As Kentucky lifts COVID capacity restrictions and mask mandates, Lexington restaurants have some things to say to customers:
First: Thank you for keeping them (most of them, anyway) afloat during the pandemic with takeout orders, cocktails to go, sidewalk dining and extra tips to favorite servers.
Second: Welcome back, they are very excited about things getting back to normal.
Third: Be patient. Because normal might take a while.
“Nothing is going to look like it did before, and I don’t know if it ever will,” said Scott Hawkins, general manager at Palmer’s Fresh Grill in Lexington Green. “So go out, but go out with an open mind.”
What to expect at restaurant, bars
“Our industry as whole has really been beat up for the past 16 months, so we would just ask for patience as we try to figure out this next episode,” he said.
‘Full capacity’ might not mean a full dining room
Why? Lots of places are still staffing up. That takes time, Hawkins said. “For all the operators, the number one priority will be to get the staff level back to one they feel good about,” he said. “It’s baby steps for the industry, going from nearly crippled to crawling again and trying to get back up to running.”
Some restaurants, including Chipotle, have raised pay to attract workers, and that increased labor cost might be passed along to customers. Also, prices have gone up on lots of food, including chicken, that might be in short supply due to the gas shortage and worker shortages at processing plants.
Missing favorite dishes
Hawkins said that restaurants are adjusting menus to compensate for what they can’t get or what they can’t afford to put on the plate. That might mean a reduced menu until things stabilize, he said.
At Bourbon ’n’ Toulouse, the customer favorite is off the menu for now, Heathcoat said. “We can’t get crawfish because of COVID, it’s just the supply chain. A few weeks ago, it was chicken. ... Every few weeks it’s a different product.”
Fewer printed menus
Lots of restaurants stopped handing out menus during the pandemic. And they really liked it. Virtual menus are much quicker and cheaper to change. This isn’t a welcome change for all customers, who are used to being handed a menu. But most places can accommodate those who want something to look at, either with a chalkboard, a device or a printed version for sit-down customers.
Dining in might not be back
Some small restaurants may keep dining in shut down or limited for now. Takeout has become such a booming business in the last year that some places can’t accommodate takeout and dine-in at the moment.
Heathcoat said Bourbon ‘n’ Toulouse will reopen but not immediately.
“We’re going to be a few days behind. We are finishing up a kitchen project, so we’re not opening (the) dining room until next week,” he said. “It’s going to be very interesting for us. We have not been open inside since March 15 of 2020, so we’re all going into this with a little hesitancy. ... We’re going to be apprehensive but very excited to welcome people back in safely.”
Curbside and delivery aren’t going away
“Curbside and third-party delivery got us through our first pandemic, so we did not want to let that go,” Heathcoat said. They’ve added a walk-up window with a separate door to take food out to make it easier on kitchen staff, he said. And they joined the local Delivery Co-op, a restaurant-owned subscription service that gives Lexington restaurants more control over customer experience.
Outside seating will still be there too
Lexington has always been a big patio dining market, and that isn’t going to change.
Bottom line: Manage expectations
“Do your research,” Hawkins suggested. “Look at a place’s social media, find out what they are doing so you’re mentally prepared before you go, so your expectations are in line with what you are going to receive. ... It’s important for consumers to know we want to get back to normal, it’s just going to take time.”