not much traffic downtown anymore,” Bryant said, “so people can get in and get out easier than they ever have.” Gus’s, he said, will “keep doing what it’s doing,” and the dining room will remain closed for now. Big Whiskey’s, whose business is closely tied to River Market tourism and foot traffic, sits on what Bryant called a “hard corner,” at the busy intersection of Markham Street and La Harpe Boulevard, with no convenient place to pull up for curbside service. “I’d say that Big Whiskey’s would be one we’d be looking at closer to the end of the month.” 

“Whole Hog is going to wait until, I believe, the middle of next week. Closer to the 20th.” Staffing at all his restaurants, Bryant said, is a delicate needle to thread. “It’s not just as simple as flipping the open sign around, and ramping back up and going back to work,” he said. “People have their own personal situations; they’re caring for kids now who are home from school, or they’re nervous about coming back. So not only are the places themselves on a case-by-case basis, but employees are different on a case-by-case basis.”

Bryant hopes to bring employees back to work in a gradual and part-time capacity, “which would allow them to go back to work, help us get open, but they wouldn’t be working so much that it would disrupt their unemployment in its entirety. … You’ve heard the phrase ‘We’re turning a dial, not flipping a switch.’ So the truth is, we don’t need everybody back at 40 hours, and it’s unfair to ask them to come back to a part-time job while they’re at home getting paid for their old full-time job. If you give them 30 hours, they really won’t have enough to live, but it’s enough to kick them off unemployment. So we’re very sensitive to that. … The restaurants need to work with their employees and not dictate what they’re going to be doing. It needs to be a comprehensive decision they all arrive at together, and each restaurant is going to be different. This whole thing of telling people they’re going to come back or they’ll be fired is not something that I agree with. I understand you need to run a business, but this is a special situation and you can’t give people up. That’s a bad choice.”

In the interim, Bryant’s spots will work on installing contactless payment systems and stocking up on the gloves, masks and additional sanitizer the businesses will need to operate under the state’s directives. “Not only do you need enough to open,” he said, “but you need enough to stay open, right? You don’t want to be trying to get refilled and not have everything you need.” 

And, when his establishments do open, those with patios will be front of mind. “I truly believe in the outdoor vs. indoor, in terms of transmissibility. Nobody really agrees on much of anything anymore, but everybody seems to believe that outdoor seating is much safer. … When I do open Hill Station up, we’re going to open just the outside initially. We’re fortunate enough to have that big area, and I think that’s the safest thing to do.” He was quick to say that what works for him may not work for other restaurateurs. “I’m not on one of these things where I think everybody ought to be open, or it’s just too early. Everyone’s got their own circumstances.” SS

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Rebecca Yan (Three Fold Noodles + Dumpling Co.) 

In an interview with a local news outlet, Rebecca Yan said that Three Fold was eager to see everyone in their Main Street location again. But after reviewing the Phase 1 requirements issued by the governor, they realized that due to their open kitchen being so close to where the customers order, all of the cooks would be required to wear masks at all times. 

“We realized that would be very difficult and uncomfortable because we’re cooking dumplings and working with so much heat and steam that it would be a problem where the [cooks] would have difficulty breathing if their faces were covered at all times of the day,” Yan said. “Of course, our front of the house staff will still be wearing masks and gloves as they have. But the cooks aren’t able to, and that’s ultimately the reason we decided not to open up dining service as we had originally planned. However, we would like to make our patio very comfortable and our side lobby, which is the farthest point from the open kitchen — make part of that dining room available as well with tables spread 6 feet apart just so that customers who would like to wait inside when it’s raining would have a place to sit. That’s kind of our Phase 1 plan for Three Fold. People can still order from the to-go window or curbside, and they’re welcome to sit on the patio where it’s more open air. But, until the cooks aren’t required to wear masks anymore, we don’t feel comfortable opening our main dining area and requiring them to not be able to breathe. We really do miss seeing everyone, but for the time being and the safety on both sides, we feel like we should probably keep it at curbside and takeout and keep the flow of things as is until the circumstances are better for everyone.”

The patio at Three Fold’s Main Street location.

While restaurants around the state and country are stocking up on hand sanitizer, gloves and masks, Three Fold decided to add a commercial ozone generator for overnight use at their Main Street location.  

“It’s kind of funny,” Yan told me. “Before this shut down even took place, Lisa [Zhang, Three Fold’s owner] got one for her home. Essentially, you have to be away from the house; you turn it on for an hour and it purifies the air.  We’re just trying to do the best we can do from all directions.”

Yan brought up all of the recent coronavirus outbreaks at meat processing plants. 

“Our supplier is warning us saying that their pork supply is getting really low. For us, [rising food cost] has been due to the trade war [with China] because of all the spices we get, even soy sauce. Now meat’s on the rise. It’s going to be really rough for restaurants this year.” RB