In-house dining begins for many local restaurants today, and we chatted with some downtown Saratoga restaurant owners about this exciting development. We discussed everything from social distancing and sanitization to reservations and timed seating to the menus and more. And, find out why one restaurant owner is opting out of the in-house dining for one of his establishments.
Preparing for the In-House Diners: Sanitization, Signage & Social Distancing
The biggest transition for the return of indoor dining for restaurant owners is that the indoor capacity is limited to 50% and six-foot spacing must be enforced. A lot of other changes accompany these restrictions, but many owners are raring to go.
Ravenous owner David Zuka is undoubtedly thrilled with the return of indoor dining. A member of his staff was working on a Welcome Back blackboard as we entered, and he couldn’t wait to show us the freshly sanitized dine-in condiments, the spacing between the tables, and the informative signage he’s put up.
“Everything is wiped down in between every use, whether it’s the menus, the back of the chairs, the salt and peppers, all the condiments, the balsamic and olive oil,” he said. People will be invited in and can order right from the website on their phone, and if they’re not comfortable doing so, a helpful staff member will interact with them from a distance.
“The only time we’ll be approaching the tables is at the request of the customer and to drop off their beverage and to drop off their food,” Zuka said.
Country Corner Cafe owner Rosann Hotaling also has signage up in the restaurant regarding masks, and the dining rooms are customer-ready.
“We have signage that everyone will be required to wear a mask when they enter, once they’re seated they can remove their masks. But if they get up to use the restrooms, or cash out, or to go the retail area, they have to put their masks back on.”
Would You Like to Sit Outdoors or In?
Many restaurants are offering just outdoor seating, just indoor seating, or both. It’s going to be more important than ever to check in with individual establishments before heading out to eat.
Dizzy Chicken owner Justin Bartlett has four tables on their back deck and he’s hoping to use some grass space for picnic tables. Palette Cafe owner Catherine Hover, who also owns Saratoga Paint & Sip, has outdoor and indoor seating at the cafe. “We are fully prepared to enforce this social distancing mandate,” Hover said.
When it comes to bar seating when available, such as at Dizzy Chicken or 30 Lake, the standard appears to be a limit of six. These six stools or chairs are separated in sets of two, but can be rearranged if say a party of four comes in.
Not everyone is opting for outdoor seating, or even has that option. At Ravenous, they only have a small space outside the restaurant. They looked into acquiring outdoor space near a Verizon building close by, but ultimately ran into too much red tape, particularly as it’s owned by a large corporation.
“It wasn’t worth it to have a couple of tables outside,” Zuka said. “We’re going to concentrate on the guests inside. . .and just be hopeful that it’s not going to be too long until we can expand. I really didn’t want to chase pennies and do something outside of our normal operating procedure.”
Some Menus Will be Limited, Others Will be New
Some restaurants have been able to offer a full menu, or close to it, during the pandemic while offering takeout. Dizzy Chicken, for instance, eliminated prime rib for takeout as it’s not a delivery-type item. Others had to scale back more substantially.
The owner of 30 Lake, Jodie Leuchten, has not been able to get all of her products and many are on back order. While outdoor dining has been going well for them and they’re excited to open for indoor dining, they will be offering a limited menu for now.
“To do the full menu you have to get all the product in and get it prepped and make sure you have enough staff. It’s tough.” She went on to say, “Our menu has been pretty extensive in the past and I don’t want our customers to be disappointed. It will grow again, but right now it’s limited as we’re bringing merchandise and product back in. As we move along, we’ll add more things on.”
Country Corner Cafe has also been working with a limited menu, at least for takeout, as some breakfast-type items don’t travel well.
The Adelphi Hotel has a new Executive Chef Michael Blake who will be creating new menus for Morrissey’s, The Blue Hen, and Salt & Char. The menu will be scaled back a bit for Morrissey’s, but will be more “on brand” with the restaurant.
Certain Restaurants Will Continue Takeout/Delivery
“We’ve been open every day,” Hover said of Palette Cafe. “Curbside cocktails, curbside pickup, takeout, grab-n-go, we’ve developed two menus for take-home brunch and fro-yo. . .these are things we’ll probably keep doing.” Their take-and-bake scones have been especially popular (and scones in the cafe sell out daily).
She added that even if restaurants are able to go back up to 100% capacity in the next several weeks, which she believes they will, a lot of people are not going to feel comfortable coming indoors and sitting next to someone.
Helen Watson, General Manager of The Adelphi Hotel, agrees. They’re holding back for now on the takeout/delivery for their restaurants, but only so as not to overwhelm during this transition. “We’d toyed with the idea of doing takeout before COVID happened,” she said. “I think it’s a natural extension. I don’t think that’s going away.”
