Trevor Pound, a line cook at Buckets Sports Grill in Soldotna, filters the friers Thursday, April 30, 2020. Despite the heat in the kitchen, state regulations say all restaurant employees must wear cloth face masks. “It’s completely miserable, dude,” Pound said. “It gets so hot back here I can’t breathe without a face mask. But I’ve got to pay the bills, so I wear a mask.” (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Trevor Pound, a line cook at Buckets Sports Grill in Soldotna, filters the friers Thursday, April 30, 2020. Despite the heat in the kitchen, state regulations say all restaurant employees must wear cloth face masks. “It’s completely miserable, dude,” Pound said. “It gets so hot back here I can’t breathe without a face mask. But I’ve got to pay the bills, so I wear a mask.” (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Dine-in option proves a mixed bag for area restaurants

Area restaurants struggle to overcome challenges as state mandates are lifted.

Every restaurant is different, and every restaurant is enduring the restrictions caused by the threat of the new coronavirus differently.

The one constant that emerged in interviews with four local restaurant owners this week is that yearslong relationships with the community have helped them keep afloat while they operate under statewide mandates aimed at stopping the spread of the virus.

More than a month after the state ordered the closure of dine-in service, restaurants were allowed to resume dine-in service April 24 — if they follow state rules designed to keep employees and customers safe.

“We just appreciate people standing by us and helping us get through all of this,” said Norma Tree, co-owner of the Tree House Restaurant just across from the Nikiski Post Office on the Kenai Spur Highway. “There’s a lot of people we love and appreciate and they’ve showed it by standing by us.”

When the health mandate from Gov. Mike Dunleavy limited restaurants to takeout and delivery March 18, Tree House, which the Trees have owned for 19 years, decided to stay open with only takeout and delivery.

“We’ve always been pickup and delivery, and things aren’t the best out here, but all things considered, it’s not too bad,” Tree said.

When the mandate came down, the restaurant had about seven employees, Tree said. Now there are five.

“The waitresses are hanging in there and hoping to get some of the funds they’ve lost reimbursed,” Tree said. “When they used to be waitressing, they’d make a lot of money on tips. Now that they’re answering phones for pickup, some are still generous, but some feel they’re doing all the work for the food.”

April 24, Tree House opened for the first night of dine-in service. The governor’s mandate says restaurants can only be at 25% capacity, so Tree House had just six tables available and four were filled.

Tree said it quickly became apparent dine-in service wasn’t worth it due to all the regulations. The restaurant closed dine-in service after that night.

“There’s just too many things we had to do and we only had four tables,” she said. “We’re just going to wait until they relax on stuff.”

Tree House is back to doing only pickup and delivery.

Getting better and better at Firehouse

Terry Johnston, owner of Firehouse BBQ in the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna, said there have been some tough weeks since the March 18 mandate, but he has been able to keep all five of his employees on without dipping into the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan designed by the federal government to give small businesses incentive to keep workers on their payroll.

“Our revenue has gone down, but we’re still able to keep our employees,” Johnston said. “I’m not one that likes to borrow money from anybody. I started small and built my way up.”

Johnston said Firehouse went to takeout and delivery to Sterling, Soldotna and Kenai after the March 18 mandate, but the owner talked about closing his doors after some days saw only $500 in sales.

Business has gradually picked up and Johnston said the last week, including dine-in starting on April 24, has been the best so far. Dine-in, Johnston said, can handle 12 to 15 people. He said that option hasn’t been extremely popular so far, but every bit helps.

“I don’t think anyone is doing well at this time — from everyone I’ve talked to in the restaurant industry,” Johnston said. “It’s getting better, especially compared to when they first did the mandate. More people are out and about.”

Johnston takes pride in his food, employees, cleanliness standards and relationship with the community. He said all those things have added resiliency since the first mandate took place.

Firehouse opened in 2013 and by July 2018, Money magazine partnered with Yelp and named Firehouse the most loved barbecue in the state.

When Johnston’s wife, Michell, was diagnosed with brain cancer in January 2019, Terry told his employees they would have to run the business to his standards or Firehouse would have to close its doors.

“All my employees in the restaurant are trained to do everything,” Johnston said. “I can take my cashier and put her in the kitchen, and she can get an order ready.”

Part of that training involves a cleanliness standard that has served Firehouse well with all the dine-in regulations introduced April 24.

“I’m a stickler,” Johnston said. “My worst fear is somebody getting sick in my restaurant.”

Johnston also asked the community to remember small businesses during this time, and all that those businesses have done for the community. He said his restaurant has donated time and money to sports teams and veterans causes.

A veteran himself, Johnston said if any veteran needs to talk during this time when some PTSD groups aren’t available, that veteran should get in touch Johnston through the restaurant.

