UNTIL COVID IS KAPUT
Area restaurants’ mitigation measures
There are intricacies to doing business. It is a dance – and sometimes an incredibly uncomfortable one. Throw a pandemic into the mix and things can become downright complicated, especially for restaurants.
Christian Johnsen, co-owner of the Blue Moon Bakery said the bakery has not been closed for 90 days since he and his wife purchased the business in 2001.
“We have always tried to stay open as much as possible in order to establish continuity of business even through the off seasons. Closing down for the pandemic was very scary from a cash flow perspective. We have never tried to keep the facility afloat without income,” he said. He noted that the government came through to help small businesses and employees, though he has a few employees who have not “waded through the bureaucracy and collected benefits.” Thanks to the PPP program and the EIDL, the business will survive, he said.
Now, after recently being allowed to reopen, entirely new issues are being faced by area businesses. Nearly all restaurant owners interviewed reported having some staff members who are afraid to work. Keeping employees and patrons as safe and comfortable as possible remains a core objective.
As Riverhouse co-owner Greg “Carney” Lisk pointed-out: bartenders are some of the most at-risk folks behind medical workers. So, he and co-owner Kyle Wisniewski have opted to not allow seating at the bar. It is a move to protect their employees – and one they catch a lot of grief for doing.
Vicky Nordahl, owner of Lone Peak Brewery and Tap House said everything is difficult right now.
A handful of area small businesses were thrown into uncharted territory with the COVID-19 developments in the community. Rumors have been rampant about individual businesses and some Big Sky residents. Many took to Facebook to quash rumors or in an act of transparency.
“If you heard the rumor I was positive for Covid, I just got test [sic] back and I am not. Thank you Lord! I must say though it gave me a scare,” one Big Sky bartender wrote on Facebook.
Some business owners also took to Facebook. The Broken Spoke Bar & Grill wrote a post on June 20 outlining that an employee “who was not originally exposed to our recent Covid-19 scare nor had any symptoms and was tested as a precautionary measure did indeed test positive for COVID-19 this afternoon.” The Broken Spoke worked closely with the Gallatin City-County Health Department and Big Sky Medical Center and “are following all of their guidelines and recommendations.”
The Riverhouse owners released a letter to the community outlining what happened on June 16 – when they were notified by an employee just prior to starting the work shift of potential exposure. The employee was sent home, asked to quarantine and tested.
Both businesses shut down for a day to deep clean and sanitize. The Riverhouse discarded food product that could have been contaminated and discovered later the employee’s test came back negative.
Wisniewski said their world was flipped upside down in a matter of minutes – and then they had to quickly come up with a plan. He noted: It is not a matter of if a business has to deal with a COVID-19 scare, but when. A former engineer, he is an analytical thinker and has formulated a step-by-step plan that will be shared in the Lone Peak Lookout next week.
To mask or not to mask
Blue Moon Bakery, By Word of Mouth, the Riverhouse and Caliber Coffee are some examples of area businesses that have mandated the use of masks by employees.
“We have decided to mandate the use of facial coverings among our staff. Looking at the data, this seems like the most effective way to mitigate the risk we take in exposing our people to interaction with the public – who often come from all over the country,” Johnsen said.
Ian Troxler, head chef of Olive B’s said that was a part of the discussion with Olive B’s staff. A few said they would quit – explaining that to wear a mask while doing such hot and hard work as serving or cooking in a kitchen is beyond uncomfortable. So, he provides the masks, but does not make employees wear them. With worker shortages as they are, he cannot risk losing any employees.
“One of my fears through this whole thing is the politics,” he said. “Just people’s expectations on one side or the other has been almost as much of an issue as actually dealing with COVID. “In hospitality, we leave politics and religion at the door – but people bring it in.”
Troxler said fielding the politically charged comments from incensed patrons is worse than pushing tables further apart or making sure everything is sanitized.
“I suppose – like everyone – I can’t wait for this to be gone,” he said.
He explained that at the end of the day, most business owners are not making political statements at all, they are just trying to survive during unprecedented and troubling times. His business, in spite of the pandemic, is up from last year, something he believes is testament to the hard work and the solid product owner Warren “Bibber” Bibbins has been turning out for years.
All establishments visited for this story provided masks and gloves for employees. Very few employees chose to wear them when given the option.
CURRENT CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL (CDC) RECOMMENDATIONS:
Noting recent studies and that a significant portion of people with coronavirus are asymptomatic and that some who later develop symptoms can be pre-symptomatic for some time, the virus is pernicious.
“This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity— for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing—even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms,” a post on the CDC website said.
Cloth face coverings are recommended in public settings where social distancing is difficult to maintain and “especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”
In addition to drudging through the mask/sanitize/ glove steps for mitigation, many employers are dealing with an extreme employee deficit. The Riverhouse had to shut down dine-in service one day last week because they did not have enough employees to make it possible. As the Riverhouse’s Wisniewski said, one suspected COVID-19 case and there goes a quarter of your staff – at least. The Corral is only open four days a week due to staffing shortages. Owner Dave House has a giant handwritten help wanted sign on the front door of the establishment. The Cafe is facing the same issues. Server Robin Williams said they are remaining open seven days a week and the current staff is exhausted, but are pushing through with the hope of some new hires and relief. The Cafe chef Jake Irwin said the workforce is currently decimated.
“Everybody doesn’t want to work is the problem. People are making too much money on unemployment,” he said.
Lynne Anderson, co-owner of the Country Market remains in need of a manager and full time staff person. By Word of Mouth had three employees ready to start when they opened for dine-in service on June 24, but those employees were not able to work a single shift because they are in quarantine after COVID-19 exposure. So, business operations will largely remain a Flach family affair for the time being.
Nordahl noted that her business is also seeking staff – four to five more people needed in the kitchen and another two people in the front of the house. She hired three high school students to help with disinfecting, getting water, silverware and other necessities for customers.
Ashley Berglund, manager of Chopper’s Pub and Grub explained that staffing shortages are also a factor and that is why the business is closing on Sundays.
“If we can’t find anyone, we will probably close another day, that is up in the air right now,” she said.
Johnsen said the Blue Moon Bakery remains understaffed as well.
“Moving forward we may have to close a day or two per week until we can hire a couple more people,” he said.
Steps to protect
“We went to to-go packets on just about everything. We went to plastic cups and we are looking into plates for burgers – limiting exposure to the dishwasher. I just keep reminding employees to be careful,” Vicky Nordahl, owner of Lone Peak Brewery and Tapas said.
Washing hands, keeping tables clean, “Sanitizer everywhere, I feel like,” Ashley Berglund, manager of Chopper’s Pub and Grub said. “We also clean every morning, do a thorough wipe down of the gaming machines, the bathrooms, everything. It definitely takes some extra time, but we feel like it’s necessary.”
“The Riverhouse has taken all our safety protocol extremely seriously. Our employees have, and continue to, log temperatures upon beginning a shift, wear masks and single use gloves, and practice the utmost diligence of cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing our workplace,” Wisniewski wrote. “We apologize for the use of single use plates and utensils – but it is again in the name of precaution.”
Olive B’s has a “sanitation station” by the hostess stand where everything from pens to menus is wiped-down.
Looking to July with hope
Berglund said she is looking to July 4th with hope that it will be the kick-off to a successful summer. Judging by signs on the doors of China Cafe and Alberto’s explaining the doors will not open until early July – her sentiments appear to be echoed by others.