After nearly three months of arms-length service through food and drink pickups and deliveries, restaurants around Lancaster County can finally begin serving customers in person Friday.
But as they plan for the restricted outdoor seating allowed during the “yellow phase” of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening guidelines, restaurant owners are grappling with how to make a pleasant and safe customer experience that can also boost their bottom lines.
Tables spaced 6-feet apart, masked servers, extra cleaning, slimmed-down menus, and time limits for dining are among the things customers can expect as restaurants try to operate efficiently while complying with the strict rules meant to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“It’s crazy times, but I want to be respectful to everyone,” said Leigh Lindsay, an owner of Zoetropolis Cinema Stillhouse in Lancaster. “We’re not going to make a ton of money off of this.”
At Zeotropolis, part of an initial greeting may include a phone number customers can use to text subsequent request to their server. While that might seem like overkill to some, Lindsay says she wants to accommodate customers who might prefer a more standoffish approach.
“People have to take their masks off to eat, and we don’t want to bug people,” she said.
Removing tables, curbing profits
Rules for social distancing mean bars and restaurants are taking extra steps to discourage the kinds of casual, impromptu interactions that make them community gathering places.
At Bube’s Brewery in Mount Joy, a cornhole game and a pool table will be removed from the biergarten to keep customers from doing anything but eating and drinking at tables. And at The Dutchmaid Deck in Ephrata, the covered outside bar will be off-limits to discourage customers from congregating.
While the experience will be different, Troy Minnich, said he expects The Dutchmaid Deck will be popular because people haven’t been able to go out to eat at a restaurant for so long.
“We’re anticipating that just because everything is going to be relaxed -- at least a little bit --that we’re going to be pretty busy,” said Minnich, who is one of five family owners of the restaurant.
Yet even as he is bracing for being busy, Minnich says losing half of the deck’s roughly 160 seats while needing to bring back staff to do additional cleaning means he’s not planning on making a lot of money while restrictions continue.
“Our sales are going to go down and our payroll is going to go up,” he said. “It’s obviously going to be a boost, but it’s not going to get us back to where we need to be.”
Streamlining sidewalk cafes
As restaurants with existing outdoor seating are tweaking them to comply with the new rules, others are planning to put new tables outside.
In Lancaster city, restaurants can apply now for special sidewalk cafe permits to allow additional outdoor seating beginning Friday. The application process has been expedited and fees are being waived under the ordinance city council is expected to adopt Friday morning.
The ordinance, which would allow liquor license holders to serve alcohol in more outdoor spaces, also includes the option for city officials to designate “public dining areas” where people could eat carryout meals from restaurants, and also drink alcohol.
Marshall Snively, president of the Lancaster City Alliance, has been working with restaurateurs and city officials on the outside dining ordinance which he expects will be a much-needed financial lift for struggling restaurants.
“Anything we can do now is going to be imperative to their future success,” he said.
As the city is encouraging al fresco dining by cutting red tape, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is streamlining its own rules to make it easy to allow customers to drink alcohol in the new outdoor spaces.
“This is a very active and cooperative situation at this point,” said Bradley DeForge, an owner of Lancaster Dispensing Company who hopes to put 6 to 8 tables between his restaurant and the back of Lancaster Central Market.
DeForge said he is still waiting to hear how many tables he can have, and how many days they can be out, since that will determine whether it is worthwhile.
“It’s kind of a cumbersome process to move tables in and out just for a few hours a day,” said DeForge, who owns the restaurant with Judy Ross.
Around the corner from Dipco, Daniel Falcon is hopeful about being able to set up seating for 40 to 50 people on Market Street between Central Market and his Old San Juan Cuisine and Rum Bar in the Shops at Hager.
“It’ll be great as long as we got good weather. When the weather gets bad, you literally go to zero,” he said. “But it doesn’t rain every day.”