None of us could have planned for COVID-19. So many of us love dining out and now we miss it terribly. Dining and drinking with friends around a table is something no amount of online chatting or takeout can match. Our restaurants could be the last bastion of social interaction outside our homes in our increasingly insulated, technology-driven lives. Who would have thought a takeout meal would become the high point of our quarantined day? Behind the scenes during this COVID pandemic, our beloved restaurants scramble to satisfy diners, pay the rent, and run their restaurants with changing rules and regulations. Here’s a behind-the-scenes peek at four East Cobb eateries with comments from: Mark Zwolak, Owner, Chicago’s; Jake Perry, Manager, Biscuits + More; Nikos Stavropoulos Owner, IHOP; and, Daniel Wu, Owner, Fuji Hana.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES YOU HAVE FACED SINCE THE PANDEMIC STARTED?
Chicago’s: Where do I begin? I run a high volume restaurant but I am not allowed to have volume. At 50% volume, the math doesn’t work and this brings a financial challenge. The cost for food has increased and so has the money I have to spend on PPE.
Biscuits + More: The biggest challenge are the masks and working in them. It gets very hot and congested in the kitchen area. Outside of that, we have been trying to regain the business we have lost.
IHOP: IHOP customers enjoy the value our menu provides. So, I have kept our prices the same despite the fact that our food costs have gone up.
Fuji Hana: Having to eliminate sit-down service and doing to-go only has been the most challenging part of this. Everybody is doing take-out now.
WHAT IS SOMETHING YOU LEARNED OVER THE PAST FEW MONTHS THAT YOU WISH YOU KNEW WHEN PEOPLE BEGAN TO QUARANTINE?
Chicago’s: How long this was going to take. I thought I could close up for about forty days or so for renovation and we will be back to some degree of normalcy. I believe in this business, our 30-year anniversary is coming up and I am very optimistic. Even so, this has gone on longer than anybody could have anticipated.
Biscuits + More: The biggest thing we learned is how to use services like Door Dash and Uber Eats. It has really helped us with our sales.
IHOP: I’ve realized how important the digital delivery services, like Uber Eats and Door Dash, have become.
Fuji Hana: We started doing online orders. Phone orders take a lot of time throughout the day so online orders have made it easier for us to keep track of everything.
SINCE TAKEOUT HAS BECOME THE NORM FOR NOW, ARE THERE ANY ITEMS THAT ARE GETTING ORDERED MORE NOW THAN THEY WERE PREVIOUSLY?
Chicago’s: People have been ordering our burgers, French dip sandwiches, and salads. People have also been getting our chicken piccatas and stroganoffs.
Biscuits + More: Not really: our biscuits and cheese grits are still as popular as they have ever been. It all travels well.
IHOP: Our customers continue to order our breakfast items from scrambled eggs to our pancakes.
Fuji Hana: I don’t see any difference in what people are ordering now than they were previously.
HOW HAVE FOOD/SUPPLY SHORTAGES AFFECTED YOUR ESTABLISHMENT?
Chicago’s: Shortages have caused the price of both food and papered goods to go up.
Biscuits + More: The biggest thing is the price of ground beef went through the roof. Although it has tripled in price for us, we have kept our pricing the same for customers and were able to make it through with it.
IHOP: The cost of running my restaurant has risen since my food costs have gone up and I also have to pay for additional supplies to follow the new safety measures.
Fuji Hana: Meats, particularly steak, costs a lot more now than it did before because of a recent shortage.
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU’VE LEARNED FROM THIS PANDEMIC THAT YOU WILL TAKE WITH YOU AFTER THIS COVID CRISIS IS OVER?
Chicago’s: We used to have three musician performances per week. We aren’t currently doing that but after COVID, we are only going to do Friday night jazz since that had such a great following.
Biscuits + More: Other than people ordering take out more, not much has changed in terms of how we do business. Post COVID we will be opening the store back up at full capacity for people to dine in.
IHOP: How much more grateful we are for our customers. And how much I appreciate my staff stepping up and adapting to the challenges of COVID.
Fuji Hana: We have had a lot more customers order from us online, which we started doing a month ago. Moving forward with online orders, employees won’t have to be on the phone as long. People aren’t always comfortable giving out their information on the phone, ordering online makes it easier.
WHAT MAKES YOU FEEL OPTIMISTIC ABOUT THE FUTURE?
Chicago’s: A vaccine and the continued progress and improvements made for a cure.
Biscuits + More: Just having the support of our customers and the community.
IHOP: East Cobb is a great place to do business, my customers, and the promise of a COVID cure make me feel better about the future.
Fuji Hana: I am hoping that we soon find a vaccine that is proven safe and that everyone can use.
By Christopher Schultz
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of the EAST COBBER magazine. You can access the digital edition HERE.