Restaurants take extra safety precautions amid decline in business

The Varsity, shown in 2018, is among the restaurants working to keep customers amid coronavirus concerns. The Varsity is taking numerous precautions, said company President Gordon Muir. “We had a pretty decent weekend downtown,” because events hadn’t been canceled, he said. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
The Varsity, shown in 2018, is among the restaurants working to keep customers amid coronavirus concerns. The Varsity is taking numerous precautions, said company President Gordon Muir. “We had a pretty decent weekend downtown,” because events hadn’t been canceled, he said. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Less than two weeks ago, Chinese restaurant owners in metro Atlanta reported a sharp decline in business due to diner concerns about contracting the coronavirus. But as COVID-19 has spread across the globe, other local food service operators have begun to experience a drop in traffic that they attribute to people limiting their risk of exposure by steering clear from communal areas like restaurants and cafes.

While restaurants focus on making customers feel secure, there’s also the question of whether service workers’ wages could be affected.

Last week, weekday business dropped by 50% at fine dining establishment the Deer and the Dove in Decatur. It continued into Saturday. Normally the restaurant’s busiest night, there were only 135 diners compared to the usual 210, said co-owner Terry Koval. B-Side, the cafe adjacent to the restaurant, likewise saw a noticeable drop, he said.

Koval said that he thought that consumers were veering away from patronizing fast-casual restaurants because “you are touching more things, filling up coffee, touching a door. When in a full-service restaurant, you’re not touching as many things.”

The marked drop in weekday business required Koval to decrease the amount of staff needed to run the restaurant. “Tuesday and Wednesday, we ran with one server. We’ll probably do the same this week. And it will be just me and my sous chef on the line in the kitchen.” Typically, the restaurant staffs three servers and four cooks on weekdays.

>> THE LATEST: Complete coronavirus coverage

Restaurant operators are doing more than adjusting staffing. They are taking heightened precautions to ensure the safety of their employees and their guests.

Koval noted that he was in contact with his business partner, George Frangos, who also operates fast-casual Farm Burger. Frangos said they are experiencing a decline in catering business “as a few companies are postponing group meetings and events.” Frangos had planned to send out a companywide memo regarding coronavirus safety protocol Monday.

Longtime Atlanta-based fast-food chain the Varsity has taken numerous precautions due to the spread of the coronavirus. According to President Gordon Muir, it has retrained its dining room and kitchen staff regarding sanitation, stocked up on key cleaning supplies and is adding public sanitizer stations to all locations this week. Last week, the Varsity also added a shift position that is dedicated to sanitation. “That’s all they do. Start at the front door and continue around the whole building and wiping doors, tables, napkin holders on the table. That’s all this person does all day long,” Muir said.

In addition, the Varsity is now giving customers drink refills in new cups rather than refilling previously touched cups.

>> RELATED: How to protect yourself against the coronavirus

Georgia Restaurant Association CEO Karen Bremer continues to receive calls from food service operators asking about coronavirus preparedness. Her response: “Remain calm. Wash your hands. Use disinfectant. Make sure your food handling is impeccable.”

As restaurant operators contend with slowing business and double down on sanitation, organizations like Atlanta-based nonprofit Giving Kitchen are monitoring the possibility of a coronavirus disruption for service workers.

Giving Kitchen offers assistance to food service workers in crisis. Monetary funds are generally awarded in cases of injury, illness, death of an immediate family member or a housing crisis due to a flood or fire. According to executive director Bryan Schroeder, a food service worker in Georgia with a medically confirmed case of coronavirus can apply for financial assistance.

Giving Kitchen is also prepared to serve as a resource for food service workers in the event that their jobs are impacted by a decline in business. “We are going to be as responsive as possible, if we do get to that point,” Schroeder said.