Reopened at 50% capacity, restaurants get preview of summer sales

    It’s been 10 days since Baton Rouge restaurants were allowed to reopen their dining rooms at 50% capacity—a move that has, so far, delivered mixed results.

    Across the U.S., the Wall Street Journal reports reopening has turned out to be harder than the closing because it’s nearly impossible to predict revenues amid social distancing, while fixed costs remain the same. Similarly, some local restaurateurs are grappling with a cash crunch.

    “We have supply chain issues, and the costs of all our goods are up,” says Zippy’s owner Neal Hendrick, noting prices on ground meat, cheese and tortillas have increased amid high demand. “It’s hard to figure out everything day to day.”

    On at least one occasion, a chicken factory shut down, leaving Hendrick in a scramble searching for another supplier. Still, Hendrick says he doesn’t plan to raise food and drink prices at his Mexican restaurant any time soon, saying “it’s not fair to pass that onto the customer yet.”

    Otherwise, Hendrick says business has been fine, though slightly down from last year. He’s also noticed a shift to a younger customer demographic amid safety concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, which has changed buying patterns to more chicken and ground beef, and less pork and steak.

    Another trend brought on by the pandemic is more people staying home for the summer rather than going on vacation, says Ruffino’s owner Ruffin Rodrigue, whose residential-area restaurant is benefitting, particularly as Ruffino’s resumes private events.

    “We did well with curbside service during the virus and had good enough sales to pay our managers and keep the flow going,” says Rodrigue, noting sales are roughly on par with last June. “Restaurants tend to over-seat anyway, so when you lower the [capacity] a bit, you can raise your check average because people tend to stay longer and drink more wine.”

    Meanwhile, Mestizo owner Jim Urdiales is seeing the best June sales he’s ever had in 21 years. Midway through the month, sales are already 15% higher than last year, with 40% of his current business coming from to-go orders.

    Further boosting his revenues are the neighborhood drop-offs Mestizo has been doing over the past couple of months.

    “We’re back to what I consider 100% of our sales, even at 50% capacity,” Urdiales says. “Now, we’re wondering whether that will continue into July, which is typically our slowest month.”

    While all three restaurateurs received funding through the Paycheck Protection Program, none qualified for business interruption insurance coverage, which, they agree, would’ve been a huge help. Also uncertain is when exactly restaurants will return to 100% capacity, as phase three, under the fire marshal’s current directive, states that will happen once a vaccine is made available. 

    “The mumps vaccine took four years to make,” Hendrick says. 

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