Tuscaloosa restaurants look to rebound as restrictions lift
Alabama’s jobless claims are on the decline since businesses were given the green light to reopen. Pandemic shutdowns disrupted an important financial season for college towns like Tuscaloosa. The home city of the University of Alabama and its cross-state rival Auburn each lost nearly 25% of their populations when campuses closed. City leaders estimate that Tuscaloosa lost "about a half a billion dollars' worth of economic activity when COVID-19 hit close to St. Patrick’s Day.
Nick Snead is a manager at Innisfree Irish Pub near the UA Campus. He said the coronavirus hit him in his business model.
“After students get back from spring break until graduation, it's a free for all,” he said.
Hotspots are feeling the direct impact of students' absence. Business looks different for Innisfree now. Before the coronavirus, their patio was often packed. Now, they are operating at 50% capacity. Patrons can’t rearrange chairs and tables to sit with their friends. All cups, plates and menus are disposable.
Tuscaloosa firefighters and police officers visited 22 establishments that were violating safety protocol on May 16 alone. Snead said they have not had many problems enforcing social distancing. But, he but hopes that patrons can get used to the new normal.
"I don’t hate that the fire marshal and TPD are going around and enforcing, checking to make sure we all have masks on and everyone's social distancing. I'm about that," he said. "Because if they're holding everyone accountable then it's just going to end up good for us.”
Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox said the city wants to help businesses open safely instead of reprimanding them. He said they will work with those who are reprimanded to get it right on the second try. But he thinks most people are doing a good job so far.
"I know of 22 businesses that were cited out of 5,000 plus in Tuscaloosa," Maddox said. "That's such a small percentage, so most people are doing the right thing.”
Beyond University Boulevard, restaurants face different challenges. Michael Parrish owns Mr. Bill's Southern Smokehouse in Northport. Providing curbside service for four days didn’t work out. He said the restaurant would not have been able to reopen without federal funding. He said the application process was simple.
"You just get your list of items they require for documentations, provide to your banker and they submit it into the form the SBA or the treasury provided. As long as you met the requirements and didn’t lack on information that was required it was not very difficult at all,” he said.
The U.S. Small Business Administration loan covered eight weeks of payroll, allowing them to reopen for curbside for three weeks before the state allowed restaurants to reopen their dining rooms.
Not all restaurants have reopened their dining rooms. Some are still using altered business plans.
Andrea Snyder is the owner of the Urban Cookhouse restaurant in Tuscaloosa. She said the restaurant now relies on drive-thru and their food truck, which it may use even after the pandemic ends.
“You hear people talking about the new normal. Well, if people are getting used to the convenience and curbside and drive-thru and having things brought to them, I think that’s how we’re going to have to adapt,” she said. “We have a food truck in Tuscaloosa that has been doing well and kind of been a lifesaver for us.”
The business has maintained these changes well after Governor Kay Ivey permitted the reopening of restaurants with social distancing restrictions. Snyder said how additional measures have been taken to ensure the safety of employees and customers.
“Our locations that have drive-thrus, we have a shield, a plexiglass shield up for extra protection," she said. "We’re checking temperatures of all of our employees when they come in and sending anyone home who has a fever, which we haven’t had yet.”
Urban Cookhouse is part of a restaurant chain, and all of its outlets been impacted by the pandemic. The Tuscaloosa location has found success in their new business model featuring its food truck, curbside service and limited seating works. Snyder said their downtown Birmingham site has struggled to stay afloat.
“We hope that we’re going to be able to keep all of them open and basically breaking even, but that one downtown is really questionable, it’s been affected the most,” she said.
Audrey Vermilyea is the owner of Monarch Espresso Bar in Tuscaloosa. She said the bar now uses a walk-up window service, drop-off boxes, and curbside to serve customers, which stray away from what she considers the bar’s core appeal.
“What I would have said was our main thing, main reason people love Monarch, is coming inside and being able to hang out and enjoy the space is not part of the equation anymore we’ve had to shift our business model in a major way," she said.
Although many Tuscaloosa restaurants have been able to conduct business during the pandemic, others were significantly hurt by it. The economic impact of the outbreak has forced some restaurants and bars such as Downtown Pub and the Levee to close permanently.
Maddox warned businesses and the state of Alabama that they will likely have to wait a long time before they can fully reopen.
“I’m not optimistic that we get back to normal sooner rather than later. I think ultimately medical science, though, will determine that," he said. "What we’ve got to do in the meantime is be smart about this.”
Some Alabama bars and restaurants are looking toward July 3. That’s when Ivey's current COVID-19 guidelines, called "safer at home," is set to expire. Rules limiting restaurants to 50 percent could be loosened or possibly tightened depending on what the coronavirus does.