Utah restaurants wait for a vaccine to reopen, but for hundreds of them, it already may be too late

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) An empty dining room at Alamexo Mexican Kitchen in downtown Salt Lake City after the establishment announced the closure of dine-in service in mid-March. Owner/executive chef Matt Lake says the restaurant is now closed permanently as COVID-19 drags on.

Restaurateur Matthew Lake has faced obstacles in his career. In New York, where he ran a few Mexican restaurants 13 years ago, a sprinkler pipe broke in one and flooded the building. One week later, it was back in business.

After moving to Salt Lake City, he closed his Mexican restaurant Alamexo Cantina, in the east-side 9th and 9th neighborhood, in March 2019 because of a road improvement project that restricted the flow of customers.

But nothing hit like COVID-19 — a challenge that shut down Lake’s downtown Salt Lake City restaurant, Alamexo Mexican Kitchen, and has kept closed about 452 other restaurants in the state, according to a survey conducted by the Utah Restaurant Association in September.

This January, based on the strength of his Alamexo Mexican Kitchen, Lake thought he had finally recovered from the loss of the cantina near 900 East and 900 South. But two months later, the quarantine forced restaurants to stop serving dine-in meals, and things were never the same.

Fearing being responsible for the spread of the virus, Alamexo didn’t reopen when the state allowed patrons back into dining rooms.

“The thought of contributing to this problem in any way, shape or form weighs just as heavily as the financial side of it,” Lake said. Popular for its tableside guacamole, Alamexo Mexican Kitchen’s full service was its specialty and its to-go orders represented only around 2% of its revenue, he said.

At the beginning of July, Alamexo was only making $500 a week from to-go orders, so Lake and his partner decided to completely shut down just shy of the restaurant’s 10th anniversary. “We just can’t run a business on that,” he said.

They are now out of their lease and not sure what’s next in their careers.

“I don’t think I can do what I do until there’s a vaccine and until enough people have taken that vaccine,” Lake said.

(File photo courtesy of Alamexo Cantina) Utah chef/owner Matt Lake has been forced to close Alamexo Mexican Kitchen in downtown Salt Lake City as the pandemic drags on. He is one of many local restaurant owners who have been unable to weather COVID-19 as the virus continues to keep customer numbers low.

According to the Utah Restaurant Association survey, some of the other restaurants that have remained closed take into consideration that opening their dining rooms at 50% of their capacity won’t pay their bills, and taking loans can be a risky bet with the future uncertain.

“There are so many issues that relate to how a business operates and succeeds; they usually determine those things for themselves, based on data that they use in feasibility studies,” said Melva Sine, the association’s president. “None of those feasibility studies take into consideration anything like what restaurants are currently experiencing.”

Although restaurants have been considered essential businesses since the beginning of the pandemic, the industry has been one of the most impacted by the economic downturn, according to the crowdsourced reviews website Yelp. From March 1 to Aug. 31, it shows, 32,109 restaurants in the U.S marked that they were closed. Around 61% of those indicated that their closures were permanent.

The most affected establishments were breakfast and brunch restaurants, burger joints, sandwich shops, dessert places and Mexican restaurants. Businesses that usually do well with delivery and takeout orders, like pizza places, delis, food trucks, bakeries and coffee shops, have lower closure rates, the website reported.

Food businesses in Utah will most likely lose additional revenue in the upcoming colder months, since outdoor seating will no longer be an option for customers, Sine noted.

That’s why the association is working with the governor’s office and other entities to find ways to increase occupancy in restaurants. They haven’t figured out a health plan to move forward, but the use of plexiglass barriers is an option, Sine said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tin Angel at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City closed in late April and has been unable to reopen because of the pandemic. Owner Kestrel Liedtke says she cannot open until the theater can begin hosting audiences again.

That isn’t an alternative for Kestrel Liedtke, co-owner of Tin Angel, a fine dining establishment that prioritizes the use of local products. Reopening her restaurant inside the Eccles Theater on Main Street in Salt Lake City depends on the approval of a vaccine. The building has been closed to the public since March, so the restaurant doesn’t have the option to fill delivery or pickup orders.

Thinking about her pre-pandemic routine is tough for her; she was usually busy and loved her job, she said. Just before COVID-19 hit, the theater was running the Broadway production “Dear Evan Hansen,” and her tables were fully booked every day. A similar scenario in these times is hard to picture.

“We’re waiting for the theater to open,” Liedtke said. “It seats 2,500 people, so we’re waiting for something to happen that would allow 2,500 people to be able to sit in a room together again.”

Meanwhile, she feels in limbo.

Closing her restaurant after 13 years of operation was disruptive for her whole family. “The financial burden of having been a business owner, and then losing my entire income has been pretty shocking,” she said.

The unemployment benefit from the federal CARES act has been a big relief for her household, but as the stipend was reduced to $300 in August and ended on Sept. 5, money is a worry. But her plan is still to reopen when she can.

“People like us, who have lost their entire income,” she said, “can’t really just start new careers because we don’t know when our old career will start back up.”