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Sit-down eating returns outside

Restaurants talk outdoor dining, future plans
Tuesday, May 5, 2020
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Leader photos by CALEB DANIEL

Brister’s Smokehouse BBQ owner Chris Brister mans the walk-up window Friday afternoon. Brister’s opened its outdoor dining area Friday as Louisiana’s new stay-at-home order allows that option.

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Bill Baker places an order at the walk-up window at Brister’s Friday afternoon.

Several Ruston restaurants opened outdoor dining options for customers on Friday as the latest iteration of the stay-at-home order is just a bit kinder to local eateries than the last.

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ original order in mid-March, made in response to the growing spread of the novel coronavirus, shuttered dine-in services across the state, limiting restaurants to delivery, drive-thru and take-out options.

But the latest extended stay-at-home order that took effect Friday allows for sit-down dining outdoors, and local restaurants are taking advantage as the gradual return to normalcy continues.

Take-out customers at Brister’s Smokehouse BBQ can now sit down to eat their food at the spaced-out tables on the restaurant’s north-side deck. There’s also a nearby window for walk-up orders, with tape placed 10 feet apart to spread out customers.

Owner Chris Brister said the barbecue joint was down roughly 45-55% of its business in the first week of the coronavirus shutdown, but sales have slowly increased, with business now down 20-25% compared to normal.

“I guess people are tired of sitting in their homes,” he said.

While outdoor dining is now an option under the current order that runs until May 15, restaurants are restricted from providing direct table service, so customers must still obtain their food through take-out, drive-thru or delivery. Employees must wear masks.

Champs Sports Restaurant and Bar in downtown Ruston opened its outdoor tables Friday, some facing Trenton Street and another facing West Park Avenue. General manager Jennifer Pyles said the seating saw a healthy response from visitors in its first few days.

“There’s a lot more that are starting to come out,” she said. “It’s nice to start seeing faces again.”

Pyles said Champs has gained a new customer base through delivery and curbside services during this period of coronavirus closures, and she anticipates outdoor dining will help bolster business as well. Even so, she said total sales are only around 25% of what they were normally.

The Dawg House Sports Grill also provided outdoor seating on Friday by spacing tables out around the center of its parking lot. A patio on the restaurant’s east side is also in the works for additional seating. Patrons must order at the bar and come back inside to request refills and other services.

If Edwards deems the state is ready to move into Phase 1 of reopening the economy after the stay-at-home order expires, he said restaurants will be allowed to open their dining rooms to 25% of their normal legal capacity during that phase.

Dawg House owner Danielle Davis said she expects her restaurant will be able to open dinein under those restrictions, as the new outdoor areas will add to the total available seating.

“We are prepared to do anything we have to do to maintain our business,” Davis said. “We’ve made it this far, and I think we’re just going to keep on trucking.”

Pyles said she expects Champs will also be open for dine-in once the state enters Phase 1, noting she could still seat some 20-25 people with proper spacing under a 25% restriction.

But Brister said the Phase 1 rules may not prove feasible for his business to open its dining space.

“I don’t think we’re going to be interested in opening back up at 25%,” he said. “We’ve got enough seating outside, and the weather has been nice. With the 25%, I’ve got to staff up by two or three more people, and it doesn’t justify the cost at that point. Once we get to 50%, then we’ll start.”

Thanks in part to several college-age employees going home when Louisiana Tech University transitioned to online classes, Brister’s has been able to avoid laying off any staff.

It was recently approved for a Paycheck Protection Program to help with payroll, and Brister said he should be able to meet the staffing level requirements for the loan to be forgiven.

While the governor has given some indications of the upcoming requirements for businesses once the stay-at-home order is lifted, local owners are still unsure what exactly the reopening process will look like.

“You get a different answer each time the question is asked,” Brister said. “We’re just trying to do what we can by the rules that have been put out in front of us and hoping we’re doing it the correct way.”