Despite frustrations, Dover eateries eager to reopen

33 West owner Brandon Pelton and employee April Miller move a table in the downtown Dover restaurant on Wednesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Finney)

DOVER — Forget about profit margins, some Dover restaurant owners say they are just hoping to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic against long odds fueled by regulations the government hopes will stop the spread of the virus.

“The rules keep changing and they’re not really stated (very well). I’m very frustrated,” said Ashley Figueroa, one of the owners of the Touchdown Restaurant at 1666 S. Dupont Highway in Dover. “I’m ready to take the mask off and start living a normal life again and having normal business operations — letting people shoot pool, bands, karaoke and all of that.”

Those restaurant rules, which had limited restaurants to takeout and delivery orders only, will change Monday when Gov. John Carney’s Phase 1 of Delaware’s economic reopening takes effect at 8 a.m.

Restaurants will be able to open their indoor spaces at 30% of their building’s fire capacity and customers will have to make reservations if they want to dine-in. There will be face masks and social-distancing requirements for extra space between tables and booths, and customers will not be able to sit at bars.

“You’ll see a good wave of restaurants closing come August and September,” said Brandon Pelton, owner of 33 West Ale House and Grill at 33 W. Loockerman Street in Dover.

Gov. Carney repeatedly has defended the rules as a way to balance keeping the public healthy and answering the needs of businesses.

“We’re all ready to get our economy going again, and to spend more time with our friends and loved ones,” Gov. Carney said in a statement. “Since Day 1 of this crisis, Delaware’s response to COVID-19 has been driven by the science. We can’t have a healthy, functioning economy again until our communities are healthy.

“There is good news. Delawareans have worked together, stayed home, and saved lives. Your actions have driven down cases and hospitalizations statewide. That will help us reopen Delaware’s economy safely in the coming weeks — while protecting the most vulnerable Delawareans.”

A moving target

Frustration is the key word among many restaurant owners, who feel as if they are being set up for failure if only allowed to operate at 30% capacity.

Diana Welch shut down the Grey Fox Grille and Public House at 140 S. State St. in Dover after Gov. Carney issued his original state of emergency declaration in March.

“We’re going to gradually expand and see where we are and see how we can pull it off,” Ms. Welch said. “Actually, pulling the switch and shutting everything down is easy. Restarting that engine is very, very costly. We gave away in wholesale dollars probably $3,500 worth of food we donated because it was going to go bad (at the time of the March shutdown).”

Since closing the business, she has taken time to paint, trim and do a lot of deep cleaning. She plans to reopen the Grey Fox on June 5 for dinner only and plans on being open Fridays and Saturdays before expanding to add Sunday brunch.

“One of the reasons we’re expanding slowly is because we’re not out of the woods,” Ms. Welch said. “Just because we’re open doesn’t mean people will come. So, we’re very concerned with what our capacity is going to be. I know we have a 30 percent limit on capacity, which means I’m basically going to have the same number of staff. But I can only have 30 percent of my capacity in their seats.”

33 West owner Brandon Pelton carries a table out of the dining room in his downtown restaurant in Dover on Wednesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Ms. Welch said she does have a couple of secret weapons that work slightly in her favor, such as two floors of dining areas that help create social distancing, and an outdoor patio, which can also accommodate guests.

“In a place like this, it’s not as difficult because we have an upstairs and a downstairs, so we can spread people out a little better, and according to the governor’s guidelines we have to take reservations and it just places an incredible burden on us,” said Ms. Welch. “A (food) business is already a very difficult business on any given day. If you’re a restaurant and you’re doing a 10 to 12 percent profit margin, you’re doing great.

“Now, you can’t make a profit because even if you fill your capacity at 30 percent, I’ll have food left over because you never know what (customers are) going to order. One of the things we’re doing is reducing our menu so we don’t have to have as many prepared things, since I’m not going to be open until the next Friday, that could go bad.”

Ms. Welch said she had to release all 18 members of her staff in March, but all but one of those employees have committed to returning.

Meanwhile, Mr. Pelton, just down the street in downtown Dover, said he is facing long odds just to survive at 33 West.

He started doing takeout orders from Tuesday through Saturday last week just to get ready for June.

“There are some days that are busier than others, but it’s still a struggle,” Mr. Pelton said. “It’s not like I’m out on the highway. Location doesn’t help … I think other places on the highway are doing better and I’m not really geared for takeout. I know a lot of the other places that are geared for takeout are doing better … Italian joints and a lot of the Mexican places.”

Mr. Pelton said he is trying to roll with the punches — but keeps getting hit.

“It’s a whole new business model,” he said. “I’ve changed the menu quite a bit and I’m just trying low-cost items because you’ve got meat shortages and (the cost of) beef’s through the roof. So you try to do stuff that’s quick and easy and low-cost because my business model is out the window. So there’s no way to really plan or forecast. You don’t know how scared the general public’s going to be.”

“You just can’t cut your revenues in half and expect to make it for a long period of time.”

The Touchdown Restaurant in South Dover is accustomed to having spirited crowds gathered there and watching sporting events, playing pool and listening to local musicians.

Now, it’s a different world.

Ms. Figueroa said they had to let 10 employees go while they made the transition to a takeout operation in March.

“It’s been pretty tough,” she said. “There have been a lot of regulations and rules. We’ve been offering takeout since the governor told us we had to. It’s been a big change. Thank goodness we have DoorDash (a food delivery service), so that’s been helping.”

Ms. Welch, Mr. Pelton and Ms. Figueroa didn’t seem very confident in the reduced capacity business model.

“Absolutely not,” Mr. Pelton said of whether he can survive for long under the new regulations. “Basically, the only way I’m able to operate right now is through the PPE Loan and that’s basically giving you free payroll. So all the revenue that I’m generating I just have my food costs.

“Hopefully, I’ll get forgiveness. If I don’t get forgiveness, then there’s no way I’ll make it. Even if I do get forgiveness, I don’t know if I’ll make it or not.”

Ms. Welch said the new rules will impact many more people than just the business owners. Servers will only be making 30% of what they were making before the shutdown.

“The goal is to open up, knowing that we’re not going to make money at first but hoping that we do,” she said. “The question always becomes how long can we sustain it? How long can you sustain a non-profitable situation? I guess we’ll know the answer soon enough.”

Ms. Figueroa said allowing people inside of the restaurants is at least “a start,” but not necessarily a “good sign.”

“It’s a start,” said Ms. Figueroa. “A good sign would be letting people sit at the bar, even though they could still sit six-feet apart. That would be good. Making reservations … that’s a little tough.

“We’ll find out how it all works out. It seems like we’re doing so well and doing so well and, all of a sudden, the rug is pulled out from under your feet and you’re like. ‘Ah! Time to readjust.’ It’s frustrating to say the least.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

Have a question, tip, or resources about the coronavirus pandemic? Submit it to our newsroom and we’ll do what we can to provide answers.