James King is the operator of the Titan Restaurant Group that led the legal challenge to the Anne Arundel County, Maryland, ban on indoor dining.
Since the lawsuit has been dismissed and a new executive order allowing indoor dining at 25% capacity, King said he hopes restaurants across the county, not just those in his group, can manage to stay open.
“We believe that as an industry, we have taken incredible measures to keep our patrons and our employees safe,” King said. “And that we can do so while remaining open.”
King said his group of restaurants, including Smashing Grapes Kitchen and Wine Bar and The Blackwall Hitch, hasn’t had a single case of COVID-19 among its employees in eight months.
“I think we’ve been able to show that if you follow the safety and sanitation guidelines, and if you take them seriously, you know, you can do this in a safe manner,” King said. “Our employees are comfortable coming to work; they want to come to work; they want to be there.”
Asked whether indoor dining at 25% capacity is a sustainable model, King said it’s a lifeline for now. He added that no restaurant owner has “dreams or visions” of being profitable anytime soon.
“I think what we’re really fighting for is our employees, and to be able to just hang on, so that we have a business to come back to when we do come out of this,” King said.
King said he’d really like to see restaurants able to move to 50% capacity, a much more sustainable model for most operators. In his opinion, it would be “fair and reasonable,” depending on the course of the cases in the county.
Included in County Executive Steuart Pittman’s executive order is a requirement that obliges restaurants to conduct contact tracing. King said he is working on the details of the order and will make sure that all the restaurants in his group can do it.
When asked how customers would feel about providing contact information to restaurants, King said that he expects a mixed reaction.
“I think some people are not going to feel comfortable giving their personal information,” King said. “And I think others may feel like it is a more comfortable, safer way to dine out.”
King grew up in D.C. and started in the restaurant business as a dishwasher at age 14. In that time, King said employees in the restaurant business can feel like family but it can be tough.
“It’s a hard industry–people on their feet all day long, or in hot kitchens. It’s physically demanding,” King said. “And it takes a certain type of person to thrive in that environment.”
The closeness that comes with running a business, such as a restaurant, made having to make business decisions at the start of the pandemic especially painful.
His restaurants have laid off 150 people and are able to keep about 150-175 employees throughout the county, while operating at 25% capacity, said King. But a lot of those still employed would like more hours and additional shifts.
“A lot of them are working part time and getting a few shifts, and we’re doing everything we can to fairly kind of ration out and spread it around, so that everybody can make some income. But we will be able to maintain those employees, at least for now,” King said.
Bringing back indoor dining was important, King said, because carryout dining is not a sustainable model for many restaurants, particularly those with extensive or high-end menus.
“We’ve tried it. We were there earlier on in the pandemic, and I think the vast majority of restaurants decided that it just wasn’t, it wasn’t a business model that they could sustain and that they would lose more money by trying to be open than if they just shut the doors,” King said.
The next 90 days will be crucial, King said. The prospect of warmer weather, which could allow outdoor dining, and the arrival of vaccines provide another glimmer of hope for an industry devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re just trying to hang on for dear life. We’re very optimistic between the vaccination process starting and the weather turning that if we can get into the spring and survive the next couple of months that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
Pittman cited shifting metrics on COVID-19 as the rationale for his latest order, but didn’t rule out future shutdowns if the coronavirus should surge again. Though he did say it would be unlikely.
“Look, he’s got a tough job trying to balance the health and safety of the residents with the business community and jobs. And so, personally, I feel that for him to do another shutdown, it would have to be an extremely dire situation.” King said of Pittman. “We feel confident that he understands our position and that he’s willing to work with us.”
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