Fall is here, the weather is beautiful and restaurant patios and outdoor entertainment districts are flourishing. Restaurant owners all over the state, though, are aware of how abruptly that will end when the cold weather starts to move in. It’s a cycle restaurant people know all too well. Hours get cut back, tables don’t turn as frequently, things slow down. But this year, it feels more ominous. Restaurants that are already having a down year will need to generate enough business to weather the winter. Waiters will need to take whatever tables they can get. For restaurants that have remained closed to indoor dining because of the pandemic, there are tough calculations to make. For some, it might be time to open their dining rooms, even at 66 percent capacity, if they want to stay open at all.
Daniel Bryant owns H.A.M., Hill Station, Big Whiskey’s, Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, Whole Hog North Little Rock and The Fountain. Bryant has approached the challenges of 2020 on a restaurant-by-restaurant basis.
“When you ask me how it’s going or people ask me how it’s going, it’s, ‘Well, where are you talking about?’ They’re geographically different. They’re different concepts and so they’re not all tracking the same,” he said.
Bryant opened Hill Station about six weeks before the first reported case of COVID-19 in Arkansas. After the mandated shutdown of indoor dining, the restaurant closed for a brief period and then opened up its large patio area to the public. But the dining room has been closed since March.
Bryant said that over the next couple of weeks, Hill Station will start to transition into dining room service by seating every other table and having the bar open at half of its capacity.
“Right now, we are seating people inside, but it’s really more of a waiting area where they can get something to drink while they’re waiting on a table outside. But by the end of October, we do anticipate full service inside,” he said.
Hill Station will join other restaurants that have made the switch to indoor dining recently, including The Faded Rose, Maddie’s Place, Buffalo Grill, Trio’s and Star of India.
“Probably puts us at the last of the holdouts,” Bryant said, “which I guess in a sense, we’re kind of proud of that, too. We’ve had the benefit of having the outside all summer and early fall, and we’re about to have that sort of flipped on us when the winter hits because we have such a small inside space,” he said.
Fortunately for Bryant, he invested in portable outdoor heaters when the building was in construction. “Those heaters are hard to get,” Bryant said. “I bought those last year when we opened, for $150 a piece. I looked for some yesterday; the cheapest ones were $300 and then the next ones were $375 and $450. So the price of heaters has really skyrocketed due to the need in places like New York and Chicago. That’s not a minor thing, you know. You think about it, if you’re a small place and you need four heaters — instead of spending $500, you’re spending $1,500 on something that would’ve cost you a third of that a few months back. And if you need a lot of them, let’s say you’re a big place and you need a dozen, that’s $5,000 on portable heaters. It’s not insignificant.”
Bryant is going to put an extra large event tent outside over several of the tables.
“We’ve got 10 feet between tables outside. Once we put the tent up, we won’t even close it all the way around. I still think you need to keep that air moving. So a lot of it will just be sort of weather-dependent,” he said.
Big Whiskey’s just recently opened after being closed for six months. When Bryant and I spoke the second week of October, he was planning on opening it that weekend.
“We fired everything up. The vent hood was acting a little wonky today, so that’s why we haven’t announced anything. … We’re excited about it. Big Whiskey’s is big enough that we can get everybody pretty well spaced out. You want to be successful and you want to be busy, but you don’t want to be too successful and too busy. It’s a real needle to try and thread on a daily and nightly basis,” he said.
Big Whiskey’s hours are 4-9 p.m. Mon. and Thu.; 4-11 p.m. Fri.;11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sat.; and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun. It will be closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
“I know that’s kind of strange” Bryant said, “but it’s kind of like all the rules are out the door. We would never, under normal circumstances, open up a restaurant with hours that irregular. I know it’s hard for everybody to keep straight who’s open when, but it’s better that we’re not all on the same cycle. And it’s probably better for the restaurants, too, so we’re not all fighting over the same customers. … We’re basically trying to be open when we’re busy and not be open when we wouldn’t be … . The numbers might be 50 or 60 percent of what they would be under normal circumstances, but you’re only open half the time, and you don’t have a lot of downtime. It’s one of these sort of unintended consequences — you’re just forced to take a look at your operations. There’s no room for complacency right now.”
