Kathy Pratte walked out of Rhody’s Food & Spirits in Dubuque late Tuesday morning with precious cargo: peanut butter and coconut cream pies.
Pratte had just driven more than seven hours, having “bolted” from Chesterfield Township, Mich., after that state’s governor issued a shelter-in-place order Monday in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We called (a relative in Dubuque) and said, ‘They’re closing (the state) down,’” Pratte said. “So we packed it all up and left for Dubuque. ... I said, ‘Can we get pie?’ Because we can’t get any food like that up there. We have no restaurants. Nothing. I’m excited, because we haven’t had carryout food or restaurant food in a few weeks.”
In Dubuque, restaurant owners have spent the past week trying to adapt, relying on delivery, carryout and curbside pick-up to bring in some money while running on reduced hours and skeleton crews.
“It’s little revenue coming in to offset the bills,” said Donna Miller, owner of Rhody’s Food & Spirits, 4167 Old Highway Road.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on March 17 ordered the closure of the state’s bars and dine-in services at restaurants through March 31 in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19, a potentially lethal strain of coronavirus.
But unlike governors in Illinois, Wisconsin and elsewhere, Reynolds has brushed off calls for a “shelter in place” order, stating doing so would be premature and that state public health officials continue to closely evaluate the situation.
Miller said her business has made about 30% of its normal weekly sales since dine-in service was suspended. She has cut costs where she can while still being able to stay open.
That’s included laying off a few part-time employees, with her and her daughter running the restaurant under reduced hours Monday through Saturday.
“We still have our full menu and we are still running specials every day,” said Melissa Kotz, Miller’s daughter and restaurant manager.
Community members, area businesses and regular patrons, however, have been supportive, Miller said.
“I hope to get through it. It just depends on how long,” she said. “Time is going to tell. I just did an order for food, and in the back of my mind I’m thinking, ‘OK, when will Iowa join surrounding states and suspend food service altogether?’”
As soon as Reynolds’ order was issued closing dine-in service, Lindsey Wallace, owner of Pete’s Thai Kitchen and Happi Hibachi in Dubuque, began texting her 15 employees to transition from dine-in to delivery.
“We started our own delivery immediately … and the community response has been fabulous,” Wallace said.
Wallace said she has worked with three employers in Dubuque who still have some workers in their offices to offer lunch-time catering seven days per week.
“The companies are trying to keep employees from getting exposed by going out to pick up lunch, instead choosing to have food delivered where everything is in an individually packaged container,” she said. “And we’ve been cleaning constantly, washing our hands, wearing gloves and using special sanitizer they came out with this week to disinfect for COVID-19.”
And while a short-term fix — “we don’t know when those employees will be sent home” — Wallace said the steady business from catering, combined with delivery meals, has prevented her from having to lay off any employees.
“Honestly, our sales have stayed consistent with what they have normally been pre-COVID-19, which is pretty crazy,” she said. “It’s great. The community is supporting us.”
In return, Wallace said her business is attempting to help the community. For every 50 hibachi meals sold, she will donate 50 chicken hibachi entrees to families and people in Dubuque in need.
“As long as we’re allowed to be open, I will keep on going full force,” Wallace said.
‘RUN ITS COURSE’
Charles Cretsinger, owner of Catfish Charlie’s at the Dubuque Yacht Basin, tried to run lunch and dinner shifts seven days per week for carryout. But he quickly found take-and-go business was not brisk enough.
“Dinner Friday night was very good because of Lent and we had a ton of people coming in for fish,” Cretsinger said. “We did about 100 meals that night, and would typically do 500-plus meals, generally. (On Monday), I did five lunches. People have stocked up and are hunkering down and seeing what happens. It’s tight. We’re probably at about maybe 5% to 10% of normal business.”
He has laid off all 30 employees, who are now working part-time, picking up hours at the restaurant here and there with lunch and dinner carryout and curbside pickup four days per week.
Cretsinger said he has pondered taking his two food trucks out and selling lunches to people who still are working.
“I’m trying to figure out where we can go to feed a few people and put some dollars in the bank to take care of our own people,” Cretsinger said. “If we have to, we’ll do soup and sandwiches for free.
“We’re going to do everything we can to support the community and get through this the best that we can,” he said. “It’s kind of one day at a time. ... People are concerned and staying home, and rightfully so. We’re going to get through this. It’s going to run its course and then we’re going to rock and roll again.”