Nearly two full months have passed since a customer sat down to enjoy a meal inside Copper Kettle in Dubuque.
The North End restaurant, located at 2987 Jackson St., has been closed to dine-in customers since the afternoon of March 17, when Gov. Kim Reynolds mandated closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But many Dubuque County restaurants will reopen today, just two days after Reynolds announced eased restrictions on eateries in the 22 counties where the harshest limitations remained.
Copper Kettle owner Chris Staver said the reopening feels as abrupt as the closure. He plans to serve customers nonetheless.
“It is tremendously difficult,” Staver said. “I can’t believe the amount of notice they have given us. It seems pretty haphazard. But regardless, we are happy to open.”
Reynolds’ proclamation to reopen restaurants includes multiple safety measures meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Restaurants must limit the number of customers to 50% of their normal operating capacity, keep party sizes to six or fewer and ensure at least 6 feet of physical distance between each group.
The reopening plan simultaneously has presented eateries with new opportunities and fresh challenges.
And while some are eager to reopen their doors, others are taking a more cautious approach.
Dyersville Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Karla Thompson said the “vast majority” of restaurants in her community are not planning to reopen to dine-in customers this weekend.
The owners of most eateries in the community feel their customers aren’t ready to return, she said.
“They are hearing from customers that they are still a little uneasy,” Thompson said. “I think the restaurants and the customers have adjusted to curbside pickup for now. They want to do this for a while and take things one day at a time, instead of reopening right away.”
Those planning to reopen are finding it practically impossible to accurately forecast costs and revenues.
Staver said supplying the “made-from-scratch” kitchen at Copper Kettle never has been more complicated.
Ordering produce and preparing items such as sauces and salad dressings require difficult approximations. Having too little available leads to disappointed customers; having too much on hand results in wasted product.
And scheduling the proper number of staff is next to impossible given the uncertainty of customer turnout.
Staver is cautiously optimistic that Copper Kettle will be filled to its new limited capacity throughout most of this weekend.
“You get the sense that people are lightening up and moving around a bit more,” he said. “But I don’t know if that will extend to restaurants, which have more of an intimate setting.”
Even if the restaurant is half-full, making money isn’t a guarantee.
“If you take any business, in any industry, and limit them to half their customers, it is going to be difficult to turn a profit,” Staver said.
Brazen Open Kitchen + Bar in Dubuque is taking a more measured approach.
Owner Kevin Scharpf said the restaurant’s goal is to reopen to dine-in customers in early June, but a specific date hasn’t been established.
Scharpf emphasized that reopening dining rooms — even for well-established eateries — is going to feel like opening a brand-new restaurant — a new reality ushered in by the abrupt changes of the past two months.
“All of us have flipped our businesses upside down,” he said. “We’ve turned our restaurants into curbside takeout, and it takes time to undo that.”
When Brazen reopens, Scharpf wants it to be a “celebratory” occasion. He believes restaurants can play a key role in helping customers navigate the “new normal” in the age of COVID-19.
Despite taking his time, Scharpf is eagerly awaiting that moment.
“I think you learn a lot about a community when your backs are sort of pushed up against the wall,” he said. “This community has been incredibly supportive in the past couple months, and I am proud to be a part of it.”