Reopening at half capacity carries its own set of challenges
CLARK COUNTY — When word came down ahead of last weekend that Clark County was cleared to enter Phase 2 of reopening, Gary Livingston looked around at the mess inside of Rocky’s Pizza.
“We were definitely going to hold off for a couple of days because we were in construction mode, everywhere,” says Livingston, who has been helping with a number of upgrade projects inside and out for the iconic Battle Ground establishment. “Every room in the place was full of sawdust and boards.”
The work still isn’t quite finished, but Livingson says so many people wanted to know when they would be welcoming diners again, they brought in all the help they could to clean things up and were open within hours of the Phase 2 announcement.
Back on March 23, when Gov. Jay Inslee issued his Stay Home, Stay Healthy order, restaurants statewide were forced to close their dining rooms. Some have muddled through with takeout and to-go orders or delivery, while others made the decision to close entirely for now.
Livingston says Battle Ground residents have shown up to support Rocky’s, lining up out to the street on weekends for their pick-up window.
“The pick-up window has been a blessing for us since day one,” he says. “We just had to find a way to streamline it and keep people from having to not wait too long.”
That included new items, like a to-go salad kit that Livingston says was a big success.
The move to dine-in service comes with major changes, and a few challenges.
In Phase 2, restaurants can hold dine-in service, though at half of normal capacity. Tables are limited to no more than five people, and there must be at least six feet of space between separate tables.
Reusable menus are also prohibited, so restaurants are either posting them somewhere, or handing out paper menus that are tossed after a single use.
Issa Abudakar, who owns The Petra House on NE 162nd Ave., says they were able to reopen their dining area by Saturday, but didn’t see a lot of dine-in customers right away.
“Next door at the barber shop, there was a line out there,” Abudakar says.
Business picked up a bit on Sunday, but carry out orders picked up even more.
It’s a sign that restaurants need to plan for a different kind of “normal” than they’ve ever had to deal with before.
Abudakar called his staff back together after the county first applied for Phase 2 on May 22, only to have it delayed due to an outbreak at a fruit packing facility in Vancouver. He says most of his former employers were ready and willing to come back, and he’s working to get them as many hours as possible.
Staff has had to be retrained with new sanitization measures, including disinfecting every table after guests leave, including salt and pepper shakers.
“The same person will take the order, serve the order, clean the table,” says Abudakar. “So the same staff is serving the customers, so it’s really safe.”
Staff also wear masks while at work, including in the kitchen. Something that is unpopular with the employees, but necessary.
“I said, ‘you guys have to get used to it,’ you know?” Abudakar says. “They’re starving for tips. I mean, that’s what they survive on.”
They also are required to ask customers to voluntarily leave their name and contact information, in case another diner later tests positive for COVID-19. Abudakar says only about ten percent of customers end up doing so.
In addition to uncertainty with staffing, customer flow, and new procedures, the cost of doing business has also gone up.
Abudakar says he shops twice a week for fresh ingredients, and his costs have nearly doubled since before the pandemic.
“I even talked to the manager of the Restaurant Depot about the pricing and he said it’s just across the board,” says Abudakar. “I mean, it’s just hard for them to get the Halal fresh meat.”
The city of Vancouver is allowing businesses downtown to apply for a permit to build parklets, which use parking spaces for outdoor seating.
One of the first restaurants to use one is The Mighty Bowl, which reopened Tuesday after closing in mid-April amid the pandemic.
Customers will find a reduced menu, and a lack of some ingredients as The Mighty Bowl adjusts to pricing and supply issues, along with a slow ramp-up with restaffing.
In an FAQ posted to their Facebook page, The Mighty Bowl urged customers to be patient as they navigate the uncertain seas of the Phase 2 world.
“It’s uncertain, if and when the full menu that we had prior to COVID-19, will be returning,” the posting said. “There are so many variables through these unprecedented times, that we are taking that decision week by week.”
Just like all things in the midst of this pandemic, the impact largely depends on your point of view.
Rocky’s Pizza laid off a third of its employees. Many of them may not return, at least any time soon.
At the same time, the two-story log building on Main Street has been feeding families and hosting parties in Battle Ground for well over four decades now.
Any restaurant owner will tell you, there is a constant tension between remaining in business and finding time to fix the myriad of problems that crop up.
So perhaps that’s why Livingston, who is dating Tammy Bria Roberts, daughter of the business’ namesake Rocky Bria, calls the pandemic a “blessing.”
“It’s let us be able to do some things that we never, ever would have been able to do while we were open,” he explains.
Anyone coming to Rocky’s right now will find tables spaced farther apart, or blocked off. The salad bar and buffet are gone for now. Employees wear face masks, and disinfect all eating areas routinely.
They’ll also find a slice of normalcy in a world few ever imagined.
Perhaps it’s that, more than anything else, drawing people back out of their homes, to sit in a strange chair, have a stranger serve them food, and leave a little lighter in their pocketbooks.
At least, that’s what Clark County restaurants are hoping for.