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Economy during pandemic serves up fair business for local restaurants

By Rebecca J. Barnabi
For Augusta Free Press

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In late March, Virginia residents were told to do something they had never been told to do before.

Stay home.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s state-mandated lockdown placed restrictions on all kinds of businesses and encouraged residents to stay home to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but perhaps no industry was as affected as local restaurants.

As restrictions began to ease up in June, restaurants considered other options, such as outside dining, to bring customers back.

“I think definitely,” said Greg Hitchin, Waynesboro’s director of economic development and tourism, of how much better local restaurants are doing now compared to during the lockdown. “We have no hard data.”

On Tuesday, Hitchin said he picked up food for lunch and customers were waiting to enter the restaurant from which he ordered food.

“I think in general restaurants are doing better — both with pickup and curbside [and sit-down services],” Hitchin said.

Hitchin said that the city can only comment on locally-owned restaurants, such as in downtown, not chain restaurants, such as at Towne Center.

Until the governor’s new restrictions were announced Monday as Virginia and states across the U.S. see positive COVID-19 cases increase again, Hitchin said he “would have said I think we’ll see things improve.”

Outdoor dining will be affected by winter weather in the coming months, and the governor’s new restrictions “will put a damper on it.”

“I still feel pretty good about [the local economy recovering from the pandemic],” Hitchin said.

However, the situation can change daily.

Kris Krupa owns The Heritage on Main Street, which opened downtown in September 2012. The Heritage closed in July 2018 for renovations and expansion, and reopened in late 2018.

The Heritage was open for carry-out meals only during the governor’s mandated lockdown in the spring, but resumed dine-in services, according to Krupa, when the use of outside patio dining was allowed.

“That’s just grown and grown since,” Krupa said of The Heritage’s outside patio dining.

He said having outside patio dining available for customers “was beneficial.”

“[The situation is] better as far as volume of business,” Krupa said of how his restaurant is doing now compared to in the spring.

However, with the governor’s new restrictions in Virginia, and during what Krupa said is usually The Heritage’s busiest season — the fourth quarter of the year — business is probably going to change.

“But I’m sure this is the beginning of things winding down [with state restrictions on restaurants],” Krupa said.

In the coming months, Krupa said the restaurant will have to focus on carry-out meals “to stay open.”

He added that he hopes state and local officials are able to figure out “kind and thoughtful ways to get us through” the pandemic, either with a vaccine or masks.

The Heritage is open Sundays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Hitchin said that the River City continues to take steps toward keeping residents safe during the pandemic.

“I think we’re willing to do what we need to do that makes sense for everybody,” Hitchin said.

In Staunton, outside dining took center stage while the weather was warm.

“[Dine Out in Downtown has] been a really successful program initiative in response to the pandemic,” said Greg A. Beam, executive director of the Staunton Downtown Development Association.

He said that restaurant owners in downtown Staunton have said the program has helped “sustain” them during the pandemic.

Since June, from Fridays at 5 p.m. until Sundays at 8 p.m. Beverley Street has been closed so that customers to eat at tables placed in the street.

Dine Out in Downtown, according to Beam, was made possible with a partnership between local restaurants, the city of Staunton and the SDDA.

Cold weather has brought challenges for the program in recent weeks, but a few warmer weekends kept the program’s momentum going.

Beam said that some restaurants changed menu options with the cold weather to attract customers, and have begun providing outdoor heating sources.

The program is expected to continue through the first weekend in January, although some weekends Beam said restaurants know the weather will not cooperate for customers to dine outside.

Dine Out in Downtown’s purpose, Beam said, was not only to bring more business for downtown restaurants in the Queen City, but to continue the downtown’s tradition of offering shopping and dining options.

On Saturday, November 28, downtown Staunton will celebrate its annual Small Business Saturday event, always held the day after Black Friday.

“I think that definitely once [Dine Out in Downtown] was offered, restaurants were able to survive,” Beam said.

The pandemic will continue to present challenges through January and into spring, Beam said, and restaurants will have to rely on curbside and pickup services.

Local restaurants and retailers “will have to continue to pivot” and make changes to their business plans to adjust to changes presented by the pandemic.

“It’s going to be a challenge still in the coming months, but I think that [local restaurants are] all going to be looking at ways to be stronger,” Beam said.

Downtown Staunton will “continue to push forward together.”

Beam said that he and the SDDA appreciate the community’s support, and reminds the local community to shop local during the 2020 holiday season.

“It definitely exceeded expectations,” Beam said of Dine Out in Downtown.

The program’s success is owed to local restaurants, the Staunton Police Department, city officials and Staunton’s Public Works Department working together to provide a safe environment for customers to shop and dine downtown.

“Everyone kind of working together to make this work, as well as everybody in the community supporting it,” Beam said.

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