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Alaska Restaurant Owner: Reopening Far From Profitable, But Still Worth It

May 4, 2020
Originally published on May 5, 2020 10:03 am

In Alaska, some restaurants are easing their way back into the business of serving food to dine-in customers.

Alaska has the lowest number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the 50 states, and on April 21, Gov. Mike Dunleavy unveiled the first phase of reopening the state's economy. It allowed some businesses, including restaurants, to reopen under new safety guidelines, beginning April 24.

Those guidelines include allowing only 25% customer capacity, sanitizing surfaces at least every hour, and requiring servers to wear masks at all times.

Matt Tomter of Matanuska Brewing Company and his staff decided they were ready to invite diners back into three of their four restaurant and brewery locations in the Anchorage area. (Tomter said the fourth restaurant is too small a space to implement required social distancing and other safety measures.)

"It's been a challenge," he tells All Things Considered. "There's a significant amount of work that goes into meeting all the guidelines and dealing with people's fears."

But these fears have not kept customers away: Tomter says the three restaurants have hit the 25% maximum capacity during the week their dining rooms have been open. He hopes the ceiling will be lifted to 50% capacity at the end of this week.

Here are excerpts from the interview.

Three of your four brewery and restaurant locations have been open a week. How is it going?

The real challenge, of course, is 25%. That doesn't constitute a profitable situation. But, we have a big takeout program going right now and a big delivery program going right now. So the three of them together, it's worth doing for us.

Do you have servers touching the plates? How does it work?

Everything we're using is disposable, other than the plates. I mean, you can't cut on a paper plate. ... Servers are in gloves and masks. Most of the customers are encouraged to wear a mask on the way in. But you can't sit there and eat and drink with them on. So, most people don't come in with those on.

Do you think there's any advantage to doing this in Alaska, where people are more used to being spread out than they are in a lot of parts of the country?

We're not New York City. ... The reason Alaska is able to open right now is we are naturally socially distanced. We're way up here, and there's not a lot of planes coming in. So it's just basically Alaskans right now trying to get through it. And we just didn't get a big hit with the virus at the beginning.

How about your employees? Was anybody reluctant to come back? Unemployment is maybe a steadier paycheck these days.

We've got the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program]. We're paying people more than we normally would in order to get people to come back. If they want to work and they feel comfortable doing it, they're welcome back. If they don't, we're just letting people ride it out.

It sounds like it certainly does not feel normal, but does it feel good to be back?

Well, I mean, sitting down and having a beer and watching last year's sports, there's something to that. ...

The overwhelming amount of folks that are coming in are just relieved to be able to sit down and order a beer and get a burger and just enjoy not being at their house.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Alaska now, where some restaurants are feeling their way back into the business of serving meals to dine-in customers sitting down at tables on the premises. Alaska has the lowest number of confirmed cases of all 50 states, and it has been a week since Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy told some businesses, including restaurants, they could reopen under new safety guidelines. Those guidelines include only 25% of customer capacity, sanitizing surfaces every hour at least and servers wearing masks at all times. Well, Matt Tomter of Matanuska Brewing Company decided he and his staff were ready to invite diners back into three of his four locations. He joins us now to talk about what that process has been like.

Welcome.

MATT TOMTER: Hey. Thank you.

KELLY: So three of your four brewery and restaurant locations - you've been open a week. How is it going? What's going well?

TOMTER: Well, it's been a challenge. You listed just a few of the things we've had to do, and there's a significant amount of work that goes into meeting all the guidelines and dealing with people's fears and what - you know, we had a big meeting with our staff before we started and made the decision after speaking with them - they were comfortable with it. We were comfortable with it. The real challenge, of course, is 25% - you know, that doesn't constitute a profitable situation. But we have a big take-out program going right now and a big delivery program going right now, so the three of them together - it's worth doing for us.

KELLY: So the 25% capacity - walk me through how you are doing that. Have you got fewer tables? Are you - are they all - the tables are there, but half of them have big Xs over them. How are you doing it?

TOMTER: That's exactly what we've got. We've got little signs on the tables that can't be used. And we're hopeful that we're going to a 50% capacity upgrade here at the end of the week, so that would really make things better.

KELLY: What's been the most challenging thing?

TOMTER: I mean, first of all, you have to gain the confidence of the public, and you have to have the confidence of your staff, where everybody feels safe, right?

KELLY: Right.

TOMTER: And, you know, it's pretty easy up here with the limited amount of cases that we've had. But it's - there's still a heavy amount of concern. And so, you know, we've gone above and beyond the standard protocol that we were required to follow and try to alleviate people's concerns and make sure that we were doing stuff as safe as possible.

KELLY: I mean, just talk me through the practicalities of serving somebody dinner at this moment. Are you serving the full menu? Are your - do you have servers touching the plates? How does it work?

TOMTER: We're - everything we're using is disposable other than the plates. And you can't cut on a paper plate. With everything else that's disposable, we just - everything gets thrown away right away. Servers are in gloves and masks. Most of the customers - they're encouraged to wear a mask on the way in, but you can't sit there and eat and drink with them on, so...

KELLY: Sure.

TOMTER: Most people don't come in with those on.

KELLY: Yeah. And are people coming in? Are you filling the quarter of tables that you're allowed to fill?

TOMTER: Oh, yeah. We're filled our 25%. We're at capacity the whole time we're open.

KELLY: How about from your employees - I wonder if anybody was reluctant to come back, either because they were worried about getting sick or the financials of it - you know, that unemployment is maybe a steadier paycheck these days.

TOMTER: (Laughter) Well, you know, we've got PPP or Payroll Protection Program, so we're paying people more than we normally would in order to get people to come back. If they want to work and they feel comfortable doing it, they're welcome back. If they don't, we're just letting people ride it out.

KELLY: Do you think there's any advantage to doing this in Alaska, where people are more used to being spread out than they are in a lot of parts of the country?

TOMTER: Oh, I mean, we're not New York City, I mean, for crying out loud. I mean, the reason Alaska is able to open right now is we are - we - I mean, we're naturally socially distanced, right? And we're way up here. And there's not a lot of planes coming in, so it's just basically Alaskans right now trying to get through it. And we just didn't get a big hit with the virus at the beginning.

KELLY: I mean, it sounds like it certainly does not feel normal, but does it feel good to be back?

TOMTER: Well, I mean - you know, I'm sitting down and having a beer and watching last year's sports.

KELLY: (Laughter).

TOMTER: There's something to that.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: The beer is fresh. The sports are old, and that's as good as it's going to be right now.

TOMTER: Yeah, it's too bad. But, I mean, you know, that's going to come back too. So the overwhelming amount of folks that are coming in are just relieved to be able to sit down and order a beer and get a burger and just enjoy not being in their house.

KELLY: Yeah. I got to say from where I sit, that sounds pretty good right now.

TOMTER: (Laughter) It's one day at a time. I mean, there's no other way to do it.

KELLY: That is Matt Tomter of Matanuska Brewing Company in the Anchorage, Alaska, area.

Thanks so much, and good luck.

TOMTER: Hey, thank you very much. Cheers.

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