Careful re-openings are key for Rice Lake restaurants
June 17, 2020
In early March, Wisconsin required all restaurants in the state to cut back to allowing just 50 percent of their customer capacity inside at any one time. By St. Patrick’s Day, all restaurants were required to close by 5 PM on that day, one of the busiest times for many restaurants.
“That was a shock,” said Butch Lehman, owner of a four-generation family-owned supper club, Lehman’s Supper Club in Rice Lake.
The supper club, which normally employs a staff of 32 to 46 people, downsized to just a dozen. Lehman went to carryout and delivery orders, and reduced the restaurant’s open hours to four days per week.
Kimberly Hanson, regional manager for Norske Nook Restaurants, found herself in a similar position, but chose a different route during closure.
“We were closed down from March 23 all the way until May 1,” she said. From May 1 through May 27, the Norske Nooks were open only for curbside pickup. “There were no hours available (for employees to work). Our employees were on unemployment benefits.”
“The impact of COVID-19 has been unbearable,” said Reggie Rexhepi, owner of Marys Family Restaurant in Rice Lake. Once the safer-at-home order went into effect, his restaurant sales sank to 20 percent of what they normally were. All of Marys Restaurant servers were laid off. It affected not only labor but also food ordering and inventory. “So many unknowns about the virus…enlarged the impact in the whole business operation.”
Now that the state has begun to re-open businesses, Rexhepi adheres closely to the Wisconsin Restaurant Association and Barron County Health Department guidelines and recommendations.
“We practice social distancing by eliminating every other table or booth in the restaurant,” Rexhepi explained. “We have installed multiple sanitizer dispensers for customers and employees to use. We installed plexiglass shields at our cash register. Employees wear masks.” The restaurant now has a single-page menu that is sanitized after every use.
Hanson says the Norske Nook in Rice Lake is now open with 50 percent of its normal seating capacity. Every other booth is blocked off, and the restaurant takes care to meet sanitation requirements. About 75 percent of her employees are back at work, but in order to keep everyone employed, Hanson has reduced each person’s hours.
Lehman’s Supper Club began a slow, careful opening on May 21, maintaining its four-day week. Lehman explained that employees follow Centers for Disease Control, National Restaurant Association, and Wisconsin Deveopment Corporation sanitation guidelines. “The Barron County Health Department was very helpful,” he said.
He also takes each employee’s temperature before a shift and does health screens. His bar area sports a new, social-distance look now, and the host stand is made safe with barriers. Servers put nothing on a table until customers are seated, and waitstaff stand six feet from customers while taking orders.
“About 40 percent of our customers have come back,” Lehman said. “We seat people outside as much as possible.”
He explained that the summer season—normally full of graduation and wedding parties and plenty of diners, has started “tepidly slow.” In fact, he’s lost all the bookings he normally has through September. He noted that hotel and motel business in the area is slow, too.
“It’s a long road to go down before some sense of normalcy,” said Lehman.
“It looks like it’s getting better by each week that passes,” said Rexhepi. “Our guests have to feel safe and comfortable to dine out again and it will take some time to get back to where it used to be.”
He noted that his business revenues have come back to about 60 percent of normal sales. That means he was able to hire back about half of his employees. “I am very lucky to have a great staff and they are very happy to get back to serving our guests and community again,” he said.
Hanson agreed. “It’s going to be a long road back to recovery. We have to wait and see. I don’t know if we’ll ever be back to the way it was. My hope is we’ll thrive.”