‘Get used to eating at’ chain restaurants: Suburban owners worry their businesses won’t survive new COVID rules

Dan Katz is the owner of the West Avenue Grille in Jenkintown, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Dan Katz is the owner of the West Avenue Grille in Jenkintown, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Ask us about COVID-19: What questions do you have about the current surge?

Suburban restaurant owners, some of whom were already struggling to stay afloat, believe that Pennsylvania’s latest round of coronavirus mitigation efforts just might be the thing that sinks them.

Several whose restaurants are in Jenkintown’s business district in Montgomery County talked about their worries. Some were angry.

“If you own a restaurant or anything food-related, good luck. Good luck in 2021, I wish you the best. My heart goes out to you. I’m in the same boat,” said Bruce Alfero, owner of Forcella BYOB in Jenkintown, Montgomery County.

Thursday afternoon, Gov. Tom Wolf announced new temporary restrictions — effective 12:01 a.m. Saturday and lasting until 8 a.m. Jan 4 — that are designed to stop the spread of the virus and prevent already struggling hospitals from being overwhelmed. The order prohibits in-person dining and alcohol sales, bans indoor activities at theaters and other entertainment businesses and gyms, and places capacity limits on a host of other indoor and outdoor gatherings.

“Look, I get it. You have to protect public safety,” Alfero said. “But at the same time, I hope everybody is going to get used to eating at Applebee’s, and Chili’s, and at the Outback [Steakhouse], because come March, February, if it’s like this, there’s going to be nothing left.”

Under normal circumstances, Forcella BYOB seats only 18 people. But it does not have the ability to offer outdoor dining, and even the previous capacity restrictions on indoor dining were putting a stress on his restaurant, Alfero said — he could seat only four people at any given time.

Forcella BYOB in Jenkintown, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

His main gripe is with the timing — or the lack of it for those who work in the restaurant industry.

“Give people more than a day and a half’s notice to get their stuff in order,” Alfero said. “It’s so nice to give me less than 36 hours’ notice. There are bartenders, waiters, busboys … who literally live check to check to check, and you want to give them less than 36 hours’ notice? That’s nice. That’s great.”

At the nearby Drake Tavern, the new restrictions mean another tough reckoning.

“We’ve had people working here for 15 years, and we had to lay them off. And so now, with the governor coming on and restricting us and imposing the new rules … We’re all heartbroken because once again we have to make the business decision of laying people off, and it’s the holiday season,” said the Drake’s manager, Larissa Chomiak. “It’s not going to be a happy holiday at all.”

Even before the latest round of restrictions, the Drake had to cut back on hours and staff, Chomiak said.

“This past week we actually had to cut down on our hours because of loss of business,” she said. The restaurant is now closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

The Drake Tavern in Jenkintown, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

With such uncertainty, Chomiak said this latest wave will be unsustainable for workers. And even though the restaurant can do outdoor dining, dipping temperatures may freeze that out, she said.

“It looks like being the winter, it’s all going to be takeout orders,” Chomiak said.

One restaurant had been preparing all summer for this possibility.

“With the colder months coming, we got about six heaters that we put in between each table, which we knew would be helpful during this time bracing for another shutdown, which we knew would probably be coming in the colder months. So we have that all set up outside now,” said Dan Katz, owner of the West Avenue Grille.

Dedicated to outdoor dining at West Avenue Grille now are nine tables, 6 feet apart from one another.

The West Avenue Grille in Jenkintown, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“With people not being able to eat indoors and wanting to get out and get out to a restaurant, I feel like they’ll really be able to utilize our outdoor dining,” Katz said.

In Delco, a lot of the same worries

In Delaware County, many restaurant owners also had misgivings about wintertime outdoor dining. And for others, there simply isn’t space to offer it.

James Costalas, the general manager of Charlotte’s Restaurant in Newtown Square, said restaurants like his are going to need everything they can get to stay alive. He’s received some help in the form of grants from the county’s Delco Strong initiative.

