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Sep
29

Restaurants welcome more diners indoors as capacity increases to 50%

September 29, 2020

Source, The Mercury, Donna Rovins

Restrictions on restaurants in Pennsylvania began to ease a bit this week as indoor dining capacity was increased to 50 percent — welcome news for restaurants that have struggled throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

While the increase is seen as a good first step, restaurant owners say it’s not enough.

“The problem is, we are driving hard-working business people out of business. It is not just the restaurant industry, it is all the people that supply restaurants — cleaning services, marketing people, suppliers,” said Jim Creed, owner of Creed’s Seafood and Steaks in King of Prussia, a business he has owned for 38 years.

“The bottom line is, we have to get it back to 100 percent,” he said

Conrad Flynn, general manager of J.J. Ratigan Brewing Company in Pottstown, said the timing is right.

“Outside has always been a major way to overcome the shortfall in seating. The timing for the 50-percent change is great because it’s getting chillier in the evening, and a lot of people will lean toward indoor as opposed to outdoor seating. Now is the time of year people want to be inside,” he said.

Eric Goldstein is the executive director of King of Prussia District. He said the increase is an important step for the restaurant industry, but cautions against moving too quickly.

“Although it would be incredible to just open everything back up, it’s important to not get ahead of the data and the science. I trust that this phased and gradual reopening plan is the best approach so that we avoid, to the extent possible, the need for a total shutdown again in the future,” he said.

“The restaurants have done a remarkable job in trying to work around a lot of challenges,” said Mike Bowman, president and CEO of the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board. “What they have had to endure has been tough. I feel for them.

“But we have to get things right, we can’t move too fast.”

Restaurant owners that plan to increase increasing their indoor dining capacity must self-certify, by Oct. 5, that they will be in compliance with state guidelines, according to an order signed by Gov. Tom Wolf and Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine on Sept. 21.

Flynn said the ability to increase from 25 percent to 50 percent capacity has no impact on J.J. Ratigan Brewing. Because of the social distancing required for seating in the space, “both 50 percent and 25 percent are more than we can seat.”

According to Flynn, 50-percent capacity at J.J. Ratigan is 160 people. The restaurant currently has seating for 55 patrons.

Dave Finch, general manager at Creed’s, said he has already completed the application for self-certification for the restaurant, and is waiting for some materials to be sent from the state.

Finch said without restrictions indoor capacity at Creed’s is 180 patrons, so 50-percent capacity allows for 90 people inside based on the property’s fire code. He currently has seating for 80 patrons inside.

Combined with the outside seating, Finch said the restaurant is operating at pretty close to full capacity.

“With the two together, I am only about 20 seats short,” he said. “We are operating essentially at the same level as if there were no restrictions.”

One of the issues according to Flynn is the ongoing order that patrons cannot be seated at the bar. Flynn questions why patrons can’t be seated at the bar — if social distancing guidelines and rules on serving alcohol with meals are followed.

Legislation that would have relaxed the bar seating ban and meal requirement was passed by the Pennsylvania House and Senate last week — legislation Gov. Wolf has pledged he will veto. As of Friday afternoon, the governor had not yet taken that step.

Over the past six months, many restaurants have pivoted their business operations to adjust to the restrictions.

Creed said he proactively added a tent in the spring, before restrictions began to tighten.

“With all the news reports, I knew people would want to eat outside. I thought they would limit the inside dining. Without the tent we would be out of business,” he said.

The tent can seat about 50, according to Finch, who said he is using some of the indoor furniture in the tent.

“It’s important for us to maintain the same level of service and ambience as we have inside, so customers can have the experience they expect,” he said.

Last week, Finch said they added electric heaters to the tent, which will allow the restaurant to extend its outdoor dining.

“The residual temperature can go to freezing and I can keep it at 75-degrees inside the tent. We will keep it in place until we are at full capacity,” Finch added.

At J.J. Ratigan Brewing, Flynn said they looked at all the things that get touched on a daily basis, and realized that “sanitation becomes even more critical than before.” Before COVID, he said, some materials were sanitized twice a day.

“Now, hundreds of things are getting sanitized between every use. That costs time and money,” he said. “We choose to do those things. Not only because it is warranted but it is the correct thing to do for our guests and the community.”

Finch said when the pandemic hit, Creed’s looked at its business model — reducing labor, reorganizing the structure, menus and pricing.

“We have been in this business all our lives. We have had challenges come down and we are able to react,” he said. “We are very positive. Our staff is doing terrific, the restaurant is doing well.”

J.J. Ratigan Brewing Company opened in December 2019. Flynn joined the organization just weeks before the pandemic spread, according to Keith Costello, co-owner.

Over the past six months the restaurant has worked with community organizations and continued to evolve the business.

Earlier this month, J.J. Ratigan launched a Sunday Brunch, with a menu Flynn said is a “celebration of businesses in Pottstown.”

Among the offerings are Bourbon and donut pairings with donuts from Donut NV, a macaron flight featuring Beverly’s Pastries, French press coffee service from Coffee Smith Coffee Roasters and bacon from Society of Bacon — all Pottstown-based businesses.

The facility also opened a new space this month — an area in the basement for additional dining and small, private events. It’s a “warm spot,” according to Costello, with seating and games, including foosball, shuffleboard and a pool table.

“Pottstown was on a strong revitalization trajectory,” Costello said. “We will get through this and will continue to revitalize to become a thriving downtown. We’ll continue to support the community in any way we can.”

Finch said he anticipates some of the increased sanitation measures to remain in place at Creed’s once the threat of the virus subsides. He also expects curbside delivery to remain, and said Creed’s expects to expand its patio facilities.

“People enjoy being out there,” he said, adding that the property is fortunate to have ample parking.

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