SALT LAKE CITY — Justin Soelberg had 13 coworkers a month ago. Now he has two.

Arriving at Nomad Eatery around 9:30 a.m. each day, Soelberg, his business partner and their investor now spend the day prepping a full dinner menu for takeout. Lunch orders used to comprise two thirds of the total business for the restaurant, located west of downtown near the Salt Lake City International Airport. But Nomad doesn’t serve lunch right now, as employees from the nearby businesses are all working remotely, per Utah’s “Stay Safe, Stay Home” initiative.

In the first week that Salt Lake’s restaurants were ordered to stop hosting customers, Soelberg said Nomad’s normal business decreased by 50%. The second week, it was down 65%. The week after that, it dipped to 90%.

In some ways, Soelberg still considers himself among the lucky ones.

“We’re not Pago, we’re not Valter’s — our food was already at a good price point and easily takeaway-able. We didn’t have to change much here,” Soelberg said. “There are a lot of places in town that just shut down, because what are you going to do? They’re selling $40 steaks, and no one wants that in a cardboard to-go box.”

Salt Lake has more than 500 restaurants. They’re all feeling the effects of a coronavirus pandemic whose updates change daily, with no clear end date. For some restaurants, recent quarantines have meant closing down completely. For others, like Nomad, it’s meant a drastically downsized staff. For restaurants that have stayed open and retained employees, it’s resulted in new, extreme sanitization and distancing protocols. And for all of the above, it’s forced a drastic reimagining of how to operate in these strange times. Yet none of these approaches can recoup a restaurant’s total losses right now.

For restaurants, what exactly is the correct decision right now?

Is it safe to order food?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there’s no current evidence COVID-19 is spread though food itself. (It’s generally spread from person to person through respiratory droplets.) 

According to the CDC website, “It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object, like a packaging container, that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads. In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging.”

J. Kenji López-Alt, a journalist reporting for the popular food website Serious Eats, recently asked Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist from the North Carolina State University and cohost of “Risky or Not” and “Food Safety Talk,” about the contamination risk from ordering out. Chapman assured him the risk was actually quite minimal.

So, “even if a worker sneezes directly into a bowl of raw salad greens before packing it in a take-out container for you to take home, as gross as it is, it’s unlikely to get you sick,” López-Alt wrote.

Respiratory viruses, he explained, reproduce along the respiratory tract, which is a separate pathway from the digestive tract that swallowed food follows — “And while you might say that you just inhaled that salad, more likely you ate it with a fork and swallowed it.”

“Now that there’s these kind of guidelines, and there’s more information out, it feels a little bit safer to tell people, ‘Yeah, you can do this carry out, curbside, and you’ll be OK.’” — Ryan Roggensack, co-creator of Salt Plate City

Since restaurant employees are instructed to regularly wash their hands — especially these days — grabbing a to-go order or having it delivered are theoretically safe options overall, as long as payment is made digitally beforehand.

Still, every day brings new information about the coronavirus, and the reported cases of infection continue increasing at an almost exponential rate. It’s made most restaurant patrons err on the side of caution, often to the point of complete avoidance. Ryan Roggensack, who manages the popular Utah restaurant website Salt Plate City, said its weekly page views went from more than 2,000 pre-quarantine to less than 100 now.

“And that’s just a change in search behavior,” Roggensack told the Deseret News. “You don’t have people looking for ‘best Korean restaurants’ or ‘best restaurants downtown.’”

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He and Lala Phunkhang, who manages Salt Plate City’s Instagram account, used to individually eat out three times a week on average, then another two or three times together during that same period. Phunkhang still gets lunch delivered every day, but at this point, Roggensack only does so sparingly.

Their Instagram account has also shifted its focus in recent weeks. Instead of posting photos of their meals, they’ve been sharing Instagram stories about which local restaurants are providing to-go meals and encouraging patrons to buy restaurant gift cards as a way to support these local businesses.

“Now that there’s these kind of guidelines, and there’s more information out, it feels a little bit safer to tell people, ‘Yeah, you can do this carry out, curbside, and you’ll be OK,’” Roggensack said.

From what they’ve seen, many of Salt Lake’s restaurants are incorporating larger family-style meals into their menus, which are often easier and more cost-effective for customers than ordering an individual meal for each individual family member.

