Restaurants Adapt Amid Coronavirus Concerns

Apr 10, 2020

On March 19, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon issued an order requiring all food establishments to halt sit-down services and move exclusively to delivery or to-go orders. Just a couple of weeks later, the order was extended through April 30.

Many restaurants responded by cutting their hours and offering limited menus. Some closed their doors completely, choosing to try to weather out the storm and reopen when the virus is no longer a concern. For business owners, staying open was a tough decision to make.

"It sucks for the food industry because we're in this rock and a hard place. Do I keep my employees paid and give them a fighting chance to get through this? Or do I heed public health and safety and shut the place down?" Andy Glines, owner of Laramie's Crowbar and Grill, said. "So it's kind of a no-win situation sometimes and to try and kind of ride that line is tough."

Crowbar is open, but according to Glines, business is slower than normal.

Speedgoat, another restaurant in Laramie, originally closed its doors but recently decided to reopen. Owner Rajeev Patel said he wanted to make sure that being open was a viable option for both his staff and his business before transitioning to a carryout service.

"So I saw the opportunity to get some more staff working. And our staff here is great, and they really wanted to come back and get Speedgoat out to the public. And for me, it's not really going to be a money-making opportunity, it's more just get people working and get this place moving a little bit versus just staying stagnant," Patel said.

But adapting and staying open can be costly for businesses, especially ones with slim margins, like restaurants. Their costs have changed very little, but the money they're making has drastically dropped.

"Businesses don't typically have a large savings account that can get them through a prolonged closure. And so closing really is kind of the nuclear option for a business. That is really closure for any length of time is basically… leads to failure if you don't have some sort of other release," Rob Godby, an economist at the University of Wyoming, said.

According to Godby, the restaurants that close have a high chance of not being able to reopen ever, especially small, local places.

Signs like this one are the new normal in restaurant windows across town.
Credit Ivy Engel

"Those local restaurants, you know, those restaurants that opened as a one-off, they just may not be able to reopen those restaurants again. So I expect there will probably be permanent casualties. And the ones that are hit hardest are these restaurants that aren't chains that are unique to each town or city," Godby said.

Restaurants that have stayed open thus far are still adapting to changes in the fundamental way they do business. And that goes for coffee shops as well, like Coal Creek Coffee in Laramie.

"It has been just kind of a frantic pace since all of this started to come out. Because there's so much to adapt. Trying to go fully online or to a delivery model - that's a different business model entirely," Jodi Guerin, co-owner of Coal Creek Coffee, said.

Guerin said the biggest challenge they've faced is not being able to spend time with the community the business is built on.

But no matter how much community there is, the service industry has been one of the hardest-hit industries in the country. In Wyoming alone, 40 percent of the people who filed for unemployment in the last two weeks worked in the hospitality industry. For those who have kept their jobs, the job is different and many have seen drastic cuts to the number of hours they work.

Godby said this is likely the start of a recession, but it's not really a normal start. Not only are people not able to socialize at restaurants as they have in the past, which restaurants rely on, but people are also concerned about spending money right now.

"They're very fearful. They've either lost their income, or they're very fearful about losing their income, either in part or in full. And people are, you know, saving right now and penny-pinching where they can," Godby said.

For the restaurants, their future is completely uncertain. Nobody knows how long the pandemic will last and when people will be willing to come back into their facilities. So all they can do is operate day-to-day.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Ivy Engel, at iengel@uwyo.edu.