Restaurants battle food prices, safety as they re-open for dine-in service

Taylor Wegner fills a cup with beer while wearing a facemask. Reilly’s Pub requires all employees to utilize personal protective equipment while at work. Joe Schulz photo

by Joe Schulz

When Gov. Tony Evers ordered all bars and restaurants to close for dine-in service to slow the spread of COVID-19 back in March, business owners were forced to change their business models as their incomes began to dwindle.

As eateries in the area reopen — following the state’s Supreme Court mid-May ruling — they are working to ensure safety, while dealing with a strained supply chain and a sense of uncertainty.

When Goose Blind Grill & Bar was forced to close for dine-in service, sales fell by roughly 90% almost overnight, according to owner Mary Rowley.

For the first few weeks of exclusively serving carry-out and delivery, Rowley tried to keep all of her full-time staff. With limited cash flow, she was forced to lay off all of her servers and bartenders.

“We had no business at all coming in on Wednesdays or Thursdays. We did OK on Fridays and Saturdays, but it wasn’t enough to pay the bills or keep the lights on,” Rowley said. “We have such razor-thin [profit] margins, and one of the biggest things that helps us is beverage sales, either alcohol or soda, because there really is no margin on food.”

On top of low profits, Rowley noted the business has had to raise prices because of supply shortages.

“All our prices have been going up because we’ve had shortages of meat,” Rowley said.

Before the state Supreme Court ruling, Rowley had begun to rehire employees, giving them hours here and there. But now she’s reopened the dining room and hopes business picks up again.

In reopening, Goose Blind is following the Green Lake County Health Department’s recommendations of limiting capacity to 50% of its occupancy limit.

The restaurant has removed barstools, placed “do not use” signs on tables and posted signs on both doors that instruct customers not to come in if they’re sick.

Additionally, the eatery is disinfecting door knobs, bathrooms and other hard surfaces employees are likely to touch.

Even with the dining room open, the restaurant will offer curbside pick up and delivery, as not everyone is comfortable dining in yet.

Rowley noted Goose Blind is doing everything it can to ensure the safety of its employees and customers.

Like refusing service to someone who’s had too much to drink, Rowley added Goose Blind will ask customers who refuse to follow social-distancing guidelines to leave.

“We as a business need to make sure people are safe,” Rowley said.

Goose Blind isn’t the only business that’s endured hardship as a result of the pandemic. Adam’s Rib in Green Lake has dealt with a similar situation.

According to Manager Rachel Nitz, the eatery made the switch to serving carry-out and started offering delivery toward the end of the Safer at Home order.

“Most people preferred to pick up their food though because they were stuck in their house all that time,” Nitz said.

Even though the restaurant is open again, she noted it’s been “a little slow” as most customers still prefer to pick up their food rather than dine-in.

“People are still very scared,” she said.

Like Goose Blind, Adam’s Rib also has seen it’s supply chain impacted by the pandemic.

Adam’s Rib has a sanitizer station set up for customers. Joe Schulz photo

Nitz noted one of their suppliers didn’t have enough of certain products to meet demand, which forced the restaurant to look for other suppliers.

While things have gotten better, she added meat prices are still high.

“I think everyone has that same issue,” Nitz said.

Adam’s Rib has moved tables outside to increase space between customers and limit capacity inside the restaurant.

Even in reopening, Nitz noted the biggest struggle since the coronavirus pandemic started has been dealing with all of the uncertainty it has created as a vaccine is potentially years away.

“There’s just a lot of unknowns,” Nitz said. “The biggest one is how long is this going to last? Is it going to be five or six years? Because it’s not going to be over this year.”

Reilly’s Pub in Markesan is dealing with many of those same concerns, according to owner Randy Sondalle.

In March, the pub closed for three weeks for a remodeling and deep cleaning. It reopened in April to serve carry-out and delivery.

Sondalle noted those limited serving options were only able to account for about 25% of the pub’s usual business.

During the ban on dine-in service, Reilly’s was forced to lay off 18 of its 21 employees.

“That was so hard to do because we’re just a small business, and all of us that work here together, we’re like a big family,” Sondalle said.

To ensure social distancing and limit capacity, Reilly’s has moved tables away from each other. In addition, all employees are required to wear face masks and gloves while at work.

Since reopening, Sondalle noted most dine-in customers have opted to sit outside, and have been appreciative of the employees for taking added precautions.

While the reopening has gone well so far, Reilly’s Pub has dealt with similar supply hiccups as other restaurants in the area.

Sondalle noted meat prices have skyrocketed because meat plants in the supply chain were forced to close.

“We’re going to have to raise prices on beef,” he said.

Overall, Sondalle believes that restaurants that take precautions to keep workers and customers safe are going to thrive.

“I think people will notice if you’re taking that extra step trying to keep people safe, and I think your business will do better,” he said.