How do you make a restaurant safe?

At Ginger Street, an Asian cuisine hotspot that opened in downtown Salt Lake last year, numerous new measures have been implemented — all in the hopes of mitigating contamination and earning their clientele’s trust.

Michael McHenry, founder of The McHenry Group, which owns Ginger Street, told the Deseret News about Ginger Street’s new roped off “sanitization barriers.” Inside the restaurant, there’s a designated area for no-contact takeout orders, where restaurant employees set packaged meals on a table, and customers come in to pick it up. There’s another separate space for third-party delivery (DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber Eats). Hand sanitizer is available at these spaces, and visitors are expected to use it whenever they enter and exit. Ginger Street has also set up a curbside takeout space. Employees wear gloves any time they cross into a public area, and immediately throw away the gloves, wash their hands and put on new gloves when they re-enter their workspaces. Each employee has a separate individual work area, properly distanced from their coworkers. Through it all, employees are instructed to come to work only if they feel completely healthy.

McHenry worries that collectively, these protocols may come off as impersonal or standoffish to those who enter the restaurant. But that’s not their intent.

“Really, what we’re doing, it’s a new form of hospitality in this pandemic,” McHenry said. “And we know that the greatest way for us to be hospitable in this current state is to keep you safe and to keep ourselves safe.”

Yasmin Maldonado makes mushroom rolls at Ginger Street in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 3, 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants are only able to offer takeout and delivery meals. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

These days, McHenry has also been posting more on social media in the hopes of showing customers Ginger Street is still a viable dining option — and that restaurants as a whole are indeed an essential business. He said Ginger Street is rebounding well, given the circumstances, earning approximately 50-60% of the restaurant’s pre-pandemic revenue. However, more than 70% of The McHenry Group’s restaurant staff have been let go.

McHenry recently launched the Healthy & Full initiative, which raises money for meals that will go toward medical professionals working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis. According to McHenry’s website, the initiative’s goal is to provide at least 200 meals per day to these workers.

His advice for patrons right now is to take advantage of online platforms, avoid physical payments, and of course, continue to support your favorites.

“Because if you don’t support your local favorites during this pandemic, they may never survive,” he said. “Support those that are doing it well — and I believe the majority (of restaurants) are. They’re earning it today to a level that they’ve never experienced before.”

When do you shut it down?

Other local restaurants, such as Salt Lake’s “Copper” restaurants — The Copper Onion, Copper Common and Copper Kitchen — have shut operations down completely.

Ryan Lowder, who owns the Copper restaurants as well as the downtown cafe The Daily, said he was influenced by a friend who lives in Milan, Italy. As COVID-19 ravaged Italy’s population in recent months, Lowder said he regularly talked with this Italian friend, “Kind of getting that … perspective of sitting on your front porch and watching a storm roll in.” 

Eventually, Italian officials prioritized the use of face masks for all its citizens. Getting adequate masks for his employees, Lowder said, didn’t seem feasible right now: Medical workers were first-priority for masks, and even U.S. medical workers weren’t getting the masks they needed. For a short time, the Copper restaurants tried doing only curbside/delivery orders. Lowder said this brought in enough money to cover employee wages, but his workers were anxious about their own safety. So he closed shop.

“One, if we are operating, we needs masks, and two, if we can’t find masks, they’re best served in the places that really need them,” Lowder said. “I don’t know if that’s right or wrong — I know plenty of places are operating — but it just didn’t feel good to me. … And I was in no way going to force (employees) to keep coming into a box with other people in there.”

For now, Lowder said his businesses are in a position to simply wait things out. They have emergency funds set aside, which are going toward paying the majority of health insurance for his restaurants’ 160 or so employees. He said they plan on continuing this through the end of April, and possibly into May, then reassessing the situation once the time comes. 

Like other restaurants, they’ve also been applying for federal assistance, “but it just seems from the top, it’s been a little messy,” he said. “With the slow response time, I just don’t have a lot of faith.”

Who are the most vulnerable?

Whatever the approach, the reality is that every local restaurant will take considerable time to recover, if they do in fact recover.

