Safety measures during the pandemic made restaurant owners’ nightmares of an empty dining room a reality for weeks.
Local restaurants have been through the wringer after COVID-19 precautionary measures closed their dining rooms, limited their seating capacity and put a mask on every employee and server.
Starting March 5, Tennessee identified what authorities thought was its first case of COVID-19 in Williamson County. The number of confirmed cases has grown exponentially and altering everything from grocery shopping to graduation.
Restaurants were forced to close their dining rooms and limit the number of customers inside at a single time. Employees began wearing masks and adding more personal protective wear to their daily repertoire.
Art Zakloski, owner of Cleveland’s Little Diner on First, said the dining room closure dealt a critical blow to business.
Ashley Lowery, manager at City Cafe in Cleveland, agreed, saying dine-in customers were a huge source of revenue for the restaurant and tips for servers.
But local eateries adapted and found a way. Many restaurants, from local cafes to franchised businesses, leaned into carryout services and third-party delivery apps.
Zakloski said Little Diner made use of their food truck, which softened the impact of their empty dining room.
“When we switched to pick-up only, I’d say we lost about 90% of our business, but we hung on,” he said. “Our food truck was our saving grace.”
Zakloski said being able to “bring the food to them” allowed Little Diner to stay afloat, but their staff of three had to cut two hours off their usual schedules to save costs.
Lowery said some City Cafe employees chose not to come back to work due to health concerns. They also changed their hours, operating from 7 a.m. until midnight Sunday through Thursday, and 7 a.m. until 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Lowery said sales have returned to “almost normal,” as have sales for Zakloski and Little Diner. Zakloski said they are operating “about 30%” under their normal sales for this time of year. Although dining rooms are open now, he said business is still hit and miss.
“Business fluctuates. Some days are fantastic and others it’s just slow,” he said.
He added that a “silver lining” to the pandemic may be the “new faces” introduced to Little Diner’s menu of American comfort food through the mobile food truck.
Lowery said their customer base at City Cafe, though reduced by the pandemic, came through with big tips for the staff. She added that customers gave them grace and were “understanding and cooperative” with all of the changes.
Looking ahead, Zakloski said business is looking good, but he’s worried.
“I’m just hoping we don’t have to go back to everything closing again. We’re just keeping our heads above water,” he said, adding that his landlord and other business partners have been understanding.
He said if a surge of cases came through Bradley County and they were forced to close again, he’s not sure how they would weather the storm.