Valley restaurants continue to adjust to life with COVID-19, seeking ways to stay afloat during unprecedented business regulations and levels of unemployment not seen in a century.
Businesses survived more than thrived during the statewide shutdown of all non-essential businesses — including eat-in restaurants — which began in mid-March. Owners now face an uncertain future, not really knowing what to expect as half of the Valley’s counties — Montour and Snyder — shift from “yellow” to “green” Friday in Pennsylvania’s traffic light-like color-coded reopening plan.
The change will allow more businesses to reopen and restaurants to allow dine-in customers, likely with significant changes in operations to meet state and federal health guidance and maintain social distancing practices. Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said the state will provide specific guidelines for businesses going green next week.
Across the region, some restaurants closed entirely because of the outbreak, only recently emerging with new plans. Others added to-go or delivery options, services they never offered before the shutdown.
This week, Daily Item reporters talked multiple Valley restaurant owners and operators to get a sense of what the past two months have been like and what they have planned for the future.
Penn’s Tavern along Route 147 just outside of Sunbury never closed during the pandemic, just shifted its hours for takeout only, according to owner Tom Mertz.
“We never really did takeout prior to this. We were wondering what was going to occur,” said Mertz. “We were pleasantly surprised. Overall it’s been steady and the weekends — on Friday, Saturday and Sunday — have been very busy.”
Near the beginning, Penn’s Tavern gave away for free nearly 300 meals of roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn and a roll. They then designed a to-go menu and featured different specials every week.
Customers call in with their order and schedule a pick-up time. They remain in the parking lot until they are called into the tavern. If they pay with a credit card over the phone, there is no contact with anyone, Mertz said.
Craig Bennett, owner, Street of Shops, 100 N. Water St., Lewisburg, described the last few months since the shutdown as a “wild ride.”
“We are, though, open for carryout and delivery,” he said. “And that side of the business is growing up to 30 percent a week for the last month.”
Every week Bennett has been expanding the restaurant’s pick up and delivery business.
“We have been expanding,” he said. “The word has gotten out.”
Restaurant manager Bobbi Keiser can attest to that explosive growth. “At lunch hour, we are extremely busy filling orders, and that rush will go until 2:30. I really have seen this takeout business grow enormously.”
While Street of Shops is an established physical location, to transition to delivery and pickup was a challenge.
“We distributed our menu out to businesses within a five-mile radius, and from that we are getting calls from medical facilities or businesses that have workers, where the businesses are not open to the public,” Bennett said. “Accounting firms, legal firms or something like that. We are delivering lunches to them and then to housebound households.”
People can call, order the food and it will be delivered curbside, with somebody masked taking it right to their car, Bennett said. “Some people prefer that. Others will come in and they are masked,” he said. “We will have the food already bagged and tagged and ready for them to go. In some instances they have used their credit card over the phone so it limits the actual face-to-face and hand-to-hand contact.”
The Iron Fork, at Frosty Valley Resort in Mahoning Township, near Danville, has been providing takeout service and will follow federal and state guidelines when dining-in service resumes as Montour County goes green on Friday, according to Dan Klingerman, chief operating officer of Frosty Valley owner the Liberty Group, of Montoursville.
“We were ecstatic to hear the news (Friday) and have already begun preparing for the official reopening on May 29,” Klingerman said.
Since the shutdown, Iron Fork has offered a family-style menu that changed weekly. They and were able to capitalize on the Easter and Mother’s Day holidays with special menus.
“We had a small crew of incredibly dedicated staff at the Iron Fork who provided takeout services to help serve our local communities,” Klingerman said. “Our main focus was to provide a healthy but varied family-style menu. We felt it was important to offer a meal that had generous portions and enabled everyone to break bread as a family in these trying times. Our Easter and Mother’s Day takeout service was a huge success.”
Wendy DeOsambela opened her first restaurant, Deo’s Kitchen, in downtown Selinsgrove last November.
She had to close the small, 30-seat eatery to dine-in customers when the state imposed business restrictions in March but was able to quickly adapt by offering Latin cuisine family dinners for takeout.
“I learned how to cook at home,” said the mother of three accustomed to serving up large family meals who decided to offer family platters for takeout during the lockdown.
“With people being more at home, it makes it easier and cost-effective for families,” said Deo’s General Manager Giovanni Matallana.
The response has been so good that all the employees have remained on the payroll, though hours have been reduced, he said.
Trying to break even
When the state shut down dining rooms, takeout service became the priority the very next day at Elizabeth’s: An American Bistro, 412 Market St., Lewisburg.
It forced chef/owner Liz Furia to rethink customer service. The upscale eatery shifted its offerings to include family meals and bistro boxes to-go, the latter akin to home delivery meal-kits. Entrees come with free desserts. Furia now cooks with more local ingredients than ever. She even paid Pennsylvania to upgrade her liquor license, allowing Elizabeth’s to sell bottled wine.
“We did a lot of trial by error,” Furia said. “We’re just trying to make it work the best we can.”
It’s working, kind of.
Furia counts herself as lucky. The greater Lewisburg area has shown strong support of Elizabeth’s, she said, and for that she’s thankful.
Takeout-only won’t keep the restaurant open, she said. April and May are normally the busiest months at Elizabeth’s, Furia said, but that business is lost.
“We’re not even breaking even,” Furia said. “We’re probably doing about a quarter of what we’d normally do in a week. We just lost two of our biggest months in a year.”
The restaurant’s full-time staff is in place, though some part-timers remain furloughed. The staff slimmed to as few as three employees early on including Furia herself.
