The state is allowing restaurants to reopen for indoor dining, at 25% capacity, on July 2. Most South Jersey restaurants have plans to reopen accordingly.
Starting on July 2, South Jersey restaurants can seat guests back in their dining rooms.
Between the reopening of indoor dining, outdoor dining, takeout and delivery, South Jersey restaurant owners hope they are cobbling together a viable pandemic-era business model.
In March, the coronavirus pandemic cratered profit margins at most restaurants around the region, sometimes as much as 100%.
On June 15, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy permitted restaurants to resume outdoor dining, with social distancing and other restrictions. Working with town officials and neighboring businesses, many restaurants throughout the region expanded seating along sidewalks, alleys, parking lots and even roadways.
As part of Phase Two of its economic restart, the state will permit eateries to reopen their indoor dining rooms next Thursday. Murphy’s guidelines only allow restaurants to reopen their indoor areas at 25% capacity.
Even as they prepare for an unprecedented table setup and employee rotation, and even as they stress out about following social distancing and cleanliness guidelines, many restaurant owners we spoke with are taking a collective, if only momentary, deep breath.
"We’re coming into the home stretch," said Zack Melker, the owner of Toscano Ristorante and Angelo’s Trattoria, a steakhouse and Italian restaurant, respectively, in Bordentown City.
Donkey’s Place in Camden has some of the best cheesesteaks around and owner Rob Lucas Jr. has been doing takeout and curbside for months now. But he is ready to get rolling with the indoor dining.
"It’s awesome," he said. "We’ve been plugging away. We’re taking all the precautions. Face masks, six feet apart, all that good stuff."
A few owners said it’s not worth reopening for indoor dining at just 25% capacity, but most welcomed the opportunity to once again greet guests in their dining rooms.
All types of restaurants around the region, from big diners to mid-sized pizza shops to small sandwich spots, have decided to open their doors again.
Nuray Pamuk owns and operates the Town & Country Diner, a sprawling, multi-room, 400-person space in Bordentown Township. She can easily reopen at 25% capacity and keep customers at least six feet apart. She just has to limit patrons to every other table.
On June 25, Pamuk also opened her wide parking lot to outdoor seating, an entirely new endeavor for the diner. With a menu limited to "just the favorites," instead of the normal 700 items, the owner should be able to close a significant portion of her 100% profit gap.
"I’m going to do the max. Bring it on," Pamuk said. "We’ve been closed for way too long."
Meanwhile, Ponzio’s Diner, a Cherry Hill staple for more than five decades, closed on March 16 and chose not to do take-out or delivery.
For the diner’s ownership team, the extended closure has only built up the anticipation for a reopening, and the team is ready. "It’s a long time coming. It’s felt like years since we were able to open up," said Nick Fifis, one of the restaurant’s owners. "We are excited."
Brianna Lewis manages the Villa Rosa Restaurant & Pizzeria in Burlington City.
The mid-sized pizzeria can serve between 40 and 50 people inside at 25% capacity, according to Lewis. That number will add to the roughly 25 patrons that Villa Rosa can serve outside, and to a take-out and delivery business that is thriving this summer because more people are home, and fewer are going down the shore, Lewis said.
Sales are "up a lot" this summer, the manager added. The addition of 40 to 50 indoor diners could make this a lucrative season, the pandemic notwithstanding.
"It’s definitely worth opening inside," Lewis said.
‘Trying to make it to September’
Ed McGuarn owns The Soup Bar in Palmyra, a small soup and sandwich place that caters predominantly to a lunch crowd.
But during the pandemic, business has been down about 90%, according to McGuarn.
About 16 outdoor seats have closed that gap a little, and roughly 12 to 15 more indoor seats will help too, the owner said. The Soup Bar is small inside, but McGuarn will serve as many people as he can, at a safe six-foot distance, at his lunch counter and tables.
"It’s possible there will be enough to keep it going, and then you hope this will be over by the fall," he said. "We’re just trying to make it to September."
Across the board, owners are excited to see their patrons on a regular basis again. But reopening, and rediscovering that connection with the community, will not erase the many complications associated with the ongoing pandemic.
What if there’s a spike and they must close again? What if employees struggle with wearing masks in the heat? And what are truly the best protocols for staving off the virus?
As daunting as these challenges may be, most agreed they must meet them head on.
"I’m going to go out of business if I don’t reopen," said Jimmy Manetas, the owner of Jimmy’s American Grill in Bordentown Township. "How am I going to survive?"
Joaquin Suarez, the general manager of Sabrina’s Café in Collingswood, is excited to open for indoor dining as well. Sabrina’s has been open for outdoor seating since June 15, and also has served take-out and delivery.
"We are thrilled that we’re allowed to open up and start serving the public again (inside)," Suarez said.
For owners, it’s safety first
While their businesses are their livelihoods and passions, owners are unanimous about one thing: the health and safety of customers and employees comes before profits, and even the survival of their businesses.
Timothy Witcher, chef and owner of The Wing Kitchen, which has locations in Turnersville and Glassboro, is excited to see his restaurants open back up to indoor dining, but he said the safety of his customers is what he wanted to discuss.
The Willingboro native is focused on reopening, but his decisions are also informed by the impact of COVID-19 in his own family.
"Indoor coming back is wonderful, but our first and foremost is keeping people safe," said Witcher, a former "Chopped" champ. "Food is beautiful and the revenue is wonderful but keeping people safe is the first and foremost of everything. My mother’s in a nursing home and had COVID and thank God she beat it."
"Some things we can’t do. We can’t have parties of 50 people all close. We just kind of made sure the distance stays here and our staff has masks on. We’re working with Ecoline now. They have a wonderful line of products that are specifically geared to COVID-19 that we’ll be implementing this week also."
Bistro di Marino, an Italian restaurant with locations in Collingswood and Washington Township, is offering three set seating times per night, to stagger crowds and abide by all capacity limits and safety guidelines.
Both locations have been seating outdoor guests since last Monday and have about 15 tables; on Haddon Avenue, they are located on a rear patio, whereas in Washington Township, they are on a patio, as well as out in front of the shopping plaza restaurant. All are either under a covered awning or umbrellas.
"It has been great, actually," said Jim Marino, chef and owner of both locations, who said all staff members will be sporting Bistro di Marino-branded face masks. "There is a definite force of cabin fever out there. People definitely wanted to be out and we’ve had good luck with the weather, too. Not too much rain. We’ve been busy, and of course going inside is going to help, too.’’
Rosita Lamberti is the director of restaurants for Aldo Lamberti’s Family of Restaurants, which has three South Jersey restaurants in Caffe Aldo Lamberti and Lamberti’s Tutti Toscani in Cherry Hill, and Luna Rossa Biagio Lamberti in Turnersville.
She said the company "invested in a thermal imaging camera system that scans everyone’s temperature in a contact-free manner."
"Both guests and staff are required to enter through the front door and we make sure that no one’s temperature is elevated," she added.
These extra costs are still new, so it’s hard for owners to measure their long-term impact. But Melker, the owner of the two Bordentown City restaurants, said he is spending an extra $300 a night on labor, sanitizer, wipes and other costs.
"We’re taking a financial hit," he said.
But he also added that, once indoor dining opens, business will only be down 20%, as opposed to the 65% it was down before outdoor dining reopened. "It’s definitely helping," Melker said.
Courier-Post staff writers Tammy Paolino and Celeste Whittaker contributed to this report.