Soaring Hopes and Stark Reality: Dining Out in 2020

We’ve all done it. We’ve all sat there and mentally picked the exact spot.

Maybe we even know exactly what we would order.

We’ve discussed it in conversations with family or friends over the phone. Perhaps we’ve refined our answer quietly, in the privacy of our own minds.

“If the pandemic ended today, what restaurant would you go to and what would you order?”

Some of us would pick a favorite local or food.

“I would belly up at a sushi bar,” Kelly Switzer of Harbor Links confided.

Woodbay’s Lorrie Belovich would head over to Craft Street Kitchen. She’d order from their specials menu and enjoy it with a smoked Bourbon Manhattan.

Some even have a very specific items they miss. “If the pandemic ended today, I’d go eat at The Library over in St Pete,” wrote Windsor Place’s Nicolas D’Ambra. “I’d start with ordering their fried brussels sprouts and their benne cauliflower. Then I’d have the mushroom pasta for dinner and tiramisu for dessert!”

Others have their eyes set out of state.

“I’d fly to Connecticut to enjoy rose pasta and garlic bread from Salute in Hartford,” Westwood Lakes resident Karin Loretz stated.

“I’d travel to San Francisco and get some pizza at a hole in the wall we love,” said Wycliff’s Melinda Lewis.

Sarah Hopkins of Village Green may have to flip a coin. Where will she be off to? “The Minnesota State Fair with my parents and husband…fresh grilled corn on the cob, fried cheese curds, sweet Martha’s cookies, and something deep-fried on a stick. Or,” she quickly added, “I would order moco loco at the Kehei Cafe in Maui.”

Still others plan to dust off their passports when countries reopen to Americans.

Elaine Brown of Keswick Forest pines for Les Onze in Paris, France. Linda Weisman of The Greens would fly to Indonesia for a proper Rijsttafel. Radcliffe’s Colleen Seitz would “eat homemade pasta at Trattoria Tritone near the Trevi Fountain in Rome.”

“I’d go to Greece and have a Greek Salad while sitting oceanside,” said Bridges resident Nicole Dolhi.

Others’ answers reflected the strong connection between humans and sharing a meal. For them, it was as much about who would be there as it was the restaurant or the food.

Erin Sullivan of West Park Village simply picked Chuck E Cheese. “I would order pizza and watch my boys play!”

Rachel Rutkowski of West Park Village would go to Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas. But she insisted that one specific person be there with her.

Her dad, a frontline nurse in the local fight against COVID-19.

The pandemic has put many of the things we took for granted on hold. And it has had an overwhelming impact on the places were people traditionally have gathered for food and fun.

As part of our annual dining survey, we asked residents how frequently they dine out or order takeout or restaurant delivery. And, while not a scientific survey, we compared this year’s answers to those from our 2017 survey, when we last asked about restaurant dining habits.

In 2017, a total of 71 percent of survey takers said they ate restaurant food between two to six times weekly; forty percent stated they did so two to three times weekly and 31 percent said it was four to six times every week. Four percent in 2017 stated they ate food prepared outside the home on average once per day while 26 percent responded that they dined out, on average, between zero to one time weekly.

In contrast, currently Westchase area residents are consuming restaurant food far less frequently. Sixty percent reported they consume restaurant food one to two times weekly while an additional 34 percent say its three to four times each week – a total of 94 percent eating restaurant food between one to four times every week. Only four percent stated they ate out or consumed takeout five or more times every week and only two percent reported eating out on average once per day.

The comparison matched what residents self-reported about their changed dining behaviors during the pandemic.

Only about one-third of Westchase residents (35 percent) report they have not changed how frequently they eat food from restaurants; four percent say they have increased their consumption. Meanwhile, 61 percent report that the pandemic has caused them to cook more for themselves at home.

Other information from our survey suggests that restaurants that overwhelmingly depend on in-person dining rather than takeout or delivery will have a rough year. Forty percent of our survey takers say they only eat take out and delivery food from restaurants now. Due to the pandemic and reports of spreading in enclosed indoor spaces, they are refusing to eat in-person at their favorite dining establishments. Three percent more report they are avoiding all restaurant food until the pandemic’s end. If you are a restaurant with limited outdoor seating options, there’s further bad news. Twenty-five percent stated they would eat take out/delivery or dine at a restaurant, but only sit outdoors. Only 31 percent of our 2020 survey takers say they feel comfortable eating inside a restaurant currently.