Restaurants like Dizzy Chicken were doing takeout and delivery prior to the pandemic and will continue to do so. Others are getting creative with takeout: Country Corner Cafe is working with local farmers to put together farm-to-table boxes for pickup with a variety of items like fresh produce, local honey, local syrup, their homemade jams, and Saratoga Peanut Butter.
You May Need to Make a Reservation and/or Have Timed Seating
Morrissey’s never used to take reservations, but will now, along with the other Adelphi Hotel restaurants The Blue Hen and Salt & Char. Watson highly recommends making reservations, especially now that restaurants have limited capacity.
Dizzy Chicken will take reservations for large parties only. Ravenous follows suit, but they will also be doing a “Call Ahead Wait List.” 30 Lake, on the other hand, will only take reservations from everyone. “If someone comes to the door and we have an opening we will take them in as a reservation,” she said, indicating they would get contact information as well.
Palette Cafe offers an app for their members where you can reserve the seat that you want, including an outdoor table, or perhaps you want a more private space upstairs if you’re doing a webinar or work. This is something they had even pre-COVID. “What’s cool about Palette is that we were almost prepared for the pandemic,” Hover laughed.
Timed seating is another aspect of going out to eat we may need to get used to at certain establishments, where you are restricted to dining for 90 minutes, or two hours, or whatever the limit is. Timed seating ensures restaurants can get more customers in and out, which is important as they’re so limited with the 50% capacity.
“Sometimes you do have nights where a table does camp out for a little bit and that’s part of the business,” acknowledged Dizzy Chicken owner Bartlett, who does not plan on enforcing timed seating.
Whether the timed seating is enforced or not let’s all keep this in mind when dining out and be reasonable with regards to the amount of time we stay at the table. When a group hangs out for several hours the restaurant may not be able to flip that table and get another seating in, and that can be a significant profit loss.
What Else is Happening With Live Music & Other Changes
Live music is currently allowed at bars and restaurants as long as the performers are 12 feet from diners.
“We’re going to wait for the live music for just a bit right now,” Bartlett said of Dizzy Chicken, “just to see what happens in terms of dine-in.”
30 Lake and The Adelphi Hotel are also planning on returning to live music, but not just yet. “It won’t be anything crazy,” Leuchten said of 30 Lake. Indeed, we likely won’t see a raging rock band at a Saratoga restaurant in the near future, but we may see a sole guitarist like one of Leuchten’s servers perform.
The Adelphi Hotel has further exciting plans for entertainment: Watson assured us they are definitely going to do something with viewing parties when the track starts back up, they are just ironing out the details.
The other change that came up a couple of times in our conversations with restaurant owners is the use of QR codes. These codes are displayed in some restaurants – or even outside the restaurants, as is the case with Ravenous – and guests can use that to pull up the menu on their phone.
Not Everyone Will Jump Back Into In-House Dining
One chat we had that really stuck out in our minds was with Saratoga Broadway Deli owner Daniel Chessare, who also owns Amuse. He is opting out of the indoor dining at the deli, and will only let people inside if it is raining. They have an entire private sidewalk set up for outdoor dining that has been doing well. If he allowed indoor dining, he’d be limited to 12 seats.
“It’s just not worth it to open for indoor dining with everything that comes with that,” he said. “Things on the floor telling people what direction to walk in, signs about masks and sanitizer, your staff has to be dressed up like medical staff. . .”
Instead, Chessare is using this opportunity to rethink his business model. He’s considering turning the dining room into more of a marketplace, similar to Roma’s or Putnam Market, but focused exclusively on Middle Eastern products like preserved lemons and Marcona almonds. Chessare is also thinking about expanding the butcher aspect of the business, offering steak, marinated chicken, lamb meatballs, and more.
Please Be Supportive & Kind When You Go Out to Eat
There are a lot of changes to get used to as we return to the practice of dining out. Restaurants are excited and ready for us, but this is a stressful time for many and they are working within many constraints.
Here are some of the final words restaurant owners left us with:
“We’d like to thank the community for supporting us so much,” Bartlett of Dizzy Chicken told us. “It was a scary time at the beginning and it turned out to fortunately be okay for us. So I want to thank the community and I also want to thank our staff for going to work every day through the whole process. With the high unemployment I know it was a sacrifice.”
“We miss all our family and friends we’ve met over the last 29 years of being in business. This has been very difficult. We’re hoping people will embrace coming back,” Hotaling of Country Corner Cafe said.
And from Chessare of Saratoga Broadway Deli: “Be kind to your restaurant people. Don’t go and be a jerk because service was slow or you think the prices were too high or you had to wait too long, because most of these restaurants, if they flip their dining room three times at full capacity, are making less than 10% profit. And at half capacity they’re not making profit.”