Like most industries, the restaurant industry has faced a sudden and unavoidable need to adapt to the changes amidst COVID-19. Nationwide, restaurants that could typically pack their tables during mealtimes, happy hours, and late night gatherings were forced to shutter their locations for weeks, even months on end. And now, even though restaurants in Pennsylvania were allowed to again open their doors, it’s far from business as usual.
Although this was a huge blow to our restaurants, one thing is certain: people always need to eat. This means that so long as restaurants can find a way to safely prepare and serve food, there is demand for their services. Restaurants have adapted by expanding their outdoor seating, limiting tables in use, offering contactless, curb-side pickup, frequently sanitizing common spaces, and of course requiring face masks for both staff and guests. The question now is how sustainable is this model? And can restaurants anticipate their revenue to pick back up?
To provide a local perspective as to what’s going on here in Central Pennsylvania and how the restaurant industry has had to make rapid and drastic changes to the way they do business, Omni Realty Group reached out to a Harrisburg restauranteur. Josh Kesler, owner of The Millworks located in downtown Harrisburg, joins us to weigh in on how his business has been impacted by COVID-19 and how he has adapted to changing circumstances.
Omni: Describe how The Millworks has been impacted by COVID-19 and your decision to temporarily close.
JK: After being closed for several months during the initial shutdown, we were excited to get back open, even at a more limited capacity of 50% in Pennsylvania. But several weeks after reopening, we had a staff member test positive for COVID-19. We immediately closed again pending test results. Because of testing delays, several days turned into several weeks, and I ultimately made the decision that we wouldn’t be able to function by closing every time an employee tested positive. So for that reason we are closing operations until there is at least one of the following: sustained down swing in new case numbers, a COVID-19 treatment that greatly reduces the death rate, or a vaccine.
But the circumstances are vastly different for many restaurants. Ones that were positioned pre-COVID-19 with a robust take-out business have been better able to transition into the new environment. Others, such as The Millworks, is a destination business that has built its core from experiential dining and shopping. So there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to how to react to the situation. It’s really dependent on the market positioning before the pandemic. Some restaurants are also struggling with converting to a take-out model because of the adjustment in office work. For years take-out was really location driven, i.e. grab a bite to-go on your way home from the office. But with most people working from home, traffic trajectories have changed greatly. Proximity to residences, not offices, is the key. And that factor may continue to play out after the pandemic if businesses decide not to carry the expense of office space.
Omni: Looking to the future when and how do you plan to resume business? What factors will play into this decision?
JK: Our handling of the virus will ultimately decide when the best time to reopen is. If new infections decrease, I think we all hope that the Governor will loosen the capacity restrictions on bars and restaurants. At the current 25% capacity restriction and colder weather approaching (losing outdoor dining), it doesn’t seem viable for most restaurants to weather that sort of downturn. Remember, most dine-in restaurants survive to a large degree on alcohol sales, and with bar service limited and general capacity reduced, the economics become difficult.
The timing of losing outdoor dining is also coupled with the end of the PPP for most restaurants, and I believe staffing and overhead will become too great for many to continue forward. Fortunately for The Millworks, I have built a solid war chest that will be able to sustain us for an extended shutdown, but I do worry that many of my colleagues won’t be able to, and I really feel for them right now.
Omni: How are you using the adjustments due to COVID-19 to reinvest in your business, such as renovations, changes, or improvements?
JK: I’ve really limited expenditures on improvements to pivot to the new COVID-19 reality, for no other reason than that the reality is changing rapidly, sometimes daily.
Omni: Of the staff you have retained during this time, how have their roles and duties shifted?
JK: At the current time, all but two of my 85 employees are laid off. It is by far the single greatest feeling of defeat, having had to lay off staff that have been the foundation and fabric of my business. But in the end, by making the decisions I have and by years of positioning before the crisis, I can guarantee all of them a job on the other side of this. I’m sure there are varying political views, but I strongly urge the support of extended unemployment insurance for restaurant workers until we get past this crisis. The looming income shortfalls will force millions of talented people to seek careers in other industries. That is already happening to some degree.
Omni: Is there any silver lining you have found through all of this?
JK: As dire as all of this sounds, I do think those who survive the crisis will flourish on the other side. It may take some time for all of us to readjust our habits, but let’s face it, restaurants are critical in how we enjoy time with our friends, family, and co-workers. It’s like going to church, or the baseball game, or the backyard barbeque. It’s just who we are and what we do as people, and there will never be a shortage of that over the long term.
Omni Realty Group thanks Josh Kesler for sharing his insight and experiences adapting to COVID-19. Each restaurant has taken a unique approach to adapting to COVID-19, and it’s very interesting to learn the thought behind the changes and future adjustments that may still be yet to come.
As it relates to commercial real estate, one of the biggest obstacles is making the best use of whatever space you have, whether that’s looking to add outdoor seating, reconfigure your indoor seating to accommodate social distancing, or choosing to downsize if business demand is down. For restaurants owners, what’s most important is to remain flexible creative with your business solutions so that you are in the best position to safely remain open during COVID-19.
Have you patronized a restaurant since COVID-19 hit? Did you dine inside, outside, or get takeout? And what was your basis for this decision? We’d love to hear your perspective on restaurant dining and COVID-19 concerns. Join in the conversation by leaving a comment below.