BILLINGS — Restaurants in Billings had the option to open for the first time in weeks Monday for dine-in service with strict social distancing guidelines under phase one of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock's plan to reopen the state.
At Stacked - A Montana Grill, lunch service was better than owner Stephen Hindman expected.
“First day of lunch service went way better than I thought it would. I didn’t know what to expect. People have been coming in throughout lunch. Of course it’s a little sparse. It’s going to take people time to adjust to dining out, get back into their routines and lifestyle," Hindman said Monday afternoon.
Under Bullock's rules to reopen, restaurants can't have patrons sit at the bar. And capacity had to be reduced by 50 percent by rearranging tables.
Stacked offered hand sanitizer at the bar free for customers to use. Hindman said lunch service in the afternoon was slow. He attributed that to more businesses being open around town and people going back to work. He's optimistic for what the dinner rush will bring.
"I already have people calling in for reservations, so we’re looking forward to finding out what tonight brings and the rest of the week. And trying not to gauge the rest of the financial year on Monday morning, first day out," Hindman said.
Of the about 25 full-time and part-time employees that Stacked had before the COVID-19 pandemic, Hindman said only two of his kitchen staff was laid off. And most everyone on the front of the house team was hired back.
"The only people who didn’t come back as of today were two people who moved. One person found a new job and left. And one person was in college and left. When that closed down, she went back home. Other than that, everybody is back to work and we’re pretty excited about that," Hindman said.
Hindman said he thinks as customers become more comfortable in a new routine, they will head back out to their favorite restaurants more often.
“It’s going to be about people getting comfortable again in their own shoes and in their new lifestyle. Life has kind of changed for everyone forever from this point about how we view things. Maybe we take our special days a little more special. And the rest of the time we just work hard at taking care of each other," Hindman said.
A few blocks away at Walkers Grill, staff are excited to have customers in the dining room for dinner for the first time in over a month.
“We’ve spent the last three or four days just prepping our brains out. We’ve literally cleaned and sanitized everything floor to ceiling in this place," said Nick Steen, Walkers executive chef and general manager.
Steen said all of the Walkers staff members will have their temperatures taken and logged before each shift. And hand sanitizer stations will be at every door for patrons to use at their leisure.
But a big hit for the business is the fact that no one can sit at the bar, Steen said.
"We’re standing at the bar with no bar stools. That’s going to be a really big thing for us ... And for us to not be able to sit at a bar and take care of people that way, it’s going to be a little bit different. But we’re looking forward to seeing how we adapt and overcome it," Steen said.
Walkers management had to permanently terminate some employees. Back on March 17, Steen said he laid off 30 people and there were five people left running the restaurant. The 50 percent reduction in customers forced the job cuts, Steen said.
“I think the big hit to business is losing 50 percent of your seats. But we’re prepared for it. We’ve made the adequate changes that we had to make in staffing. We had to let a few people go permanently and that’s really hard to do. That’s really difficult. But they are being taken care of right now, we’re thankful for that. We’re still contributing to them. Doing everything we can to make sure they are still fed. All the things we’ve been doing all along," Steen said.
Steen didn't give a number on the amount of staff members that were hired back. But he said some of the money made from take-out orders over the past few weeks has been given directly to people who lost their jobs.
“Thanks to the generous contributions of all of our patrons that come through Walkers, we donated $6,000 to all of our staff during this time of need. We distributed that out to all of them, even the ones that were permanently furloughed," Steen said.
On the menu at Walkers Monday, Steen said he's cooking halibut and corned beef and cabbage for people to feast on. The corned beef will be served to make up for the St. Patrick's Day that the community spent sheltering in place.
“Whether or not anybody wants it, I’m serving it tonight. I’m looking forward to having corned beef and cabbage on the menu tonight and maybe for a few days. And halibut is back on the menu for the rest of the season," Steen said.
One Billings restaurant opted to not reopen right away because the owner thought it wouldn't be profitable, and didn't want to put their staff members at risk.
Jeremy Engebretson serves as the owner and chef for Lilac restaurant. He said his restaurant will continue offering take-out only.
“We had a couple meetings about it with the staff. With the new protocols that would have to be in place, it would cut our dining room by so much that it makes no sense for us to open," Engebretson said.
The cost to repurchase the restaurant's food and alcohol inventory along with staffing the front and back of house would be too much.
“I think one thing that gets forgotten about is, especially after being closed for almost two months now, it's really expensive. You have to rebuy all of your inventory, a lot of your alcohol stock. It’s a big amount of money just to open the doors. If you take that expense, you have got to make sure that somebody’s going to buy it," Engebretson said.
There's also a risk to the health of the restaurant's employees if it were to reopen, Engbretson said.
"I’m also not a big fan of putting my employees in what I feel is a bit of a risky situation with the constant turnover of people. Even with all the new (protocols)," Engebretson said.
The switch to making take-out style food for Lilac was a fast and furious process. The restaurant was usually only open for dinner before COVID-19, but shifted to offer take-out lunch and dinner since.
Over the past few weeks Engebretson said the total number of take out orders he receives has fallen.
“Today is a weird day because we’ve been closed on Monday for eight years. So today’s lunch was okay. What I have seen is a trend downwards in the last couple weeks overall of orders coming in. Which I assume is people not ordering take out and staying at home. What’s going to be interesting is this week with restaurants actually open, what will our week numbers look like versus today?" Engebretson said.
Engebretson said he had to shrink his staff from 10 to two.
"We ran mostly our bar menu with a couple simple, inexpensive pasta options as well. We basically have gone from a fine dining place with a pub menu, to like a step up from fast food basically. We make food as fast as we can that’s as good as we can for as cheap as we can. So it still has our stamp on it. Everything is still done the way we do it. It’s just very interesting for us as a staff to change over into a strictly (take-out) style of dining," Engebretson said.
Until social-distancing restrictions loosen with a shift to Bullock's phase two or three, Lilac will continue to offer take-out only, Engebretson said.
“Nobody knows quite what is going to happen yet with the reopening of phase one. Phase two restrictions look a little lighter so that’s a maybe. Maybe this will go well and we can open sooner. But we’re kind of in limbo as we wait to see what comes out of it," Engebretson said.
Staff at all three Billings restaurants thanked the community for its continued support during the COVID-19 pandemic.