Pittsburgh Restaurants Wrestle With COVID-19

Local eateries are facing uncertainty in the wake of the pandemic, but most are choosing to remain open for now.
Dishclams

PHOTO BY LAURA PETRILLA

“We’re in the same boat as everyone else. We’re taking it day by day,” says Bethany Zozula, executive chef of Whitfield at Ace Hotel.

Restaurants across the city are implementing advanced safety measures to protect the well-being of their guests and staff. Those measures include frequent hand-washing, sanitizing tables and other high-touch surfaces between uses, single-use menus, limiting capacity and setting more distance between tables, providing extra hand sanitizer and not placing glassware on the table prior to use.

“We hold ourselves to a high standard already. But we want people to know that we are serious about sanitation,” says Sheree Goldstein, owner of Square Cafe.

Restaurant owners also are making sure that front- and back-of-house staff stay at home if they are showing signs of illness. Some, such as Don Mahaney of Scratch Food & Beverage, are extending paid time off for employees who need it. The Independent Hospitality Group (Hidden Harbor, Independent Brewing Company, Lorelei) is accelerating sick leave accrual so that all of its employees are eligible. Full-time employees at larger operations such as big Burrito Restaurant Group have the option of taking paid vacation days; Pittsburgh’s Paid Sick Days Act, operational as of March 15, will provide relief to some workers who will have to stay home.

“There’s no way for us to work from home,” says Sean Gazzo, a server at Burgh’ers Brewing and a member of Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a national nonprofit that works to improve wages and working conditions for restaurant workers.

Gazzo’s employer pays more than the hourly minimum wage for tipped workers (a paltry $2.83 per hour in Pennsylvania) but, he says, “my income largely depends on tips.”

Some restaurants have already seen a slowdown in business. While others are still doing OK, there is a feeling that things could get worse over the coming weeks. “Any decrease in income is going to have a serious effect on restaurant workers,” says Bobbi Linskens of the Pennsylvania chapter of ROC United.

Mike Chen, co-owner of Everyday Noodles and Night Market Gourmet and founder of the Pittsburgh Chinese Restaurant Association, says he’s noticed a 20 percent average decrease in business at Chinese restaurants in the region. But, he says, Pittsburghers overall have been supportive of Chinese-owned businesses; Chinese restaurants in Pittsburgh, he says, have taken less of a hit than those in cities such as Seattle and New York. “It’s not just hurting Chinese restaurants here. It’s all restaurants across the board. We just don’t know what we’re facing right now,” he says.

Goldstein says business is steady, for the moment, at Square Cafe; she believes that closed schools and people working from home may be a benefit to her Regent Square restaurant at this point. “People feel like we’re a community resource. A lot of people feel like this is their second kitchen,” she says.

Restaurants that depend heavily on travel and convention businesses, however, have suffered. Eleven Contemporary Kitchen and some of the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group’s Downtown concepts, for example, have lost business due to canceled travel; Ace Hotel in East Liberty also been affected. “We’ll have a bigger picture of what things will be once we see what life is like with most events being shut down in the Cultural District,” says Casey Henderlong, Director of Events and Catering for the DeShantz Group.

Across the board, restaurants are also offering expanded takeout and delivery opportunities. Union Standard, for example, is preparing family-style to-go meals that include whole wood-fired rotisserie chicken and accouterments, a loaf of warm potato bread with Amish butter and jam and a quart of smoked celery root and chicken veloute soup. Some establishments, such as big Burrito Restaurant Group, are expanding availability on delivery services such as GrubHub and DoorDash, while others are exploring options for in-house delivery services. The DeShantz Group will be adding a curbside pickup menu for its restaurants. “People can call up, order and pay over the phone, and pull up outside the restaurant for their pick-up. And we’ll run it out to them,” says Henderlong.

“If you feel uncomfortable dining-in, just call us for delivery or takeout,” Chen says.

If you’re considering dining out, here’s a compendium of the best advice: Stay home if you’re feeling ill; there’s no reason to put yourself or others at risk. If you feel OK to go out, do so as much you are comfortable but make sure to adhere to best practices such as frequently washing your hands. Call ahead to make a reservation and keep the reservation; restaurants could use a little extra certainty in such an uncertain time. Call the restaurant directly if you want takeout or delivery and tip as if you were dining in the restaurant. Tip more generously than usual in the restaurant, too. Buy gift cards from restaurants that offer them; you’re providing those businesses income now and you’ll be able to enjoy a meal later.

“There are a lot of unknowns and I think people should follow their guts. They should be clear with themselves about their comfort levels, and how they physically and emotionally feel about walking into a public space, restaurants included,” says Maheny of Scratch.

“It’s important for people to know that the restaurant community in Pittsburgh is committed to making sure we follow every safety precaution we can. We want to provide great food and service to anyone who chooses to come in and dine with us, and we want them to feel safe doing it,” says Henderlong.

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