Firehouse also is doing a pay it forward program for essential workers from hospitals. When customers come in, they can buy an additional sandwich and two sides. When Firehouse gets enough pay it forward meals to cover a shift in a department, those meals will be sent to Central Peninsula Hospital for free.

Even with business picking up, Johnston is concerned because he said most restaurants make enough money in the summer to provide a cushion for the rest of the year.

“We had a bad summer last year with the fires,” he said. “Two summers in a row, I don’t think there’s many people that can survive that. There might be some, but I don’t think we can.”

Back open at Buckets

Fran Jones, the co-owner at Buckets Sports Grill just off the Y in Soldotna, opened April 24 once dine-in was allowed again.

“We’ve been surprised, pleasantly surprised,” said Jones. Jones is the third owner of the establishment, which has been around since 2000. “We’re not full up, but that’s typical for this time of year.”

Jones said Buckets is actually moving the same amount of food it normally would this time of year, but the big question is what happens come tourist season.

When the governor cut off dine-in service March 18, Jones decided to try and make takeout work. Although Buckets has always offered takeout, Jones said the restaurant was not selling enough and closed March 21.

“People were saying, ‘Oh, just give it more time,’” Jones said. “But we were going deeper and deeper into debt trying to survive.”

Thanks to the Paycheck Protection Program, though, Jones was able to guarantee employees who stuck with her 40 hours per week and she never missed payroll. This meant when Buckets opened up April 24, Jones was ready to go with 10 employees. Buckets had employed 22 when dine-in service was interrupted.

Jones said the regulations issued by the governor make business tough. She said she hopes the regulations will be loosened in time to make things easier. For now, Buckets can only serve 16 people at a time, so reservations are encouraged. Walk-in customers will have to wait in their cars if the restaurant is at capacity when they arrive.

Customers are greeted with a sign at the door showing the symptoms of COVID-19. A table at the entrance is stocked with hand sanitizer, and a sign politely asks customers to sanitize as they enter. Some signs on the dining tables have “Please … No sitting at this table. Thank you” signs.

“Since it’s a low season of the year anyway, it’s much easier to do,” Jones said. “If it was July and it was extremely busy, it would be a lot harder job.

“We’re also selling a lot of to-go orders. People are excited to be getting food they didn’t have to cook. We’re selling a lot of salads.”

Jones said it would be great to be allowed to move from 25% capacity to 50%. Buckets also is wrapping up putting finish on an outdoor dining area, so that will provide more room as well.

Employees have more work to do — sanitizing tables after customers leave, sanitizing high-contact points every hour and wearing masks at all times, even in the kitchen.

“Employees are having a hard time with that. They say, ‘I’m so hot,’” Jones said. “They’re making it.

“I hope that can ease up in the summer. It gets way too hot in the cooking area to have to wear a mask.”

Charlotte’s sticks to takeout

Charlotte’s Restaurant, located on Main Street Loop across from the Kenai Police Department, did not go to dine-in service April 24.

“There was just too much,” said Celeste Cannon, who has owned Charlotte’s for 22 years. “Twenty five percent capacity leaves us five tables, then there’s all the regulations that go with it.

“Our crew also was not feeling comfortable with the public coming in and our customers were not feeling comfortable with it. There’s too many stipulations and too much unknown.”

Cannon said the restaurant has tried to drum up business by doing takeout and expanding delivery from Kenai to include Nikiski, Soldotna and Kalifornsky Beach, as well. Charlotte’s has kept hours the same — from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. — but has added a dinner option for takeout. The restaurant now offers four different dinners per week.

Before dine-in was shut down, Cannon said she had 12 employees, but that number is down to five. Even those employees are working one night per week.

“I don’t know how long we can hang on,” Cannon said. “We’re going to hang on as long as possible. Failure is not an option. That’s what I keep saying every morning.”

Cannon said the main thing keeping her business afloat in the relationships built up with customers over the years.

“If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t still be open,” she said. “I love our community, that’s for sure. Thank you to the community for standing behind the small businesses here.”

The front entrance at Buckets Sports Grill in Soldotna, seen here Thursday, has a few signs that have been added due to the threat of the new coronavirus.

The front entrance at Buckets Sports Grill in Soldotna, seen here Thursday, has a few signs that have been added due to the threat of the new coronavirus.

Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion                                Buckets Sports Grill in Soldotna has a sanitizing station just inside the entrance.

Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion Buckets Sports Grill in Soldotna has a sanitizing station just inside the entrance.

A table at Buckets Sports Grill in Soldotna is not available for dining Thursday, April 30, 2020, due to the threat of the new coronavirus. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

A table at Buckets Sports Grill in Soldotna is not available for dining Thursday, April 30, 2020, due to the threat of the new coronavirus. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

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