As restaurants around the country begin to reopen, F&W Deputy Editor and restaurant owner Melanie Hansche asks diners to navigate the new rules of eating out with compassion and understanding. 

By Melanie Hansche
July 07, 2020
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The restaurant business has never been more challenging. For our F&W Pro Guide to Reopening Restaurants, we've been collecting wisdom and best practices from leaders in the hospitality industry to help you navigate this unprecedented time

To our customers, supporters, and friends,

What do you miss most about restaurants? For us as owners, it’s the thrum of the room; the steady rhythm of conviviality. After three months staring at an empty dining room, we miss the easy banter with our regulars, the grins on your faces as you bite into something delicious, the gratitude you give us for providing some respite in your day. We miss our community. 

But things have changed. And while we’ll soon be allowed to open our doors again (albeit at 50 percent capacity), we are far from excited. We’re pretty terrified. All the rules of dining out have changed, rendering us less viable and more vulnerable. Our pivot to a grocery and provisions business during the pandemic allowed us to survive the early stages by limiting the interaction between our team and our customers—keeping you both safe. But reopening is about to change that. 

Given that America continues to grapple with the pandemic, what if after all this time, one of us or our staff tested positive and we were forced to shut for two weeks? Could we take the hit in revenue and bounce back? How long would customers stay away if this happened? Would it be the end of our business? This is the stuff that keeps us up at night. 

The Governor’s order issued by our state of Pennsylvania on how to safely serve restaurant customers dictate that we will be wearing masks at the table to protect you. But you do not have to wear one while sitting down to protect us. And so reopening puts restaurant workers squarely at the front line. It puts the burden on our staff to shoulder the risk, while you enjoy a nice meal you didn’t have to cook yourself. If that sentiment makes you feel a little awkward, it pains us just as much that we’ve been put in this position. Restaurateurs shouldn’t have to be the arbiters of public health policy, but with a lack of leadership and clarity from both state and federal governments, they have no choice but to keep their businesses as safe as possible. But there’s a way to make it less difficult for both of us. If you are comfortable heading to restaurants again (and it’s OK if you're not!) keeping these things top of mind will help. 

It’s amazing we’ve made it this far. The Independent Restaurant Coalition estimates that 85% of the country’s independent restaurants will close by 2021 because of the pandemic. If the restaurant you love is reopening, it’s because they’ve managed to pull off a massive Hail Mary. Chances are they’ve had to lay off some or all of their staff. Like us, they might have been working 14-hour days, seven days a week to keep the lights on with an entirely different business model. And now every restaurant is fighting to survive with reduced seats, reduced sales, and less staff. 

Dining won’t be the same as it was three months ago. There are protocols we have to follow and adopt. There are some precautionary measures we will implement to take care of our team. We have to take the new regulations seriously and have spent thousands of dollars on PPE, new signage, single-use plates, cups and cutlery, and sanitizer to comply with them. Please don’t give us grief about them. What you personally think about the new guidelines and masks is irrelevant. Your politics are irrelevant. Your ideology or opinions are irrelevant. But your respect for businesses and the people in them is relevant. Masks are about safeguarding our team, our business, our neighbors, and our community. If you want to eat at restaurants like you did in the past, please just wear a mask. 

We understand your frustration; we are frustrated too. The guidelines for COVID-19 as they relate to restaurants vary from state to state. They also seemingly vary from county to county. Even restaurants in the same city are interpreting guidelines differently. We get that you are seeing mixed messages everywhere you go. That inconsistency is a point of frustration for all of us, but we are all learning. Know that whatever we do is coming from a place of good intention. We have chosen to interpret the guidelines to their safest and most logical extreme—we feel that we have an enormous duty of care to do the right thing.

Kindness matters now more than ever. When we began outdoor dining two weeks ago, some customers were upset about masks and the new rules. We totally understand that the last few months have been difficult for everyone—emotionally, financially, physically. We understand that change is hard and confronting. It feels like we’ve opened a new business every week since the pandemic started. Please know we are doing our best in incredibly challenging circumstances while trying to provide the hospitality and generosity we are so passionate about. If we all tackle these adjustments together with patience, understanding, and a little camaraderie, with community front and center, then there’s no reason dining out can’t be a wonderful experience again. 

Our long-term future depends on what you do now. We are hugely grateful for the support you have given us through the worst of the pandemic. The transition out of it will be even harder. If you want to see us stick around, if you want to ensure that restaurants remain part of the cultural fabric of your community, then please, please take a moment to walk in our shoes. Then come and dine with us (or order takeout!). Only together will we find the joy in hospitality again.

Warmly,

Melanie Hansche and Jason Hoy

Co-owners, Tucker Silk Mill, Easton, PA