Tampa Bay restaurants are open and hiring. Owners say they’re ready for more.

But some servers don’t feel safe coming back so soon.
Allison Harris waits on customers at Baba Friday, May 8, 2020 in St. Petersburg, FL.  Harris wore a mask the first day the restaurant opened and refrained from giving hugs to the regulars.  "I really like to hug my friends and customers that I've known forever, so that's huge for me."
Allison Harris waits on customers at Baba Friday, May 8, 2020 in St. Petersburg, FL. Harris wore a mask the first day the restaurant opened and refrained from giving hugs to the regulars. "I really like to hug my friends and customers that I've known forever, so that's huge for me." [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]
Published May 12, 2020|Updated May 13, 2020

It has been only eight days since Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed restaurants to reopen dining rooms at 25 percent capacity, but after a promising weekend, some local restaurateurs say the customers are lined up and ready for when restaurants get the go-ahead to ramp things up.

Some said their regulars had come back to dine-in two or three times in the span of a few days.

“It has been wonderful to see the smiles and hear the laughter again,” said Jeff Gigante, owner of Tampa restaurant Forbici. Gigante said thanks in large part to a steady takeout business and the city closing streets at Hyde Park Village to allow more outdoor seating, Forbici is already bringing in 65 to 70 percent of its pre-coronavirus revenue with close to 100 percent of the staffing.

He said he’s hopeful they’ll soon be allowed to increase capacity to at least 75 percent indoors. The restaurant is taking precautions like masks, single-use menus and sanitizer stations.

“We believe we can do that safely with the precautions we’re taking,” Forbici said. “I respect my fellow restaurant and business owners. If they’re not ready to start the path to healing, we respect that. In the same token, we’d love that same respect shown to us for our decision.”

Forbici is off to a particularly good start, with a particularly optimistic owner. But restaurants, even the lucky few back to anything resembling normal revenue, are a low-margin business. Many owners said they can only operate at 25 percent for a short time with their overhead costs.

“At 25 percent, I’m hoping just to break even on food costs and utilities, but even then we’re absolutely losing money on the rent," said Josh Cameron, who owns Oyster Bar and Crafty Squirrel on St. Petersburg’s Central Avenue. “But, 25 percent helps get the vendors going again. It helps the staff get a few extra dollars in their back pocket. It gets the cogs moving in the right direction.”

Cameron was expecting to see mostly younger customers return at first, with the city’s more mature crowd holding off. He said he was surprised over the weekend to see almost the exact opposite.

Tampa Bay restaurant reservations spiked on May 4, and have “dramatically outpaced restaurants in major cities in Florida, Georgia and Texas,” according to a report based on data from reservations app Open Table and released by the Tampa Bay Partnership, a privately-funded coalition of area business leaders. Still, the report says, there were 80 percent fewer reservations than the same week last year.

Mother’s Day weekend was somewhat busy, said Renee Killian, 56, a lead server for more than 18 years at Billy’s Stone Crab, but the earnings “weren’t even close” to normal.

She said some guests were not pleased with that restaurant’s request to check their temperature, though others appreciated the precautions.

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Customers were asked to wear masks for the first few days while moving around the dining room or going to the restroom. The restaurant provided them, she said, but many guests either refused, or took the mask and didn’t use it. By the weekend, that idea had been mostly scrapped.

For some, the restrictions have added another layer of difficulties beyond low capacity.

“Twenty five percent is a no money maker,” said Tony Mangiafico, who owns St. Petersburg’s Gratzzi Italian Grille. Mangiafico is also partners in Flute & Dram on Beach Drive.

Police visited Flute & Dram multiple times over the weekend due to complaints of overcrowding, even though Mangiafico said St. Petersburg Fire Rescue inspected and pre-approved their layout, including outdoor tables set eight feet apart. Mangiafico’s partner, Greg Haddad, said it was an issue with customers standing up and mingling instead of staying seated at the spaced out tables.

Haddad said he is not clear on why Publix and Home Depot can be open and “crowded with people, grabbing everything, but my businesses can’t be."

Restaurants enforced the 25 percent capacity in different ways. At the Avenue, an employee counts how many people enter the front door. Once they reach 25 percent capacity, there’s a wait. At Oyster Bar, they removed 75 percent of the seats. Others are requiring reservations for the first time.

“It’s a challenge for us,” said Jen Bingham, owner of Cru Cellars in Tampa’s Palma Ceia neighborhood. “We’re such a neighborhood spot. People really want to walk in.”

Along with dine-in customers, something else unseen for the past two months returned this week: job listings for Tampa Bay restaurants.

Several owners said almost all staff members offered a chance to come back were willing, but all said at least a few had declined.

“If you’re on federal and Florida unemployment, it’s a good amount of money,” Bingham said, suggesting that those who’ve been able to receive benefits might not want to chance returning to fewer tips in an industry that relies on them to supplement salaries below minimum wage.

Stephen Schrutt of the Hunger + Thirst restaurant group said the Avenue, which brought back 15 of its 40 or so employees last week, had a few choose to stay away. “It was mostly people who have maybe elderly parents, or maybe they just don’t feel comfortable yet. Some have availability issues because their husband or wife can’t stay home with the kids or they’ve taken different jobs. Things have changed for everyone.”

Schrutt, who is hoping to reopen bars No Vacancy and Park & Rec soon, said it has been heartening to see some guests tipping up to 100 percent to help defray what servers are losing due to fewer sales overall.

Matt Adamczyk, 41, a part-time server for a popular local chain with a normally robust staff, said he and his coworkers have conceded that there is simply no way to truly social distance from coworkers at a restaurant.

Now that restaurant has posted open positions for servers, cooks and managers, because so many former employees have opted not to come back, Adamczyk said. “They never have to hire like this.”

Allyson Erwin, 30, was laid off from a job as a server at a busy St. Petersburg restaurant. She hasn’t been asked to return to work yet, but said she would not return if she was.

“There were 18 new documented cases in Pinellas County yesterday,” said Erwin, a photographic artist who is getting by selling her art and clothes from the back of her closet. “There is still no vaccine, the virus is still being spread the same ways it was a month ago. It is not possible to keep six feet of distance between myself and someone I am handing a beverage to.”

Stephanie Miller, 28, a server laid off from a busy restaurant in Tampa, said she applied for unemployment a month ago but has not received it. She has received some funds from St. Petersburg College’s Student Emergency Fund.

Still, she said she does not plan to go back to serving if the restaurant calls her.

“It would definitely be a tough decision,” she said. “But this 25 percent seems weird, almost like a test group, and I don’t really want to be part of the test."

And some restaurants have not announced plans to reopen at all yet, even though they’re allowed to.

“Whatever happens will be gradual, and safe for our guests and staff," Columbia Restaurant Group president Richard Gonzmart said last week. “We’re very carefully watching our colleagues here and restaurants in other states.”

The Columbia Restaurant Group, which operates 13 restaurants, has only opened Goody Goody, for takeout, so far.

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