Utah restaurants face a tough choice — pivot or shut down during coronavirus

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Best Chicken and Ribs in South Salt Lake is empty during a temporary closure due to coronavirus. March 28, 2020.

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Fine-dining restaurants that rarely did takeout are now offering online ordering and food to go.

Bakeries and catering companies with well-stocked pantries are selling flour, yeast and other hard-to-find ingredients to the public.

Breweries that once poured pale ales and lagers are delivering pizzas.

Large numbers of independent restaurant operators in Utah have chosen to pivot amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re just trying to do something and not go away completely,” Alamexo chef Matthew Lake said of his switch to takeout.

And help feed people while they’re at it.

Other restaurateurs, though, believe that’s a short-term solution and the industry would be better served by pushing pause. While initially painful, they argue, it could, in the long run, save small businesses — and lives.

“We have a social obligation to close our doors, for now,” the owner of Grounds for Coffee on Ogden’s 25th Street wrote last week on social media. “The support we’ve seen has been so intensely humbling and has brought me to my knees several times — but it’s too many people still going out, a lot of whom are feeling like they have an obligation to us, and it’s just too much. … We love you too much to keep putting you in this position.”

Only time will tell which approach — if any — is best.

The real risks

Shifting, not shutting down, was the natural response for most eateries amid the crisis and the one approved by state and county health officials, who note that there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through food.

The virus is spread mainly from person to person, especially between people who are in close contact — within about 6 feet — of one another. It is transmitted through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Businesses that take necessary precautions when preparing meals — sanitizing surfaces regularly, washing hands, social distancing, avoiding cash payments and ensuring that sick employees don’t come to work — are generally safe.

For their part, consumers should put food on their own plates and throw out takeout containers — always washing their hands thoroughly after doing so and before eating.

“The risk is contact with the respiratory droplets of other people,” according to the Salt Lake County Health Department, “which is why dine-in service is prohibited but takeout is not. It’s not the food or the environment but the gathering of people.”

Even Gov. Gary Herbert — who has asked that residents stay home as much as they can — told Utahns it was OK to get takeout or delivery three times a week. He even encouraged it as a way to support those businesses.

On Wednesday, the governor also clarified that customers in most of Utah can go inside an establishment to place an order at the counter or to pick up food to go. That allowance does not apply in Salt Lake and Summit counties. Eating inside a restaurant is still prohibited, and no congregating inside — or on outdoor patios — is permitted. Customers must maintain a 6-foot distance from one another.

After the governor’s announcement last week, more than a dozen Salt Lake City restaurant owners sent letters to Herbert, asserting that the “stay home” order he issued didn’t not go far enough to protect their businesses.

Some would have preferred a shelter-in-place order that would have closed all nonessential businesses — including takeout and delivery from restaurants — and kept everyone across the state home.

“We are all in consensus that an eight- to 12-week ‘urgent phase’ [Herbert proposed] is going to destroy the ability of many to reopen,” said Missy Greis, owner of Publik Coffee Roasters. “A 30-day shelter-in-place order would have been much more effective in giving us a chance.”

Casee and John Francis, owners of Amour Spreads, would like to see the government establish a 90-day “press pause” program. Everything from mortgage and rent payments — Herbert ordered rent deferrals Wednesday on residential properties — to utility bills would be postponed with no fear of interest or penalty.

“Everyone would have a chance to get through the shelter at home,” they said, “begin recovery and likely be able to pay their next month’s rent/mortgage prior to the 90-day pause ending.”

Bottom line: people

Moudi Sbeity is the owner of Laziz Kitchen, Salt Lake City.

Moudi Sbeity, owner of Laziz Kitchen, started curbside takeout hoping to keep his staff employed through the pandemic. But even though the restaurant was busy, he soon decided it wasn’t safe for his employees or customers.

No matter what sanitary precautions he takes inside the restaurant, Sbeity said, he has no control of what employees do on their own time.

“The bottom line for me,” he said, “was that I was worried about the people, my staff."

Sbeity said the government should be just as concerned about its citizens. “We need to get in the mindset of thinking about people and out of the mindset of economic growth.”

“If we look at what is happening around the world, people are not taking social distancing as seriously as they should,” he said. “The responsible thing is for everyone to close down so that at some point in the future we don’t say, “We wish we had taken a more extreme approach.”

Josh Rosenthal, the owner of La Barba Coffee, Creek Tea and Seabird bars who also is a restaurant financial consultant, doesn’t see off-premises dining being a long-term solution for most businesses.

“Some businesses might be able to navigate the downturn through curbside service and delivery,” he said. “I believe very few who attempt this will actually generate enough revenue to make it worthwhile. Worse, I believe they will actually burn through more cash reserves by attempting it.”

‘So many gloves’

Such has been the case nationally. According to Restaurant Business, an industry magazine, many independent restaurant operators who originally changed to takeout and delivery have closed. They hope to reopen once the pandemic passes.

“For some, it’s purely a business decision, the result of an inability to bring in enough revenue solely via off-premises means,” the magazine wrote. “For others, the tough choice to shutter is based on health and safety concerns for employees.”

Romina Rasmussen closed her Salt Lake City bakery, Les Madeleines, for two weeks, deciding that it was the best way to protect her employees.

“We closed early in hopes that doing it early would help flatten the [COVID-19] curve,” she said, adding that she always planned to reopen after two weeks, if allowed.

On Tuesday, Le Madeleines reopened and began taking online orders for pickup.

“There are only four of us here,” she said, “which allows us to maintain safe distances, and handoff of food is completely contactless. We sanitize constantly and have used so many gloves.”

During the two-week closure, Rasmussen said, her employees self-quarantined. “We’ll see how it goes,” she said “We’ll take it day by day.”

Maxine Turner, founder of Cuisine Unlimited Catering, said her company has been selling family meals like turkey meatloaf and poached salmon for curbside pickup and delivery.

She likely speaks for everyone in the industry when she said, “I am very concerned about the fate of small business in America.”

“In a decade, will there remain the number of small businesses we have today?” she asked. “What will we look like? Will the innovations that started with small businesses in the past continue or will we be overshadowed by mega-corporations who will be the new inventors? Will many of us only be serving the Amazons of this world?”