The coronavirus and ensuing shutdown caused Furia to emphasize use of social media to promote specials. The telephone is her lifeline. She interrupted the interview for this story to take a phone order.
Bob Hare, general manager of the Americus Hose Co. in Sunbury said on Friday nights the dining area would serve 100 meals. Since the shutdown the club has suffered.
“We do takeout but nowhere near the number of sales we would have on a regular day,” he said. ‘We are hoping to be able to open soon and we will follow any and all guidelines the state puts out. But it would be nice to be able to open and let our customers back inside.”
Mertz said he is looking forward to re-opening Penns Tavern, but he doesn’t know what will be allowed and what won’t be allowed. He said he was frustrated that he wasn’t allowed to have tables outside on his two acres of land where people could easily be 20 feet apart.
“That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me,” said Mertz. “Once we get that definition (for the green phase), we will certainly proceed in the way they want us to proceed.”
Furia hopes the month of June will bring the return of in-person dining at Elizabeth’s. She’s prepared. Staff removed some tables to create more distance between diners. They’ve added hand sanitizing stations, removed linens and added plexiglass and plastic barriers. The entrance/exit will likely change, too — come in on Market Street and leave through a side door.
“We’re very lucky. The community’s very supportive. There are so many businesses that couldn’t even open. I feel for those people an awful lot. That’s got to be really hard,” Furia said. “We need to open again and we need to be safe.”
Bennett said he will open the dine-in restaurant part of Street of Shops as soon as Gov. Tom Wolf gives the authorization across the state.
“I’m not sure how it will work,” he said. “In some of the other states I’m seeing restaurants in a yellow phase open up but not bars.
“The governor has not told us what it is going to mean when they do open us up,” he said. “Does it mean we’re only going to be able to open at 50 percent capacity? Or what the distancing guidelines are going to be? We are gearing up for some kind of reduction. Plus, we want to do it voluntarily, just because it makes sense, a distancing component, how many people will be in your restaurant at any one time.”
Penns Tavern, in Northumberland County, Elizabeth’s and Street of Shops, both in Union County, will remain in the yellow phase of the state’s reopening plan, as will Milton’s Milltown Deli.
Deli owner Lisa Showers is preparing for the day when she can invite in diners.
“There will have to be some social distancing. What if a party of 10 comes in? Do we social distance them? I don’t know,” she said. “We may have to move some tables out. But we are fortunate that we have an outside patio area.”
Klingerman said Frosty Valley Resort, where Iron Fork is located, was already preparing to move from yellow to green when he got Friday’s news, but he and operators at the restaurant want clear guidance on reopening.
“In addition to CDC and Department of Health guidelines, we also follow ‘best practice’ advice from organizations like the National Restaurant Association and ServSafe,” Klingerman said. “We intend to utilize more disposable items along with single-service condiments. We expect to have fewer tables with appropriate distance between patrons and, as weather permits, utilize our beautiful and unique outdoor seating areas. We are currently expanding our outdoor patio with the anticipation that most patrons will prefer this over traditional indoor dining. We will continue to focus on providing a safe and unique dining experience while enjoying the views of our 18-hole golf course and banquet facilities.”
Old Forge Brewing Co. owner Damien Malfara said Friday evening after finding out Montour County was moving into the Green phase that until they get guidelines next week, he is following guidance on the governor’s website, governor.pa.gov.
“We will plan to reopen at 50% capacity on (Friday) and continue curbside pickup for any people who don’t feel comfortable dining-in yet,” he said.
He said Old Forge, located at 532 Mill St. in Danville, is ready to make reasonable changes to accommodate government mandates, but is concerned about what the future holds.
“If that means fewer tables, more spacing, and employees with masks, then we will do what we can to make it happen,” he said. “However, I am seriously concerned about the long-term viability of a business model operating at 50 percent capacity. Most restaurants’ margins are in the single digits when operating at 100 percent capacity, so how many can survive with 50 percent capacity? Even now, with takeout only, for us it’s not a sustainable business model.
“We were lucky enough to receive a PPP loan to help cover payroll. Without that we would not be open right now. When the eight-week forgiveness period ends, we will have some difficult decisions to make to try and stay open.”
Malfara said he is holding out hope that the Small Business Administration amends some of the forgiveness criteria for restaurants that have PPP loans, or that Congress passes another stimulus bill to address restaurants specifically.
“Without one of those things happening, you will likely see many restaurants close their doors permanently due to COVID-19,” he said. “I don’t know if Old Forge Brewing Company will be one of those, and we will do everything we can to keep operating, but we’ve already begun discussing how different things will need to be when it comes to staffing, menu, pricing, et cetera.”
Paulie’s Italian Restaurant owner Paul Taylor said he is prepared to have some sort of dine-in business at 916 Walnut St. in Sunbury, once the Northumberland County moves out of the yellow phase.
“We did do takeout service but nowhere near the amount of business we would have done had people been coming in,” he said. “We have a small place so I am waiting to see the guidelines and see what we can do.”
At Deo’s, which could open as early as Friday, Matallana said they are awaiting guidance from the state on reopening, but are doing some of their own research to get started, checking in with California relatives to learn what steps they are taking there to reduce the COVID-19 risk.
“We’ll see what the guidelines are,” he said. “We want to make sure we give the same amount of service and make people feel comfortable.”
That could mean reducing the number of tables in the restaurant to add more social distancing opportunities.
Daily Item reporters Marcia Moore, Eric Scicchitano and Justin Strawser contributed to this report.