Sussex County restaurants getting prepared for restart

Steve Akoglu, co-owner of the Georgetown Family Restaurant, points to seating restrictions that will be in effect with the June 1 reopening phase for restaurants. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

SUSSEX COUNTY — The countdown is underway for Monday’s Phase 1 economic reopening that allows Delaware restaurants and other retail businesses to open at 30% fire code occupancy — with social distancing and public health guidelines in place.

Scott Kammerer, president of SoDel Concepts that encompasses a dozen restaurants from Rehoboth to Fenwick Island and several catering operations, is counting on customer trust and patience to help the transition.

“We’re in a little different position than most other restaurants in the state because we have a big support system. So, I think a lot of smaller restaurants in Delaware, I am going to ask that people be patient and take their time, and when they come in to eat to really look at it like everyone is on the same team,” said Mr. Kammerer. “We’re trying to get back to what we are all used to, and it is just going to take a little bit of time and patience and for people to support each other.”

Georgetown Family Restaurant co-owner Steve Akoglu isn’t as optimistic.

“I mean, we don’t have any clue,” said Mr. Akjoglu. “Thirty percent of capacity, which is what … every other table? I don’t have any clue.”

Ken Adams, whose business interests include JD Shuckers in Georgetown’s College Park and the Stockley Tavern on U.S. 113 between Georgetown and Millsboro, also has some reservations.

“I’m not sure — I can only speak for myself being a novice in the restaurant business — but I don’t know many businesses or restaurants that will tell you that they can be profitable at 30 percent, running 30 percent seating,” said Mr. Adams. “It is a step in the right direction.”

Mr. Kammerer believes he speaks for countless others in anticipating a successful Delaware restaurant rebound.

“I think a lot of the restaurants are really nervous about opening back up because of the restrictions,” he said.

“But I think that there has always been a really great trust between guests and restaurants because when times are good, you go to the restaurants. When you’re upset, you go to restaurants. When you celebrate a promotion, you go to restaurants. So, restaurants are part of people’s lives and I think you’ll continue to see that. I think that Delaware restaurants are going to be incredible again, in a short amount of time and that people just need to be patient right now to work through these phases and then do it in a safe and responsible manner.

JD Shuckers in Georgetown will undergo additional, extensive sanitation prior to the June 1 reopening phase that will allow dine-in customers through reservations – at 30-percent fire code occupancy. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

“After being home for two-and-a-half months I realized that I really can’t cook at home and I really need restaurants. So, I did carryout just about every night personally. But I am truly looking forward to going back out to eat in restaurants.”

Mr. Akoglu, whose business closed in mid-March and reopened for pick-up orders about two weeks ago, has not decided if he will open the restaurant to dine-in patrons. He may continue to carry on with pick-up and carry-out business until restrictions are relaxed and conditions are more accommodating.

“I haven’t made up my mind yet,” he said. “I do not know exactly what is going on. I don’t know what we are going to do.”

Reopening under the Phase 1 guidelines will likely incur additional cost, Mr. Akoglu said.

“And they have a lot of regulations; special cleaning products on the table, paper plates, utensils, disposable items, no salt and pepper shakers on the tables,” he said. “I don’t know if I want to do that or not. I might just keep doing pick-up. I might not take any customers in.”

Mr. Adams echoed those concerns. “We usually have the little caddy that you put on the tables, that have the ketchup, mustard, napkins, the salt and the pepper, all that stuff,” he said. “Well, you can’t have it. What we’ve got to do is we’ve got to give out single-use packages.”

Establishments like his Stockley Tavern are impacted by restrictions on bar seating.

“You can’t sit at the bar. For us, we can only have 25 people inside, but they granted us outdoor seating permits, which we are applying for now. But we can’t exceed our original fire marshal number. We could put like 50 outside,” said Mr. Adams. “But that is still dependent on the weather — a rainy day or a cool day or windy, whatever …”

As part of the guidelines, Gov. John Carney is allowing restaurants to apply to modify outdoor seating plans to counter the reduction of dine-in patrons. To support local restaurants, the town of Georgetown blocked off a portion of South Race Street and placed four picnic tables on the street for outside dining options.

At JD Shuckers, Mr. Adams estimates 30% occupancy equates to about 70 dine-in patrons.

“So, you can get to your original fire marshal number by having seats outside, if you can do it. But it’s all by reservation, too, so …,” said Mr. Adams. “That is the rules on the restaurants and bars and all, it’s all by reservation. I guess they are trying to eliminate people waiting to get inside, having people congregate, people standing around trying to get in the restaurant.”

For JD Shuckers, opening may require increased staff, with designated duties for busboys, expos and servers.

“We’re going to have our bus people that are only bus people. They are the only ones that touch dirty dishes,” Mr. Adams said. “We’re going to have expos. Servers won’t touch plates, which is not normal because normal servers are clearing tables and everything. But to try to separate everything we’re going to have to staff up heavier than normal to do what we need to do.”

“We’ve got the sanitation stations. Our sinks are hands-free now. Our paper towel dispensers are hands-free. You’re going to have markings on the floor to keep your distance. We have to have a traffic pattern. You come in a certain door, go out a certain door,” said Mr. Adams. “It will be interesting.”

The Stockley Tavern, a popular pitstop for dining and socializing, has been operating with carryout service during the COVID-19 pandemic. Come June 1, the business on U.S. 113 south of Georgetown will be allowed about 25 dine-in patrons, through reservation, with possibly twice that many more through outdoor seating with permit approval. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

Mr. Kammerer labeled the COVID-19 shutdown “one of the most traumatic and really cataclysmal events in Delaware restaurant history. We have 2,000 independent restaurants in the state of Delaware and all of them were shut down on the same day for dining in the restaurants.”

“One of the things that has really come out of this is that I personally have been really humbled and amazed by is the support the community has given us,” said Mr. Kammerer. “Our contactless carry-out, curbside pickup was just incredible. We did 50 percent of what we would normally do in the dining rooms through the period. The guests really responded well. They really enjoyed the curbside, so we’re going to keep doing it through the whole summer. You can order online and pick it up at the curb.”

During the shutdown, SoDel Concepts establishments also prepared many meals for first responders and correctional officers, as well as staging a huge fundraiser for Beebe Healthcare.

“So for us it was really business as usual on that front. That’s what really made me feel better about us and what we were doing is that we were able to continue to give back to the community, and the community came to the restaurants and supported us,” said Mr. Kammerer. “So, for that I am eternally grateful.”

Typically, at this time of the year, SoDel’s workforce stands at about 1,500 employees. In mid-March it was about half that.

“We had 750 the day before the shutdown, and we went down to about 100. Now we are back up to 750. But normally this time of year we would be closer to 1,500 and by the middle of summer we’d be around 2,000,” Mr. Kammerer said. “So, we’re still ramping up. We’re hoping to get back to 1,500 here pretty soon and then back to 2,000 once it’s in the middle of the summer.”

For JD Shuckers and Stockley Tavern, professional sanitation will precede dine-in business reopening.

“We do our sanitizing daily. We follow all the sanitation guidelines as it is,” Mr. Adams said. “But we’re going to have a professional firm come in and do both buildings entirely, so we’re starting fresh and clean before we open up.”

He remains hopeful things will progress.

“As long as the numbers keep doing like the numbers are doing, I think we’ll get to Phase 2 pretty quick,” Mr. Adams. “We’ll see how it goes. It will definitely be better than it was two weeks ago. We’ll deal with the hand that is dealt us and we’ll keep moving.”

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

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