Tampa Bay Restaurants Reopen at 50% capacity

May 25, 2020

By Tiffany Razzano

With Florida currently experiencing a full Phase 1 reopening, many restaurants, now allowed to operate at 50% capacity, reopened their doors ahead of Memorial Day weekend.

While there is still much uncertainty in the air, there is also a sense of hope, said Mike Malacos, co-owner of Inn on the Gulf in Hudson.

“We’re steady,” he said. “People are out and they’re eating. The hotel is steady as well. It’s starting to pick up. We’ll be back to normal soon. I’m very confident that we’ll be back to normal. The money we should have made this year, that’s gone, but I’m very optimistic we’ll be back to normal. I’m confident we’ll be back to 100%.”

Sales for the hotel and restaurant combined dropped 75% in April, Malacos said. The restaurant already had an online ordering system in place when dine-in service at all Florida eateries was shut down by Gov. Ron DeSantis last month, though. This “put us ahead of the curve” when transitioning to takeout only, he added.

“We stayed open for takeout, which went ok,” he said. “We made some adjustments to stay open. Sales weren’t nearly what they would be if we were completely open, but we tried to keep as many people that wanted to work working.”

Early in Phase 1, when restaurants could only operate at 25% capacity, Inn at the Gulf utilized its large patio and moved tables outdoors to other areas of the property to accommodate additional diners.

“That was the one fortunate thing with us. We have the hotel, so we were able to take some of our tables and move them a little further down our property,” Malacos said. “That helped us bounce back faster. We’ve been steady. A lot of people are sick of this and want to get back to normal lives. They want to get back to enjoying themselves.”

Meanwhile, down the road in Port Richey, Sal Argento, owner of Argento’s Italian Bistro, said there’s a long road to recovery ahead of him, but he’s confident his restaurant will bounce back.

Argento’s Patio Area

“We’re still strong. We’re a household name and when this crap is over, we’ll be back stronger than ever,” he said. “Until then, it’s a struggling game. We’re just taking it day by day. Before this happened, I wasn’t worried about today. I wasn’t even worried about tomorrow. Everything was great. Now, I have to worry about today and tomorrow.”

Argento shut down the restaurant March 20 through April 7, when he reopened for takeout only. He continued offering only takeout even when restaurants could operate at 25% capacity.

“At that point, I couldn’t even think about opening,” he said. When capacity increased to 50%, he decided to open his doors to some diners at that point. “I had to just to survive.”

He credits his loyal, regular customers with keeping his business alive.

“We’ve been in this neighborhood for 25 years,” he said. “People love us, and people took care of us and we did very well. As I’ve told all my friends that are in business, we’re strong. We’ll survive.”

Argento’s Bar Area

In Ybor City, Jason Fernandez, owner of Historic Hospitality, which owns and operates Bernini of Ybor, Carne Chophouse and Tequilas, said he’s “fortunate and very pleased to be open.”

He added, “I’m not profitable, but I’m not bleeding like I was.”

While all three restaurants closed for seven weeks during the pandemic – without offering takeout during that period – only Tequilas and Bernini reopened at 25% capacity in the first week of Phase 1. Carne Chophouse already has a difficult time during summer months because there is less corporate travel to the area, he said. “We’re in no rush to open that one. We’re slow rolling that one.”

As part of Tampa’s Lift Up Local Economic Recovery Plan, the city relaxed zoning regulations, including shutting down streets in certain neighborhoods, to allow restaurants to temporarily expand their outdoor seating and to serve more diners.

Fernandez’ businesses benefitted greatly from this program, which shut down 7th Avenue between 15th Street and 21st Street.

“It worked so well for me,” he said.

As this program comes to an end in Phase 2, he’s worried about how it might affect business.

“Instead of moving forward, it’s going backwards for us,” Fernandez said. “At Bernini, I can’t add many more tables if we lose the outside seating. It’s going to hurt us, but (the program) didn’t benefit all of our neighbors in Ybor City.”

Some already have large patios to seat extra diners. These are spaces they pay annual taxes for, he said, while other restaurants did well-serving takeout meals before the streets were shut down.

Still, he said, “We’re happy that we’re back open. We’re happy with the way this (city’s) administration, our neighborhood chambers, and so forth have handled things. There’s been a lot of confusing information to decipher, and with their leadership, it went well overall for us.”

The iconic Columbia Restaurant Group, which operates eateries throughout the state, has opted for a tiered reopening over the past week-and-a-half, said Michael Kilgore, marketing and public relations manager.

Until now, Goody Goody Burgers has been the only restaurant under the CRG umbrella in operation, serving takeout orders only since early April.

Restaurateur Richard Gonzmart, President of Columbia Restaurant Group

“Of all our concepts, Goody Goody is a diner. It makes sense,” Kilgore said, adding that it originally opened in 1925 as the first drive-in east of the Mississippi River. “It has a history as a diner doing takeout service. We went back to its roots, really. Its food is sort of suited for that.”

The restaurant group’s other concepts don’t translate as well to takeout, he said. “Food is a huge component, but it’s also about the experience of going to Columbia or Ulele. It’s the atmosphere. The music, the art, the service, the architecture. It’s all really, really important.”

With no accessible windows or drive-throughs, many of these locations also aren’t set up to easily serve takeout orders, he added.

So, CRG’s ownership took “a very deliberate approach to reopening,” Kilgore said. “We wanted to make sure both our guests and our staff members all were going to be assured they were safe and healthy. We didn’t open as quickly as we could have. We took a wait-and-see attitude to see if cases were indeed declining and to learn from what other people did.”

In St. Armand’s Circle, Cha Cha Coconuts was its first concept to reopen May 15 followed by the Columbia in Sarasota on May 18. Ulele reopened its doors on May 20, followed by the Columbia locations in Ybor City (May 21), Clearwater Beach (May 22), and St. Augustine (May 25). The Columbia in Celebration, near Orlando, will open June 1.

All staff members will wear masks and will have dedicated tasks. There will also be social distancing between tables, Kilgore said. “We want people to feel confident they can eat out and have safety not be an issue. Because of our history and the reach of our restaurant group, we thought people would look to us as leaders.”

The first Columbia Restaurant opened its doors in 1905. With such a rich history, the fourth-generation family-owned restaurant has seen it all over the years.

“As the oldest restaurant in Florida, we’ve gone through something like this before. Not long after we opened in Ybor City, the Spanish flu pandemic swept through,” Kilgore said. “We have a lot of years of experience in dealing with things like that. Plus, Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War I, World War II.”

Still, the closure of CRG’s concepts has been “surreal,” he added. “The Columbia is open 365 days a year. We’ve never been closed this long before.”

As their restaurants reopen, “It’s been heartwarming to see not only the numbers of people coming back, but the enthusiasm with which they return,” he said.

Many of their regular customers have frequented the Columbia for years, Kilgore said. “We’ve been around so long and served generations. It’s where people come for birthdays and anniversaries and wedding parties and celebrations of life.”

It is also where people turn during darker times, he said. “In previous types of crises, the Columbia was able to serve people. People would seek us out and try to find solace in the restaurant and commune with us, and with this pandemic, that was denied to us in our communities. That was as big as not being able to open our doors and serve food. We weren’t able to open our doors and serve solace and hope. That’s what we do. It feels really wonderful to open our doors again.”

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