Independent restaurants grapple with whether and how to reopen for in-house service

CHEERS: RosaBees owner Melissa Gray looks forward to saying aloha to indoor and patio diners when service resumes on Friday, June 5, with a new reservation system and masks for staff. Photo by Rachel McIntosh

As of May 22, North Carolina entered Phase 2 of its COVID-19 reopening plan. Among other things, the latest phase permits restaurants to resume scaled-down versions of in-house dining.

Dazed and confused might best describe the reaction from local restaurateurs, with side orders of determination and ingenuity. Just as the first mandate inspired multiple methods of conducting business as unusual, so has permission to welcome guests at 50% capacity with distancing and strict sanitation requirements, including masked staff.

Jane Anderson, executive director of the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association, and Kevin Barnes, owner of Ultimate Ice Cream and 2020 chair of the AIR board, say member response has been a mixed bag. “There’s been a lot of craziness, uncertainty and back-and-forth, especially in the week leading up to Phase 2 as people tried to figure out the next steps for them,” says Anderson. “Everyone handled Phase 1 differently, and we’re seeing the same in Phase 2.”

“Phase 2 has created more and different challenges, and there is no perfect answer,” agrees Barnes.

For Melissa Gray, who opened RosaBees on Foundy Street last September, the answer was clear. “We want to open, we have to open,” she says. “I don’t have the luxury of staying closed. I’m a hustler, so I have always run toward the fire, but we are proceeding with extreme caution.”

RosaBees closed before the March 17 mandate and immediately shifted to a takeout model. Gray did not rush to reopen on May 22 but, instead, took a couple of days off for some much-needed breathing room and time to fine-tune the plan that will open her business on June 5. “We’ve rearranged the dining room with less tables and are building a patio for five new tables that will seat six each outside. Our staff will be masked and gloved.”

A new reservation system will offer three 90-minute seating blocks at 5, 7 and 9 p.m., which gives staff 30 minutes between each to sanitize the restaurant. “There will be no leeway in the system,” Gray emphasizes. “People need to think of dining at RosaBees as an event that they buy a ticket for. We think it’s the safest way to proceed forward.”

Chef and restaurateur Peter Pollay, whose Mandara Hospitality Group includes 11-year-old Posana and 2019 newcomers Bargello and District 42 in the Hotel Arras, tailored his COVID operations to each business. Posana remained entirely closed until just before Mother’s Day, then initiated takeout of a la carte items, family meals to heat at home and gluten-free baked goods, a plan that will continue for the foreseeable future. “Posana is long and narrow,” he points out. “Losing the bar seating and distancing tables would bring our seating capacity down to 20%-25%. Even with outdoor seating, it’s just not viable.”

Bargello and District 42 — which consume both sides of the Biltmore Avenue entrance of the hotel’s ground floor — followed a different game plan from the start, due in part to the residents in the building’s upper-floor condos, and some long-term hotel guests who were permitted to remain.

“Bargello has been open the entire time for takeout so we could take care of hotel guests and residents,” Pollay says. “If I could find one silver lining, it’s been that we’ve all really gotten to know each other and build relationships.”

In anticipation of reopening for on-site dining May 22, Pollay and his managers flipped the script on fine-dining norms. “We have reconfigured all the seating and completely changed service models,” he says. The large community table in District 42 is now equipped with three screens of digital menus. Customers proceed from there to the bar, where hosts take orders from behind a plexiglass barrier, and payment is done using a credit card pad on the guest side.

“They go to the end of the bar to pick up their drinks, then pick a safely distanced table. Their food will be brought to their table on china with silver.  It’s like an incredibly beautiful food hall with nice china and really great food,” he adds with a laugh.

The March 17 mandate closed Sawhorse Restaurant one month shy of its one-year anniversary, but chef and owner Dan Silo kept on cooking, transitioning from dining room to parking lot. Sawhorse currently offers its full menu for takeout, operating on a schedule of two weeks on, one week off schedule. “I’m pretty much running everything alone, so my hours are longer than when we were open, and two weeks on is about all I can handle,” he explains.

Because Silo and his wife, Nora Scheff, bought the Sawhorse building and the Small Business Administration agreed to a six-month cancellation of his loan payments, he is not feeling the pressure to open that others are. “We’re really lucky, and it feels like a luxury to be able to take our time to make that decision,” he says.

“Our staff is good with unemployment, and we’re seeing the numbers we need for now to make it sensible to wait,” Silo continues. “We’ll be keeping an eye on how the situation develops in nearby states that opened earlier and how it goes locally.”

Anderson is keeping a watch as well. “It will be an interesting few weeks as all of this unfolds,” she says. “I think people will get their bearings and figure out what is best for them, and we’ll support them the best we can.”


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About Kay West
Kay West began her writing career in NYC, then was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, including contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. In 2019 she moved to Asheville and continued writing (minus Red Carpet coverage) with a focus on food, farming and hospitality. She is a die-hard NY Yankees fan.

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