Bryant said one of the more puzzling aspects of reopening restaurants has been the small amount of applicants looking for work.
“The labor pool is surprisingly sparse,” he said. “You know, you read about all these restaurants closing, and I don’t know if people are on unemployment, but we’re not seeing a huge influx of applications. You just would have thought with a lot of places closing, there’d be a lot of people floating around looking for work. I don’t know what to say about it. Obviously the government program has ended; maybe it’s a situation where people are home with their kids because they didn’t want to send them to school. I just don’t know.”
Bryant said he would like to get The Fountain back open, but that decision is a lot harder to make.
“It’s just kind of a tough decision to put people in there,” he said. “I don’t want to be one of those places that you hear about, where you open up, you get this great response, people come out, they’re not worried about it. … The next thing you know, you’re viewed as part of the problem. That’s certainly not who I want to be, you know?” he said.
Bryant said The Fountain’s indoor renovations are done, though. When it does reopen, it will be nonsmoking inside. The back patio will be extended by 30 feet and there will be another new deck on the west side of the building.
“When we opened the Fountain, I was in my late 20s, maybe early 30s. Now I’m in my mid-40s. Those people that used to go in there and smoke and drink all the time, now they’re like, ‘Man I’d love to go back in there, but I’m just not gonna deal with all that smoke.’ … So I’m really looking forward to that. It opens you up to a whole new group of folks [who would] like to pop in, have a couple beers, go by Kroger.”
Bryant said one of the common funny Fountain tales is guys who tell their families, “Gotta run to Kroger,” and arrive home reeking of smoke and complaining about the long lines at the checkout counter.
“People would just get busted,” Bryant said. “You walk in and instantly they’re like, ‘You went to The Fountain didn’t you?’ ”
Hill Station has been busy enough that Bryant was able to move most of the employees from The Fountain there.
Gus’s never shut down. It stayed open for takeout and curbside and Bryant said it never missed a beat.
“It’s one of those few stories that did as good or better than it did beforehand. I think that’s just because Gus’s is a really good to-go candidate,” he said.
Bryant said that in an earlier stage of the pandemic when downtown was pretty much deserted, President Clinton Avenue became kind of a curbside to-go strip.
“People were basically driving the wrong way down President Clinton Avenue and pulling up and we were coming out and handing them chicken in their window,” he said. And though the dining room has been open at Gus’s for a couple months at half capacity, Bryant said that the hope is that restaurants will maintain the new to-go business when dining-in becomes normal again.
Meanwhile, HAM, which reopened at the same time Hill Station did in June, is open for lunch, serving soups and sandwiches made from scratch. “There’s not many places you can go and get something where they literally have brought in the side of beef, smoked it, shaved it down that morning. It’s definitely unique; I’m pretty proud of HAM,” Bryant said.
In North Little Rock, his Whole Hog has been running like a well oiled machine thanks to partners Nancy Green and Rich Cosgrove, Bryant said.
“They just have such a great culture out there, we just kind of stay out of the way. I give all the credit to them. We already did a lot of to-go business, but they have the numbered slots outside and people just got used to it. Now we’re starting to see a lot of that office catering back. You’re still not having any of those 200 person gatherings or many — I shouldn’t say none, but we’re creeping back towards small gatherings. People are having them outside.”
Bryant said diners should support their favorite local restaurants right now.
“If you have a little restaurant that you like, a little Mexican place or an independent restaurant, you need to go there and be discerning with [your] dollars. You don’t even have to go, you can do that through to-go food.
“There will always be chains, they’ll move out and move back in, but a great chef or [someone] running a food truck, they can’t afford to jump out and jump back in. They’ll start selling real estate or insurance or something, you know. … You don’t want to lose those types of independent places. I think it’s important to remind people that — kind of a ‘shop small’ type message.”