Amy Daner of The Greens and Chon Nguyen of Harbor Links know firsthand the struggle that restaurant owners are facing in the current environment. Along with her brother-in-law Mike and his wife Joni, Daner has owned Russo’s New York Pizzeria and Italian Kitchen in Clearwater for four years. Nguyen is part of a partnership group that owns Rooster & the Till, Nebraska Mini Mart and Gallito. He also owns Newgentek, an IT company that serves the needs of multi-unit restaurants, and a software company, Fusionprep, that manages their kitchens.

Nguyen, Daner and her husband Fred spoke at length with WOW about the challenges posed to their restaurants by the pandemic.

“We were heading right into our busy time,” said Fred, referring to spring break and the return of minor league baseball, when the pandemic shutdown occurred. A significant portion of their restaurant business is tied to corporate catering, which immediately vanished along with in-restaurant seating. “The biggest hit for us was losing the corporate catering business,” said Amy.

Across the board, Nguyen’s businesses also took an economic hit, causing significant stress. “We had to quickly close down all the restaurants and reduce our headcount unfortunately,” he said. Ultimately his group had to lay off 30 folks. “We were able to bring some folks back to operate the to-go concept. We did that until we were able to reopen.”

The Daners said their particular restaurant concept offered some protection from the severe hit other restaurants took. They observed that smaller restaurants with a significant percent of their sales already tied to takeout or delivery were better able to survive the shutdown than many higher end establishments whose business is entirely tied to in-person dining.

“We were preparing,” said Fred of the pandemic and reactions to it. “We could tell where it was heading.”

He added, “The one thing fortunate for us and our concept, Italian and pizza, is well suited for delivery and to-go. In a matter of three days we transitioned to a fully off-premise restaurant.”

The family extended their delivery and replaced a portion of their corporate catering business by doing neighborhood catering in places like Westchase.

Amy Daner stated they knew that their tip-dependent staff would take a financial hit under the new model. “We did shift the way they were compensated so they did not lose money,” she said.

Restaurants without established takeout or delivery business faced harder adjustments.

“Rooster & the Till is full service and we did no to-go pre-Covid,” said Nguyen, “so we had to pivot very quickly.”

His group decided, during the total shutdown, to operate all three restaurants and their menus out of the one kitchen at Rooster & the Till in a to-go format. With seating now still limited to 50 percent of capacity, pressure remains to generate sales in new ways. “We’re also doing Sunday suppers, family style meals, to try to boost sales. We’re getting creative,” he said.

One of the challenges for many restaurants that pivoted to to-go and delivery has been the costs associated with third-party companies like DoorDash and Uber Eats. Third party delivery platforms take 30 percent of the sale. “That’s a significant piece,” acknowledged Nguyen.

With the return of in-restaurant dining capped at 50 percent of seating, business has returned but it’s not what it used to be. “I think we’re roughly down about 30 percent right now,” said Nguyen.

One important helping hand for many restaurants was the federal government’s PPP program, which helped cover salaries and a portion of utilities and rent over two and a half months. “We got it and used it and it allowed us to bring people back and reopen smoothly,” said Nguyen. “It did what it was intended to do.”

With the return to in-person dining, the Daners said business has come back. Over the summer, they were even able to cut back on neighborhood delivery. Fred Daner said the restaurant even saw vacation traffic in July.

Amy Daner said of her restaurant’s current staff levels. “It might be slightly less because we don’t need as many servers.”

With her restaurant expecting the pandemic downturn in corporate catering to persist well into next year, Amy Daner said Russo’s plans on promoting catering to homes again to make up for the usually busy corporate catering holiday season.

The Daners said that while the initial impact of the pandemic provoked periods of great stress, their ability to pivot given their restaurant’s healthy takeout and delivery sales, made all the difference. “Once we saw we could operate in this model, it took a lot of the initial stress and concern off.”

