KEARNEY — At the beginning of 2020, restaurants saw success on the horizon.

January and February were great months for local dining establishments like Alley Rose and Cunningham’s Journal.

“Last year, we had a record year,” said Alley Rose owner Shawn Engberg. “We were on record pace this year.”

Then came March, and suddenly dining out became staying in.

Cunningham’s closed a few days before state and local authorities required it, just before St. Patrick’s Day, a huge day for their business.

Like other restaurants, Cunningham’s found a path to survival in delivery and takeout. Up against the record pace from the first two months of the year, though, owner Yousef Ghamedi said recent business “paled in comparison.”

On Monday, Gov. Pete Ricketts allowed restaurants to resume dining in across the Two Rivers Health Department’s seven-county district, which includes Buffalo, Dawson, Franklin, Gosper, Harlan, Kearney and Phelps counties.

The news was a relief to local restaurant owners and managers.

“(Seeing the news) was a great feeling because it meant that we are slowly getting back on our feet,” said Liam Mendoza, director of operations for Joy’s Table, as well as Angus Burgers and Shakes. “The last couple of months have been heartbreaking; seeing restaurants, especially locally owned restaurants like us, unable to welcome the community in was tough. We are so excited to be able to say ‘Welcome back’ and have people dine with us.”

Restaurateurs are hoping that being able to service guests in-restaurant will start to turn the tide.

“The big hurdle of being closed, at least, is behind us,” Ghamedi said. “Hopefully, we can build on it going forward.”

However, things aren’t suddenly back to where they were in February. There is a long list of new health precautions that restaurants must follow.

Some restrictions are easy to adapt to, owners say, but other guidelines like limits on a restaurant’s occupancy mean profits won’t be back where they used to be for a while. Tables are blocked off, large parties aren’t allowed and capacity is limited.

In the long run, several restaurant owners don’t think the “new normal” is sustainable.

New rules for restaurants

Shortly before restaurants were allowed to reopen their dining rooms, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services released a two-page document filled with guidelines to follow. The document can be found on the dhhs.ne.gov, or posted at the entry of any open facility, as required by the guidelines.

“(The guidelines) are easy to adapt to,” said Pat Cabela, owner of Jersey’s Sports Bar. “They’re just not very convenient.”

One example Cabela offered is that servers have to wear masks now while working. He says this can hinder communication because the masks make it harder to hear and understand what the servers are saying.

While Jersey’s is following all the guidelines to a T, the owner questioned the purpose of employees wearing masks, while diners in the restaurant aren’t. “The four to six servers in here have to wear a mask, but the 60 other people don’t?”

In addition, employees must do a prescreening before starting work, including a temperature reading and checking for any symptoms that might be related to COVID-19, like a cough.

Surfaces also must be disinfected at least every four hours.

According to Ghamedi, the cleanliness guidelines aren’t a shift from maintaining a clean restaurant, anyway. Staff now wear gloves when busing tables, and now they are wiping down tables and chairs more often.

“Really, a lot of it is stuff we were doing anyway,” he said. “We’re just doing more of it now.”

A limit on business

The biggest hurdle in the governor’s directed health measures is a limit on how many patrons a restaurant may serve at a time.

Dining parties now must be seated at least 6 feet apart from each other. Each party is limited to six individuals.

In total, a restaurant only can be at 50 percent occupancy at any one time.

At Joy’s Table, this means the restaurant can serve 50-60 people, depending on how many staff members are working.

“It’s only a fraction of what we’re able to serve, and in-person dining alone, even at 50 percent capacity, won’t be enough to cover costs,” Mendoza said.

To adapt to the limit on diners, restaurants have rearranged seating and blocked off certain tables and chairs. Some also are urging customers to call ahead and set up a reservation to make sure there is room.

Ghamedi said Cunningham’s on the Lake actually is taking reservations to avoid crowds of people waiting in the lobby to be seated. The restaurant already had a system in place where people can visit the restaurant or call to add their name to the list, then get a text when their table is ready.

Alley Rose is starting the text-to-notify method, as well.

“With modern technology and cellphones, it’s pretty easy to communicate with folks,” Engberg said. “They can go anywhere they want to and we can send them a text that their table is ready.”

Is business back?

Earlier this week, restaurant owners said they already had several diners back in the restaurant.

“Everybody’s been very excited, very happy,” Cabela said of guests coming back into Jersey’s. “We’ve had a lot of compliments on how we are blocking off every other table so the social distancing is what it needs to be. More than anything, they’re just happy to come in, sit down, order a meal and have a drink.”

Business wasn’t booming at the beginning of the week for Alley Rose, but Engberg said he anticipates more guests throughout the weekend, which are busier days for the restaurant normally.

But even though he was expecting to be full Friday and Saturday nights, it’s not the same as being full on a night pre-pandemic.

“Even at 50 percent capacity, it’s not a sustainable business model for us,” Engberg said.

Alley Rose also started doing takeout service three weeks ago, in an effort to keep some of their staff employed during the closure. Because Alley Rose offers benefits, like insurance and paid vacation, for some staff members, takeout also isn’t sustainable in the long run.

Ghamedi said Cunningham’s had pretty good success with takeout, and that he was “pleasantly surprised” with the number of orders both the On the Lake and On the Bricks had for pickup and delivery. Though the restaurants always have offered takeout, Cunningham’s new online ordering system released during the closure made it easier for customers to select their entrees.

Weekends were particularly good for Cunningham’s, especially Mother’s Day weekend, and Takeout Tuesday helped during the week as well.

However, the profitability of takeout pales in comparison to normal dine-in service.

“Obviously it’s not ideal, but in a situation like this you have to do what you have to do,” Ghamedi said.

Some things may stick

Even beyond the pandemic, Ghamedi sees delivery becoming a part of the Cunningham’s business model, if the demand continues for it. The streamlined online ordering system, of course, also will stick around.

Mendoza said he thinks Joy’s Table and Angus Burgers and Shakes might keep some of their delivery and meal kit services, too, after such an “overwhelming positive response” from the community.

He said the businesses quickly adapted to these “unprecedented times,” and began to offer curbside pickup, free deliveries and prepared meal packages. More recently, they created meal kit options with fresh, uncooked ingredients so that families can make burgers, tacos or loaded baked potatoes at home.

Both restaurants also sell steaks and ground beef from Nebraska Star Beef, which is located in Holdrege.

“We have had to be creative during these difficult times and have found new revenue streams, and more so, we have listened to the voices of our community and think these options will continue to be wanted, and we want to be able to continue to meet their wants,” Mendoza said.

Slowly getting back

Though diners are returning to restaurants, some owners said it may take some time for some people to be comfortable with dining out again. Returning to the old normal is also a ways away.

Ghamedi hopes the extra cleaning measures, face masks and other steps restaurants are taking will help people feel safe.

“We understand the fears and we’re working very hard to make sure we mitigate that and make people feel comfortable coming out,” he said.

Loyal customers and a supportive community give restaurant owners hope for the future as they adjust.

But many hope the “new normal” doesn’t stay for too long.

“I’m just anxious to get back to normal,” Engberg said. “I think this is going to make us all appreciate a regular day.”

@TiffanyStoiber