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‘Long road to hope’

Restaurants talk challenges during virus shutdowns
Wednesday, April 15, 2020
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Leader photo by CALEB DANIEL

Local restaurants like The Dawg House Sports Grill, pictured above, are having to survive without dine-in business as coronavirus mitigation measures in Louisiana are now almost a month old.

The first wave of coronavirus mitigation measures in Louisiana is almost a month old. Even while being tapped as essential businesses, local restaurants are struggling under the changes.

Dine-in services were nixed on March 16, leaving eateries to introduce or expand their takeout, drive-thru and delivery options in an effort to make up the difference.

A March 25 study from the National Restaurant Association stated that as many as 11% of restaurant operators nationwide may have to permanently close their doors as a result of the pandemic.

While many establishments in the Ruston area have found ways to continue operating, owners say the going has not been easy. “It’s a total morph of your entire business, when you’ve been doing something for 21 years and all of a sudden nobody is coming through your doors or sitting at your bar,” said Danielle Davis, owner of The Dawg House Sports Grill in Ruston.

Dawg House has remained open throughout the coronavirus changes, offering to-go and delivery options, but Davis estimates the business is down 60- 70% in sales, which she describes as “almost catastrophic.”

“We’re trying to keep our costs as low as possible so that we essentially zero out every month,” she said. “We’re going to try to stay in it for the long haul. Hopefully we’re on a countdown, but even when the reopen happens, I don’t know what that looks like.”

The same National Restaurant Association study reported that eatery sales nationwide were down 47% during the period from March 1 to March 22.

Pixie Kees, owner of Hot Rod Bar-B-Q, said business was down just over 18% for the month of March this year compared to March 2019, but that April could be worse.

“I have a lot of sitdown business, guys who work and come in,” she said. “But the drive-thru has helped me tremendously. I’m luckier than most.”

But direct loss of revenue isn’t the only effect of the virus mitigation efforts.

“I’ve got a lot of young mothers who work for me, and now their childcare is closed,” Kees said.

“They’re having to file unemployment because they can’t work the hours they want.”

Both owners said they’ve had to drastically reduce hours for their employees, with Dawg House converting servers into delivery drivers to help keep them working.

“My goal in all this is to keep my (workers) employed,” Kees said.

Both businesses have filed or are in the process of filing for Paycheck Protection Program loans through the Small Business Administration, but expressed concern about meeting the requirements to get the loans forgiven. According to the SBA website, 75% of the loan amount must be used on payroll to be fully forgiven, and forgiveness will be reduced if full-time headcount declines.

And that all depends on sales coming back. Kees said restaurants were “hit hard” by the new 1.75% tax on restaurants that went into effect last year to fund construction on the Ruston Sports Complex, and now because of the virus, the expected added business from visitors coming to play on those ballfields won’t be happening for a while.

“What happens in April and May?” she said. “You’ve (normally) got teacher appreciation weeks and kids starting baseball… All in all, it’s not easy on small businesses.”

Most of the mitigation measures in Louisiana are currently set to expire on April 30, but Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Monday he will be extending closure of K-12 public schools through the end of the academic year in May. Other extensions may follow in the coming days.

Another problem some restaurants face is breakdowns in supply chains.

“I use a food servicegrade glove, and they’re hard to find,” Kees said. “So I’m having to scramble to use something different or more expensive until suppliers can get it back.

And my food suppliers — I’m having to deal with everything online, and then you get the produce and it’s not as fresh as it should be.”

Facing these and other related struggles as the new reality of coronavirus continues to unfold, all restaurants, like many other businesses, can do is try to stay afloat until the the situation changes.

“I can adapt if I have to,” Kees said. “It’s not easy, but you do what you have to do. Every day you try to find that new normal again.”

And until that new normal is found, owners say the community must continue to support one another.

“Support your local businesses as much as possible,” Davis said. “It’s going to be a long road to hope, but hopefully we’ll all get better in the end.”