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Some St. Louis-Area Restaurants Are Ready For Business, Others Want To Wait And See

Taken on 5-12 when Crown Candy reopened for curbside pickup after staying closed for a month due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Bill Greenblatt | UPI
Andy Karandzieff, owner of Crown Candy in Old North St. Louis, pours coffee syrup into a milkshake for a curbside pickup order. The restaurant isn't in a rush to open for dine-in service.

Bars and restaurants in St. Louis and St. Louis County will be among the first wave of businesses allowed to reopen their doors to customers on Monday, after local stay-at-home orders expire.

That includes Ice & Fuel in Kirkwood, a sports bar and grill, which has been closed for about a month while the owners deep cleaned the restaurant and fixed up the outdoor patio. Manager Korie Harris said they tried curbside pickup for a few weeks but realized their workers could make more money with unemployment benefits.

But now that the restaurant has a shot at dine-in business, too, she’s added everyone back to the payroll. 

“I’m looking forward to the business starting to make money again — hopefully,” she said.

Harris can seat only 25% of her restaurant’s capacity, and tables must be at least six feet apart. She’ll require employees to wear masks and take other public health precautions. 

While not required, Harris is also planning to implement a number of health and safety guidelines laid out by St. Louis and St. Louis County. Some are more controversial than others — like keeping a log of every customer who dines at the restaurant in case someone gets sick.

“There’s things you don’t think about — like soda refills. You have to get them a new cup,” Harris said. That means spending more money on single-use silverware and safety training.

Harris said she’s eager to catch up with her regular customers again, but she’s also worried people might not keep their distance.

Earlier this month, some restaurants in St. Charles County reported being overwhelmed by patrons who did not respect their rules. Harris is hoping to avoid that situation by designating an employee to enforce the restrictions and sanitize surfaces as people filter in and out.

“I’d like to think that our customers are respectful, but we’ll just have to really monitor it,” she said. “Ultimately, if people aren’t following the rules, we don't want to be an area where people get sick. We want to make sure people feel safe and comfortable here.”

Many restaurant owners fear they could become a venue for a coronavirus outbreak if they’re not careful — and that could hurt business even more. 

What does ‘reopening safely’ mean?

Gerard Craft, owner and executive chef of Niche Food Group, helped weigh in on the recommendations released by regional governments for how restaurants should plan to reopen. 

But he won’t begin seating his own restaurants — including Brasserie and Pasteria in the Central West End and Clayton, respectively — until sometime in June. 

That’s because he doesn’t feel he has the necessary materials and protocols to provide a safe and enjoyable dining experience. 

“If it doesn't make sense to open yet; just wait a bit,” Craft said.

Opening up safely the first time is crucial for the success of individual restaurants and the industry, he added. “It’s already such a big hit to the restaurant economy that if we open for a month or two and have to do this all over again, I don’t know if we’re coming back,” he said. 

Craft is advising other restaurant owners to do everything they can to reduce the spread of the coronavirus and prevent a potential second peak of infections. 

That means taking reservations, installing barriers between booths, checking customers’ temperatures and offering contactless payment. 

The problem, he said, is that many of these measures are costly, and restaurants are already scrounging up what money they have left to keep the lights on.

Wait and see

Andy Karandzieff, owner of Crown Candy in north St. Louis, is in no rush to reopen.

Since he owns his building and recently received a federal loan to cover payroll, he said he can get by with just curbside pickup orders for at least another few weeks. After staying closed for a month, Crown Candy began offering takeaway orders last week.

Karandzieff said he doesn’t yet feel comfortable with the health risks of sit-down service.

Taken on the day before stl regional officials called for restaurants and bars to stop dine-in service (03-16-20)
Credit Corinne Ruff | St. Louis Public Radio
Crown Candy owner Andy Karandzieff closed his restaurant for about a month during the coronavirus pandemic, allowing employees to seek unemployment benefits. Last week, he hired them back to restart curbside pickup orders.

“We’re going to wait and see what the mood of the city is — as far as my customers go, my employees go — until we are sure we are in a good spot to do this,” he said.

It’s also a financial calculation. In a small space, he can’t seat many people unless he invests in plexiglass barriers between booths. And even then, he worries people may not follow the rules.

“There’s so many tiny things you have to manage,” Karandzieff said. “If someone is wandering around and customers are uncomfortable, that’s bad for me because they might not come back.”

Restaurant owners like Karandzieff are grappling with difficult decisions about how to reshape their businesses in a way that protects their employees and serves pent-up demand.

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

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Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.