Triangle restaurant owners hopeful momentum is growing for customers to return

Nearly a year after being forced to shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurant owners across the Triangle are expressing optimism.

"I just think people are tired. They want to get out of the house, they want somebody else to serve them for once, and they don't want to eat out of a tray. So we're getting a lot of folks who just want to relax, who want to have a cocktail, who want to have a good meal, and want to be waited on for once," said Charles Winston Jr., a co-owner of Winston's Grille in Raleigh.

The restaurant has been in business for 35 years, and is offering indoor and patio seating, as well as to-go orders.

"We've been able to pay our bills. That's about it. Just getting your bills paid is never something you go into business just to do," said Winston.

Currently, restaurants are allowed 50% capacity indoors, while bars are allowed 30% capacity.

In Durham, Seth Gross is the owner of Bull City Burger & Brewery, Pompieri Pizza, and Bull City Solera and Taproom. He says his business has operated at a loss nearly every month, and pointed to strong cash reserves and PPP as helping them make it through the pandemic. Unlike Winston's Grille, Gross has chosen not to re-open any of his restaurants for indoor seating.

"The capacity at Bull City Burger, for example, inside is 104 people. That means we could theoretically sit 52 people. We laid out our dining room with tables in a manner to give us maximum seating with distance, and that ended up being 34 seats. And those are all four (person)-top tables," said Gross. "Let's say, we've got 34 seats but you go out to lunch and dinner with a friend, and you two sit at that four-top, no one else can sit there of course. So now we don't really have 34 seats, we have 32. And if that happens to maybe a third of the table, we're down into the twenties of how many people can sit inside. At that point, the economics of are not working when you think of the staff you need to carry and bringing people inside."

Instead, Gross has turned his attention to his outdoor and patio service, as well as to-go and curbside pickup.

"We're really focused on outside, making the outside beautiful. Lots of covering, heaters, all of those things that everyone's doing, and just trying to make people comfortable eating outside," said Gross.

He also pointed to newly-implemented vaccination eligibility for restaurant workers, who were allowed to begin getting their shots earlier this week. Gross is hopeful that decreasing COVID-19 metrics, as well as increasing vaccinations, will allow the state to move forward with further reopening plans.

"Our staff will be hopefully vaccinated at that point, and the Governor will hopefully say at that point we're looking at a number like 75% capacity at some point in early April," said Gross.

While some states have announced plans to remove all capacity limits, Nick Singh, a managing partner at Nomad in Hillsborough, doesn't believe that's the right move.

"That scares me a little bit. So I'm happy that our governor is taking it step by step, and following CDC guidelines, and getting information from around the world and taking the baby steps to get there. It is hurting us. It is for sure. But I'd rather be safe than make a quick buck right now," said Singh.

Nomad's opening last year was altered by the pandemic, as they began offering take-out and curbside pick-up in May, and indoor seating in August. It wasn't until a couple months ago that they allowed people to sit at the bar.

"I had to ensure that I got all this plexi-glass in place and to be able to separate the guests sitting at the bar as well," said Singh.

After a difficult beginning, Singh believes momentum is building.

"Business is definitely from the numbers, showing a steady growth. But it's at a snail's pace. I see the light at the end of the tunnel. I believe by the end of summer, we'll get back to 50% of our regular business, and then I see next year getting back to 100%. There's a long journey ahead of us, so this is not something that will be done in a few months," Singh explained.

He added his entire staff has already signed up for vaccines, providing a layer of comfort for servers.

Warmer weather has also helped bars and restaurants with patio and outdoor space, especially with customers who still have safety concerns over returning.

"Yesterday was nice and warm. We had tons of people on the patio and they were just hanging out and enjoying themselves. You could really see the customers that are coming back and getting a chance to (exhale), and say 'I just want to get out of the house,'" said Winston.

"Things are looking much more positive. Last night was a great night on the patio. Very full. Folks were outside smiling, having a good time. Having beer, burger, pizza, those kinds of things. And we've definitely seen an uptick with the nicer weather," Gross added.

Restaurant owners say they understand that people are hesitant to sit indoors, and suggest supporting businesses by to-go or curbside pick-up, buying a gift card, sharing social media posts, and writing reviews.
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