The Daners’ restaurant hires a lot of college-aged help, which, given the age group’s continued socializing during the pandemic, has always caused some angst. Their main worry now is safety and health. “We’ve been very concerned about our team staying safe and customers staying safe,” said Amy.

The Daners admit to even cutting back at their own dining out in restaurants. “Safety is number one what you do,” said Fred. While they’ve eaten out at a few spots, they cancelled a dinner with friends when they entered a Palm Harbor restaurant and found that it completely full. The restaurant they visited was not respecting the state’s fifty percent capacity limit. “We walked out,” he said.

For Nguyen, who owns both restaurants and companies that service them, the pandemic served up an economic double-whammy. “From a stress level, being so heavily invested in the hospitality vertical, it was a very uncertain time,” he said. “Now things are trending upward, fortunately. But there were a lot of sleepless nights.”

Nguyen expects the financial impact on restaurants and businesses serving them to last at least another year, but scars will remain. “I’m expecting it to have long-lasting impacts across all of my businesses,” he said.

“I think there will be a lot less seats in the market,” he observed. “The number of places you can go will be significantly reduced.”

Fred Daner, who holds a corporate job, says the family thinks things will stay challenging for restaurants. “We think we’re in this probably for at least six more months,” he said. “Until there is a vaccine and people feel relatively safe, you’re going to see the stagnation we’re currently in.”

The Daners are grateful for the restaurant niche they are in. Fred said of restaurants whose niche is fine dining. “I think they’re in real trouble.” Citing the combined facts that most cannot make a go at takeout and that restaurants eke out very small profit margins after paying for food, staff and rent, Daner said, “I think you’re going to see 50 percent of restaurants close.” He added “A restaurant that is predominantly dine in can’t make it work at 50 percent dining.”

Taking the long view, the Daners expect that the pandemic will permanently change the way Americans consume food from restaurants. “People really enjoy delivery,” observed Amy.

The Daners also expect small restaurants to do better and they believe the days of restaurants with 150-200 seats are largely over.

Given restaurants’ low profit margins, higher end restaurants that focus on the full dining experience face another challenge. The Daners and Nguyen both acknowledged that everyone in the restaurant industry worries about consumers’ demands for lower prices. You can see it in fast food chains’ obsession with value meals. The value trend has triggered such great consumer demand for lower prices that it’s difficult to run higher quality food service without compromising quality and good service. “People will have to decide if they’re comfortable paying higher prices to dine out and support local restaurants they value,” said Nguyen.

Yet for Nguyen, not all is bleak. “The people that can make it will be in a better position coming out of this,” he said. “There will be a lot of opportunity on the other side.”

He stated this his ownership group was fortunate that they opened in areas like Seminole Heights, which allowed them to keep their rents low. It’s been key to weathering the current storm. “Unfortunately, that’s not true for other opportunities,” Nguyen said.

Much of the future of dining now comes down to the folks who are voting with their mouths and wallets. If you have favorite dine-in restaurants you want to survive the current COVID-scarred economy, it’s now, more than ever, essential that you support them.

One easy way for diners to ensure that more dollars stay in the struggling restauranteurs’ pockets?

Forgo the third-party delivery services like Uber Eats and DoorDash, which eat 30 percent of a restaurants’ profits. Instead, jump in your car, and give your favorite restaurants a fighting chance by picking up your order instead.

So that when the pandemic is over, your favorite bistro in Paris or favorite dish in St. Pete are still there, allowing your post-pandemic dining fantasy come true.

Restaurant Summaries 2020

WOW thanks the following restaurants for helping to bring you WOW’s Dining Special.

Hooters
(813) 885-3916
The place to be for great seafood, signature burgers, sandwiches, specialty salads, ice cold beer, a full liquor bar and our world-famous chicken wings served with our signature sauces.

PDQ
(813) 864-6760
Award-winning hand-breaded chicken tenders, hand-crafted sandwiches, made-to-order salads, all made fresh in store every day, along with signature sauces and dressings, and hand-spun milkshakes.

Wild Rover
(813) 475-5995
Wild Rover has a new head chef, a new menu, new daily specials, and an overall newly reimagined dining experience for customers: The Barn!

The restaurant listings represent paid advertisements in conjunction with WOW’s Dining Special. Paid advertising is not an endorsement by WOW, Inc.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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