On Monday, the state of Florida began allowing local restaurants to start serving customers at tables for the first time since late March. Some restaurants in Sarasota have already seen a boost, while foot traffic at other places has not increased much.
Chef Paul Mattison, who owns Sarasota's Mattison's City Grille and Mattison's Forty-One, as well as Bradenton's Mattison's Riverwalk Grille, says the number of customers coming in has gradually risen over the course of the week.
"It started off a little slow," he says, "but people are getting more and more confident about being out."
Unlike other restaurants that continued to offer takeout and delivery in recent weeks, Mattison closed his eateries shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Florida. Between lost restaurant sales, canceled catering contracts and scrapped events at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, where Mattison's provides food, the restaurant group has lost between $2 million and $2.5 million in revenue, Mattison estimates.
The Mattison's Bradenton location is already open for both lunch and dinner, but the other two Mattison's restaurants have opened for dinner only. Mattison says he hopes to have all three restaurants fully open in the coming week. Following state guidelines, the restaurants are limiting the number of indoor diners to 25 percent of their total capacity and separating tables by at least six feet. Servers and kitchen staffers are all wearing masks.
Poonam Maini owns the Sarasota Indian restaurant Tandoor. She says reopening has been "very slow" so far.
Tandoor has been filling takeout orders regularly since its dining room closed, and that option remains popular at dinnertime. But the restaurant has long been popular at lunchtime because of its buffet, which Tandoor is not currently offering. Maini says she is concerned about shared serving utensils and containers of food. Plus, with many workplaces still closed, there aren't as many customers coming in for lunch from nearby offices.
"Dinner takeout has been saving me," Maini says. "I appreciate this community so much."
Nick and Amanda Mavrikas bought Sarasota's Brooklyn Bagels & Deli last December. The shop has a handful of indoor and outdoor tables, but even before the pandemic, 70 percent of its business was takeout. The restaurant never closed, but Nick Mavrikas says it has seen a significant uptick over the past two weeks. He says regulars are once again lingering, rather than just popping in and out. "Some are still concerned," he says, "but nothing is holding them back."
Alpine Steakhouse owner Matt Rebhan says that, overall, sales have remained about the same at his restaurant this week. Longtime customers have started coming back to eat at the restaurant, while takeout business from those same regulars has declined.
Rebhan says Alpine's customers are happy to be back, even if sometimes they have to wait for a table because the restaurant has reached its 25 percent capacity limit. "The people who are going out to dine aren't wearing masks or feeling scared," he says. "They're enjoying their families while they're here." Alpine is also home to a butcher shop, and meat sales rose as restaurant sales dropped, which has helped the business scrape by.
What is most worrisome for many restaurant owners is that the pandemic hit during Sarasota's seasonal peak—a time when busy restaurants can earn enough to carry them through the slower summer and early fall.
"What scares me is the coming through-season," says Tandoor's Maini. "I don't know where we're going to end up."
"This couldn't have hit our area at a worse time," says Mattison. "This is the time we load up our coffers to be prepared for the off-season, which is coming at us."
Mattison also worries about suppliers being able to continue to offer the products he needs to fill up his menu. He says Mattison's menus will likely be smaller and change more frequently in the future. "You've got to stay nimble," he says. "We might have to do things really differently than we did before."