Kemp’s latest order draws mixed reactions among restaurant owners

A sign encouraging social distancing is displayed at Ponce City Market in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward community May 4, 2020. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

A sign encouraging social distancing is displayed at Ponce City Market in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward community May 4, 2020. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Hospitality industry veteran George McKerrow is excited about the latest order from Gov. Brian Kemp loosening restrictions on restaurants operating during the coronavirus.

George McKerrow, co-founder and CEO of Ted’s Montana Grill (shown is the Avalon location), says he appreciates Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision-making in the reopening of restaurants in Georgia amid the coronavirus pandemic. JONATHAN PHILLIPS / SPECIAL

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As Kemp has issued rounds of orders with guidelines affecting dining capacity, sanitation and other operating procedures, McKerrow said the governor has been “wise in his decisions.”

“There was no mandate to go back to work. He gave us all freedom to choose to open our businesses using very good guidelines,” said McKerrow, founder of LongHorn Steakhouse, co-founder and CEO of Ted’s Montana Grill, and a partner at fine dining restaurants Aria and Canoe. “If a business isn’t comfortable, you don’t have to open at 100% capacity. You can stay at 50%.”

Restaurant owners across metro Atlanta have invested time and money to change their setups to meet earlier guidelines and assuage cautious customers, so diners should not expect to see immediate changes at all eateries.

Under Kemp’s latest order, issued Thursday, there is no longer a maximum party size or a limit on the number of people allowed per square footage. In addition, employees only have to wear face coverings when interacting with guests, instead of at all times. The executive order, which is effective June 16-30, also eased guidelines regarding salad bars and buffets and self-serve drink machines.

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McKerrow said that he would be meeting with the executive teams for the restaurants to discuss whether to make any changes to their operations under the new guidelines. “We will probably maintain masks for two weeks to be overly cautious,” he said. “Protecting our team members and guests is our No. 1 priority.” McKerrow said that inside dining would probably continue to be limited, to keep guests at ease.

Other operators were not as enthusiastic as McKerrow about Kemp’s latest order.

“It’s way too soon to ease restrictions that loosely,” said Steven Satterfield of Miller Union. “It doesn’t seem like the right move for human health and safety.” Satterfield noted that he was on an email chain with dozens of other local restaurateurs who are reacting to the news. “All of them are like, ‘What the hell is happening?’ No one I know is excited.”

Satterfield said that his restaurant had only recently established a safety protocol for on-premise dining, which began June 5. “The safety precautions are on our website, and we are going to stick to them for now,” he said. “We want to make sure customers and staff feel safe and comfortable.”

Satterfield also expressed frustration that each time the guidelines change, it can carry a financial burden. “A lot of us have been trying to figure out how to adjust to the guidelines. If they are short-lived, we are spending a lot of money.” Three previous sets of restaurant guidelines were issued within a five-week period between late April and late May.

Apart from purchasing personal protection equipment for employees, hand sanitizer and additional cleaning supplies, some restaurants have invested in plexiglass or other partitions between booths or tables as well as at host stands.

Restaurateur Doug Turbush read the executive order Thursday evening. By Friday morning, he was on the phone with a contractor to schedule a Monday installation of partitions at his east Cobb restaurants Drift Fish House and Oyster Bar and Seed Kitchen and Bar to increase seating capacity. “As far as I can tell, we can redesign seating. We can put a physical barrier between two tables, and they don’t have to be 6 feet apart,” he said.

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The new order permits gatherings of up to 50 people without social distancing. Federico Castellucci of Castellucci Hospitality Group said that his restaurants, which include the Iberian Pig, Cooks & Soldiers, Sugo, Double Zero, Bar Mercado and Recess, will open their private dining rooms for events, but with social distancing in effect. And the restaurants will continue to limit party size to six people in the main dining room. “We’re going to adhere to the stricter guidelines that we’ve spent a lot of time and energy implementing until we feel like it’s safe to reduce them,” said Castellucci.

The governor’s new executive order won’t change much at Marietta Square Market, except the food hall’s tenants can display food on their counters to promote special dishes. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM

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Food halls have a larger capacity than stand-alone restaurants, yet Rich Dippolito, the executive vice president for Concordia Properties, which owns Marietta Square Market, said the executive order won’t change much for the food hall.

"For us, the seating capacity will remain the same because of the 6-foot requirement," he said. "And we had a lot of open space to begin with, so lifting the amount of space per person doesn't really impact us." The food hall reopened May 15 for patio and dine-in service.

He said the most significant change is that the food hall’s tenants are now able to display food on their counters to promote special dishes.

Ponce City Market, the large mixed-use development in the Old Fourth Ward, started allowing its restaurants and retailers to reopen May 22 with several safety guidelines in place, including discouraging large groups from congregating, and requiring employees to wear face masks.

“We’re working with tenants to ensure they’re informed on the latest guidelines and are continuing to enforce social distancing safety measures across the property,” a Ponce City Market spokesperson said in a statement.

Salad bars and buffets are now permitted to be self-serve as long as the restaurant provides hand sanitizer, installs a sneeze guard, enforces social distance and regularly replaces shared utensils.

The new drive-thru at Matthews Cafeteria in Tucker will remain an option for customers despite the state’s loosened restrictions on dine-in service. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

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Michael Greene, co-owner of Matthews Cafeteria in Tucker, said that the state’s loosened restrictions would not affect his restaurant’s current business model. “The virus hasn’t gone away,” Greene said. “Sixty percent of our customers aren’t even getting out of their cars.”

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Greene said that Matthews Cafeteria would continue to cater to each customer’s level of comfort. Diners can choose to order and dine inside, order takeout inside, order ahead for curbside pickup or go through the restaurant’s parking lot drive-thru. Regarding the new executive order, Greene said that it would allow the restaurant to open its secondary dining room and move tables away from the cafeteria line.

“We want to put plenty of space between people; they were starting to bunch up a little more than we were comfortable with,” said Greene. “I don’t need the government to tell me what to do to keep my customers safe.”