Fernando Rios, co-owner of Nando’s Mexican Café

Fernando Rios, co-owner of Nando’s Mexican Café, believes even with the ability to reopen restaurants for dine-in service the experience will likely forever be changed.

As restaurants across Mesa and the East Valley prepare to open their doors to dine-in customers for the first time since March, some uncertainty remains among owners and managers. 

Meanwhile, city officials are working on plans to gradually open closed parks, libraries and other facilities – although they have no timetable yet.      While some City Council members complain they’re being pressured by constituents to force the city to open public pools, all cities are under state orders to keep them closed.

And while hair and nail salons are allowed to open, Ducey has yet to say when tattoo parlors, massage businesses, bars and gyms can resume operations. 

Restaurant owners said that as concerns over COVID-19 began rising before closure orders were issued,  they had adopted protocols to reduce the risks of illness for their wait and kitchen staff. Cooks were wearing gloves and wait staffs were asked to wash their hands frequently.

But as new information about COVID-19 surfaces on a daily basis, more precautions are in order after Gov. Doug Ducey gave the green light for many retail shops to open last week and restaurants to open tomorrow.

Right now, customers are only allowed inside mall stores that have doors leading to the parking lot. 

Restaurants are reopening cautiously, and are preparing to add to their safety protocols: opening fewer tables for patrons to observe social distancing, keeping condiment containers like ketchup bottles off the table and scheduling numerous rounds of sanitizing public areas.

But some restaurant owners wonder whether their patrons also will follow new guidelines. 

“How will customers react if we ask them to wash their hands or sanitize?” asked Fernando Rios. “What if some people come in thinking they’re fine but actually have the virus? It’s going to be a challenge, but we are going to do what we can.”

Rios owns four Nando’s Mexican Café locations and moved to pickup only when in-house dining was banned. Last week, he added drive-through service. 

All employees were asked to wear gloves and a mask on the job and sanitizing was expanded. 

Rios said the pandemic has taken a toll, mostly because his menu specifically caters to dining in. 

“We weren’t built for takeout,” he said. He said his menu items are put on big plates because "it looks more attractive."

"You just don’t get that same experience when you do take out,” he said.

Before the pandemic, Venezia’s Pizza owner Domenick Montanile would frequently have both dine-in and pickup customers at all five Venezia’s locations in the Valley, including Mesa. 

Once businesses were ordered closed, Montanile not only had to eliminate seating inside the restaurant also eliminated the opportunity for customers to walk inside his stores to pick up food. 

Venezia’s moved its entire operation to curbside pickup and delivery. The company already had strict sanitizing measures in place but ramped up their efforts in March. 

Even as he is able to welcome customers inside, he feels handling that and curbside pickup will be challenging. 

“I’m not sure we can manage curbside pickup and dine in at the same time,” Montanile said. “I don’t think it’s going to work. It will be challenging to do curbside and allow a limited number of people in the store. We are playing around with all possible options.” 

As part of a joint effort between state health officials and restaurant industry leaders, new guidelines were put in place for restaurants to safely open. 

Ducey said the guidelines coincide with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Restaurants are being asked to limit the number of customers allowed inside – forcing patrons to possibly wait in their cars until they get a text to come in or to simply make reservations if their staffing allows them to do that. 

After customers leave, workers are encouraged to sanitize seating areas and menus. 

Parties should consist of 10 or fewer people and even if dine-in services are offered, curbside and takeout options should still exist for customers who do not feel comfortable sitting inside. 

Ducey also said restaurants should try to put measures in place to check employees for symptoms before each shift. Touchless payment options should be explored, he added. 

He also said eateries should resort to disposable menus – or sanitize permanent ones after every use.

The guidelines also encourage customers to visit restaurants during off-peak hours, such as early morning, late afternoon or early evenings. Those who are at higher risk for severe illness should avoid dine-in options all together, Ducey said. 

For now, buffets are off the menu and restaurants like the popular Golden Corral are closed. Golden Corral plans to reopen May 25 with a "no touch" buffet that will keep patrons from touching utensils; social-distancing rules also will be in force.

Damon Drayfahl, the bar manager of The Hub Grill & Bar on Stapley and Baseline roads in Mesa, said the size of his restaurant presents the opportunity to serve more dine-in customers than other nearby establishments. 

Along with a large bar area with tables and booths, the restaurant offers a dining room and two patios, one designated for smoking. 

Drayfahl added that management will likely decide not to open the bar top for customers to sit at. 

With the close proximity of stools, even removing one or two between patrons may still pose a risk of not being 6-feet apart. Most restaurants are following suit.

“Luckily, we have a bigger volume and are able to hold more capacity,” Drayfahl said. “That’s allowed us to follow the 6-foot rule and perfect that pretty well even before we were forced to close. We started seating people at every other table.” 

Janie Riddle, the co-owner of Valle Luna in Chandler, had meetings with her management staff to have a plan in place even before Ducey’s announcement. 

“We talked about how we would open up when the governor gives the green light,” Riddle said. 

“All of our handheld machines are sanitized after every use," he continued. "When we open, computers, counters, chairs are all wiped down and it’s the same when we close. Cleaning and sanitizing at an even higher level is one of the most important things.”

Some restaurant owners still question how they will be able to order customers not to gather in a waiting area.

Rios said his management team has considered putting a barrier similar to what has been seen in grocery stores between booths.

 But he still has concerns about what the future of dine-in eating will look like going forward. 

“I don’t think it will ever be the same,” Rios said. 

“We used to cater to large parties, but I don’t think we can ever do that again," he continued. "I’ve been doing this for years, but this is the first time where I’ve run into a problem where if I were to lose my restaurants, it won’t be because of competition. 

“It will be because Mother Nature said, ‘no mas.’”

 

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