On March 18, the Facebook page for Mama’s Italian Restaurant offered a detailed description of how the staff was taking extreme precautions to comply with recommendations set by Governor Ron DeSantis for Florida restaurants. Staff were wiping down menus after each use, bringing a new set of condiments to every dining party, removing bar stools and bringing beverage refills out in new cups.
On March 19, Lauri Ray, owner of Ricaltini’s Bar and Grille, had introduced a special $6 menu to area restaurant personnel hit hard by the slowdown in business from the COVID-19 crisis. Ray said the idea came from her son Michael who had been in the business for 20 years. It would also be a way, she hoped, to keep her staff busier.
On March 20, in an effort to stem the spread of the virus, DeSantis ordered restaurants to shutter all dining-in services. Now those $6 meals at Ricaltinis’ would only be available by take-out and those preparations by Mama’s were no longer necessary.
The latest regulations were just another hit to an industry that was already reeling. With customers voluntarily staying at home, bars closed and mandatory 50% seating capacity, some restaurant owners already were forced to cut hours and layoff staff.
To make matters worse, all this was happening during some of the busiest weeks of the season, a time when restaurants and bars are used to waiting lists and full parking lots. “This is horrible for so many,” said Ray.
“This is a very tough, scary time for everyone,” said Carol and Laura Brenneman, owners of Lickity Split Cafe in Tiffany Square. “I worry for my servers trying to make ends meet and us too.” She says the restaurant is not only a family business but the staff, including two women who have worked there for 20 years, is their family.
When the latest restrictions were announced, Audrey Slade, owner of the Placida Fish Market, didn’t have to worry about managing a dining room, and was already transitioning to curbside service, limiting customers inside the store. Slade says one of her challenges is getting customers to place their orders an hour in advance, and get used to not going into the store. “We understand this is not an ideal situation for any of us,” said Slade. “We will get through together as a community.”
Even as the crisis escalated, community was on the mind of many of the restaurant owners. The owners of Mama’s were offering free meals to children under 10. Tom and Sandy Catalano, owners of Isabella’s in Cape Haze were asking their customers to share the names of families with children in need so they could provide food to them. Marie LaForge, co-owner of Mango Bistro, is providing free meals to people 18 and under who were on Sarasota County’s free lunch program but are no longer covered by the program.
LaForge’s main concern is her staff. She said that she hasn’t been forced to let anyone go as several staffers volunteered to take cuts in their work hours.LaForge said she is also concerned about the local entertainers that would normally play at Mango Bistro and other restaurants. “Their livelihood has been put on hold indefinitely. I do not know if the public realizes that.”
“On St. Patrick’s Day everything went off the rails, said musician Rob Garcia. After returning from a tour, Garcia said he booked performance dates through March and all were canceled and he knows many musicians in the same situation. With no gigs in his future, Garcia has formed Southwest Florida bands Together, and is writing a song called “The Forgotten Ones” for “underpaid and overworked” service personnel.
“There is a sense of helplessness because we can’t fix this,” said Ed Hill, director of the Englewood Area Chamber of Commerce. One thing the Chamber could do was make it easier for customers to find and order from its restaurant members, including most noted in this story, that were offering take out, delivery and specials. Using the same platform as the Chamber’s Let’s Eat! Englewood campaign, Chamber staff and website manager, Johannes Gross, put www.Englewoodtakeout.com together in less than a day. The site will be updated as things change, and change they will.
Hill also recommends that customers buy gift cards to help the restaurants “with cash flow and down the road. We don’t know when it’s going to be over.”
Sandy Catalano is hopeful. She said that until the day they were forced to close Isabella’s dining room, her regulars were showing up. She hopes that they and others will take advantage of enjoying the same food in the safety of their own home, vowing, “We will remain open until they shut us down.”
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