Restaurants trying to stay afloat as they reopen dining rooms

Posted at 5:48 PM, Jun 11, 2020

DENVER, Colo. -- Sam’s No. 3 has been serving customers since 1927.

“My grandfather was Sam,” said Sam's No. 3 restaurant owner Alex Armatas.

Armatas says the business has made it through historic upheavals like the Great Depression and uprisings after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, but never has the restaurant had to close for 10 weeks straight.

“The impact has been brutal. You go from 100% of business to zero,” Armatas said.

Employees like Jason Salazar were temporarily furloughed.

“I’ve never not worked since I was 17. So, to just be unemployed was like… what do I do,” Salazar said.

When it was time to come back, Salazar says they had to adjust to a new lengthy process.

“Just walking in, somebody takes my temperature right away, I wash my hands right away, I put on gloves right away. We don’t even enter the building without a mask.”

Masks, social distancing, sanitation -- so much had to be considered when thinking of ways to prevent the potential spread of the virus.

“We would normally have a [ketchup] bottle at the table or whatever, but now they’re just individual little containers for them,” Salazar said.

The less people touch, the better. Armatas says they’ve fully transitioned to a contactless ordering system. The menu is now on an app.

“We got a new app so we can track how many people are in the restaurant so we’re not allowing more than 50 people in the restaurant,” Armatas said.

Normally, they can seat more than 200 people. So they’re operating at 25% capacity. However, customers say they’re happy to be back. Anne Wesley says Sam’s No. 3 has been one of her favorite spots more than the past 15 years.

“We love it because neither of us are great cooks so it’s wonderful to have somebody prepare a meal for us that we would never prepare for ourselves,” Wesley said.

She says she feels completely safe.

“I mean you walk in there’s hand sanitizer right away. There’s plenty of social distancing. Our server had a mask and gloves on and so I didn’t feel in any way that our health was being compromised.”

The servers say they’ve been grateful for generous tips from customers like Wesley, especially considering they’re operating under thin margins.

“The bottom line has been crushed. The restaurant industry has been hurt quite a bit,” Armatas said.

According to the National Restaurant Association, the restaurant industry has suffered more job and sale losses than all other U.S. industries since the pandemic began. Some restaurants have permanently closed their doors. Senior Vice President Larry Lynch says those that have stayed afloat are eager to open up dining rooms again, but it will actually cost restaurant owners more.

“If you’re takeout and delivery, your cost structure has gone down some so you can at least maintain at that point. But once turn on the lights and open the doors and turn on the air conditioning and bring back the staff, your costs go up,” Lynch said.

“How much food should I bring in? How much labor can I afford?” Armatas said.

Lynch says it’s more important than ever for restaurant owners to be smart with their finances.

“The one thing they could do is manage those menus carefully. Reduce the number of offerings, make it the ones that are most popular. Limit the risk of food waste, and you’ve done a lot to bring yourself closer to profit,” Lynch said.

He wants restaurants to feel encouraged and know that they can open again it just takes a lot of work.

“It usually takes a week or two to get in and make sure everything’s operating: the refrigerators are clean, the walk-ins are clean, everything’s working properly, you get the staff back in,” Lynch said.

Once the logistics are sorted out, Armatas says owners need to remind themselves of why they opened in the first place.

“If people know that you really truly care about them and want to make their experience great, that has to be your focus. Because if your focus is money, it won’t work,” Armatas.

Whether a business stays open or not, is ultimately up to the customers.

“As a community, if we want to thrive, we have to help each other out. And by supporting local businesses, it’s a very easy way, and it’s an enjoyable way,” Wesley said.