Lowder said he feels particularly sorry for owners of ethnic restaurants, often run by immigrants, “that operate lean because they have to; they didn’t have a lot of money going into it, and they have to operate lean” — particularly Chinese and Asian restaurants.

“(They) really got the short end of the stick,” he added. “They were taking a hit before anyone, because people can be idiots, honestly. It’s just ridiculous that Chinese restaurants were taking a hit before anyone, just because evidently this thing originated in China. It’s awful.”

While DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats have waived delivery fees for customers right now, those companies haven’t provided the same lifeline to restaurants. Grubhub, for example, recently made headlines for offering a $10 promo code to customers while making restaurants pay commission on the order’s normal price.

Soelberg at Nomad Eatery said those third-party deliverers take commissions as high as 33% off every order. Nomad, he explained, runs a profit margin of five to 10% — a pretty standard margin for most restaurants — “and if you want to take 33%, I’m not making any money.” If a restaurant provides its own driver, Soelberg said Grubhub only takes a 10% commission, but Nomad is too far away from downtown to make hiring their own driver worth it. These third-party delivery services, Soelberg said, have offered to defer payments for restaurants right now, “which doesn’t really do us any good,” he said. “I don’t have any money now, I’m sure as (expletive) not going to have any extra money in three months after this.”

For every restaurant owner that’s struggling these days, there’s an untold number of restaurant workers now out of a job, too. 

Tip Your Server, a new initiative spearheaded by Salt Lake City, the Downtown Alliance and “Modern Family” actor Ty Burrell (who co-owns downtown’s Beer Bar and Bar X, as well as Park City’s the Eating Establishment), has drawn attention in recent weeks. The initiative is raising money for Salt Lake’s estimated 15,000 food and beverage workers. Burrell and his wife, Utah native Holly Burrell, contributed $100,000 to the fund. The George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation pledged a $50,000 matching grant, meaning it will match public donations all the way up to $50,000 total through the end of April.

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Actor Ty Burrell, from the television series Modern Family, watches as the Utah Jazz and the Portland Trailblazers play pre-season NBA basketball Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Tom Smart, Deseret News
Actor Ty Burrell watches as the Utah Jazz and the Portland Trailblazers play pre-season NBA basketball Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011, in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Tom Smart, Deseret News

“That’s a big part of why (food and beverage workers) are specifically vulnerable, is they’re the first to be laid off. And there’s a good chance they’re going to be the last to be brought back on.” — Ty Burrell, on Utah’s new Tip Your Server initiative

Ty Burrell told the Deseret News that a foundation associated with the Edison House, a social club that’s coming to downtown, pledged an additional $100,000 to Tip Your Server.

“It’s been really encouraging, in a time when I think there’s just a lot of anxiety and dread,” Burrell said. “Salt Lake is such a wonderfully small city that there’s always been a sense amongst those food and beverage businesses that a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Under the Tip Your Server program, local restaurant owners can nominate up to five former employees who have been let go because of the quarantine. Those nominees can then apply for a $500 grant. Once nominees have submitted their application via a W-9 form, they will receive a direct payment within two business days.

According to Burrell, Tip Your Server isn’t a catch-all solution. Rather, he said it’s simply a stopgap for workers until they qualify for unemployment, “which is really challenging in the food and beverage industry, because the hourly wage is so low, and tips are so much of their income, and because so many of them are part-time employees without benefits.”

After the quarantines are lifted, there’s a good chance it will still take patrons a while to trust in public health again. Restaurant owners and workers will have to weather this psychological lag time, for however long it lasts.

“That’s a big part of why (food and beverage workers) are specifically vulnerable, is they’re the first to be laid off,” Burrell said, “And there’s a good chance they’re going to be the last to be brought back on.”

When will things go back to normal? For now, there’s no definite answer. Burrell said that through all of this, he’s realized how much the dining experience was really a miracle “hiding in plain sight.”

“I took for granted how special it was. And this is all restaurants — even food trucks or diners or whatever,” he said. “The social interaction that we had, and the sense of community, even if you go into a restaurant where you don’t know anybody. The human contact, and the relationship we had with the servers and bartenders and the people making us food. But also the social interaction you’d have with just being in a group of people like that, being out — essentially celebrating life.”