“We used that to pay all of our purveyors from before,” Costalas said.

Delco Strong uses mostly CARES funding to help small businesses and nonprofits. Eligible businesses just had to be under a $9 million revenue threshold.

“It is County Council coming together to support our small-business community. This is a grant program, not a loan — and we did three rounds of it, where we took all the resources we could garner, the majority of which were CARES funds, and we ran three grant programs to help support our small-business community and help them get through this really challenging economic situation that has resulted from this pandemic, so that they can come out the other side ready to rebound and be in a position to recover as quickly as possible,” County Council member Elaine Paul Schaefer said.

To date, the program has assisted more than 1,400 businesses and 100 nonprofits.

“But interestingly, we did not exhaust all of the funds in each of the rounds, so it became a noncompetitive process, and basically any business who completed the application and was eligible got the funding,” Schaefer said.

Montgomery County had a similar three-round initiative for small businesses and nonprofits, called MontcoStrong.

David Zellers, Montgomery County’s commerce director, said that “along the way [we] really have targeted a number of things, one, the sectors that were most impacted at different points during this pandemic — notably, the restaurant and hospitality industry, manufacturing, which is a critical base of our economic make up in Montgomery County. We gave particular consideration to minority-, women-, and veteran-owned businesses during the program.”

Both Montgomery County and Delaware County officials said the damage from COVID-19 to small businesses has been widespread.

“Every place is facing these challenges right now,” Zellers said. But both counties acknowledged the additional hurdles facing the restaurant industry.

In light of the latest developments regarding indoor dining, Delco Councilwoman Schaefer said the weather won’t do any favors for restaurants looking for outdoor dining to be a saving grace.

“Take one step outside and you’ll see how realistic that is for the next two months,” she said.

So the big question many business owners might have is: Will more assistance be available?

“I do anticipate that there will be further financial support coming from the county for our businesses,” Schaefer said.

Officials from both counties made it clear that they’re looking to the federal government to free up additional funding.

Non-restaurant businesses: ‘Incredible creativity and adaptation’

Zeller urged business owners to try to the best of their ability to adapt while they keep fighting.

Of business owners who have evolved through the hardship, Schaefer said, “They have really risen to the occasion and showed incredible creativity and adaptation to these circumstances, so many of our small businesses have gone above and beyond to keep providing their services.”

The Running Place in Newtown Square, for instance, has been delivering shoes directly to the doorsteps of patrons. Its owner, Bill Frawley, acknowledged that he was able to do so because his business is not in the restaurant or hospitality industry.

“I think we will get through this OK. I worry for the restaurants and hospitality businesses because the restrictions are so much tougher for them,” Frawley said.

Being able to operate online has been vital for some small suburban retail businesses. Shaykh Anwar Muhammad, proprietor of The Black Reserve Bookstore in Lansdale, has been surprised at how well his business has managed with mainly online operations.

“I would say that things have been pretty steady and better than people probably would have thought they would have been,” Muhammad said.

He was featured in Montgomery County’s recent Make it Main Street ad campaign, which highlights the area’s local businesses. The reception has been really positive, he said.

“People have been contacting me that said they’ve seen the commercials and the YouTube videos and everything,” Muhammad said.

Still, things aren’t exactly peachy keen.

Muhammad doesn’t have the infrastructure of a big book retailer like Barnes & Noble, which is why he said it’s imperative for community members to shop local — and stay within the family.

“My customers are like family. I have personal relationships with my customers, and they come from a variety of places,” Muhammad said.

The theme of family came up time and time again during WHYY News interviews with suburban small businesses and nonprofits.

The Hiway Theater in Jenkintown, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Renew movie theaters — they include the Hiway in Jenkintown, the Ambler in Ambler and the County in Doylestown — have been closed since March and will be closed until 2021. But the nonprofit theater network attributes their ability to do this to their donors and members.

“They are our lifeboat, and we would not be able to do this without the support of our community,” Chris Collier, executive director of Renew Theaters.

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