For some Gainesville restaurants, a return to serving clients meant larger revenues. However, some locations have bigger concerns on their plates.
Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order June 3 that ushered Florida into Phase 2 of the state’s Plan for Florida's Recovery. Restaurants were allowed to increase their indoor seating capacity to 50 percent and also use bar seating.
Metro Diner’s Gainesville location on 2130 SW 34th St. reopened its doors at 30 percent capacity May 4, said Metro Diner Chief Operating Officer Stanley Goodman. The business increased its indoor seating to 50 percent May 18.
Metro Diner has more than 60 locations across the U.S., so reopening with different state guidelines was like a game of Russian roulette, Goodman said. The business lost 80 percent of its typical sales.
While Gainesville staff members were furloughed, or temporarily laid off, Metro Diner Managing Partner DJ Hood provided free meals to staff every day, Goodman said. Employees were also given severance pay, a payment usually given to individuals who have been fired, and received phone calls from Hood checking in on their families.
“To me, it's about treating people like a family,” Goodman said. “And quite honestly, people are so happy to come back as opposed to many other companies where it's just easier for them to collect unemployment.”
About half of the Gainesville staff returned to work, he said. Employees aren’t forced to return until they feel safe.
With business previously limited to delivery and pick up, Hood said he is excited to see familiar faces.
“I just can't wait to have more back,” he said. “A lot of my guests are all of our students, and I see the football team about every week, so I can’t wait until they get back.”
The response from the community was moving, Hood said. One regular customer even donated Publix gift cards to all of the staff members.
“It's amazing how giving folks are, and they’re so happy to be able to sit down in a restaurant,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. It’s been a slower kind of process getting guests to come back initially, but what we've seen in the last week is it amazing how many guests we're seeing. We’re coming back.”
Two weeks ago, a farewell message appeared at the top of Civilization’s website. Located at 1511 NW Second St., the restaurant was a Gulf Oil truck garage in the early 20th century, but it must now turn to a new chapter in its history.
Civilization was one of Gainesville’s first vegetarian restaurants, opening in 2009, said John Prosser, one of the restaurant’s founders.
“We had a large amount of vegetarian items from the beginning as well as meat options because we wanted everybody to be able to come in and enjoy the restaurant,” he said. “I think that really set us apart.”
The restaurant offered takeout for about a week, but didn’t end up making the profit it needed to stay afloat, he said. Earnings dropped to less than 10 percent of usual revenue.
However, Prosser said the restaurant may once again reopen at a different location, but mentioned he will not be involved in the endeavor. While the future is clouded, he said he thinks fondly of the past.
“It's coming in every day and getting things done,” he said. “It’s making the food and enjoying just being with my coworkers in the back of the house. My wife works in the front of the house, and she's always getting to hear these stories of the customers, and that’s one thing I’ll definitely miss.”
Ken Peng, creator of Ken Eats, a Gainesville food review website, posted about Civilization’s closure May 27.
“RIP to one of the best brunches in town,” he wrote in his post, also calling for residents to support local restaurants.
“They still have other expenses,” he told The Alligator. “They still have employees, they still have rent and if we don't support them now they really can't continue to survive.”
Peng said he’s also concerned for local agricultural workers because Civilization purchased ingredients from local farmers.
“They were one of the restaurants that were serving a lot of locally sourced ingredients—a lot of menu items that you wouldn't be able to find elsewhere,” he said. “If there’s no one to buy their goods, then they’ll absolutely feel an effect.”
Challenges aren’t new to the owner and founder of Satchel’s Pizza, Satchel Raye.
Raye said he started in 2003 with an unattractive dining room on 1800 NE 23rd Ave. and transformed the restaurant into an eccentric showcase of artwork and good food, he said. The restaurant also suffered fires in 2012 and 2016. After three-and-a-half years, it reopened.
Satchel’s was to-go only from mid-March to May 4, Raye said. He also said the restaurant previously opened at 25 percent capacity and is now operating at 50 percent.
The restaurant suffered around a 60 percent decrease in business, he said. With the reopening of indoor dining, the business made back 35 percent of its revenue.
Satchel’s is known for its cash-only policy. When guests are ready to pay, many use the ATM at the back of the restaurant. Through fees from the ATM, Satchel’s gives grants to charities. Each month, about $1,000 is donated to a different charity.
While the restaurant was takeout-only, Raye gave ATM earnings back to his Satchel’s family—staff members who were laid off and hadn’t received their unemployment checks.
Raye said 26 employees were laid off, but 20 have returned. He said one of his employees is 70, and another has a child with asthma. Both are fearful of contracting the virus, but Raye said he’s ready to welcome them back in the next weeks.
Satchel’s Pizza has an accompanying toy shop, which also recently reopened, Raye said. Staff cleaned the toys and asked that parents keep a close eye on children in the store.
Raye said he stocked the store with essential items, such as toilet paper, gloves and bleach. However, one of the most popular items are puzzles.
“People are doing a lot of puzzles, so that's been a bright spot for us,” he said. “We probably just got in another 50 the other day.”
With plans to open another restaurant location at 405 SW Fourth Ave. in a month, Raye kept busy and focused on the future.
“My life has been very busy fortunately because if I wasn't able to stay open or if I had to close down completely, I would go crazy,” he said.
He reminisced on his business’ humble beginnings.
“The first few months were really slow,” he said. “It was just like a dive, but what brought people back was the food.”
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