On Sunday, restaurants in Montgomery County, Maryland, were allowed to reopen their dining rooms at 25% capacity, and while many restaurants took advantage of the relaxed health restrictions, some owners and operators felt the day chosen to reopen was not a good one.
“Opening on Valentine’s Day wasn’t optimal,” said Ali Abdul Jabbar, who owns Fontina Grill in Rockville.
The pent-up demand for dining out was apparent on Sunday, Jabbar said, and that led to some frustration, with longer-than-expected waits for dining in or ordering takeout.
The reopening of dining rooms comes after the county’s council voted last Tuesday to lift the indoor-dining ban, as COVID-19 cases trend downward. The ban went into effect late last year as cases ticked upward.
Jabbar believes the “chaos” at his restaurant last weekend could have been avoided if the county would have allowed restaurants to begin seating people inside on Friday.
“I would have preferred to open a couple days earlier so that we don’t have a flood into the doors on Valentine’s Day, which is by far the busiest day of the year for restaurants,” Jabbar said.
The extra time, he said, would have given restaurant staffs more time to prepare for the rush of customers.
Chris Fargiano agreed. “Making it Valentine’s Day on Sunday, you lose Friday and Saturday also, for training purposes — everybody’s rusty,” said Fargiano, director of operations at Gregorio’s Trattoria.
Things went well at his Bethesda and Potomac locations. He was happy to see dining rooms busy, and there were long ticket lines at times for takeout orders.
At the Grilled Oyster in Potomac, the dining room was void of any diners on Sunday. Owner Rick Dugan said they chose to only do curbside and takeout delivery because they had been planning for it, and had not expected to do indoor dining on Sunday.
“We had a significant amount of business already booked, guaranteed, and opening inside, we probably would not have executed at the same level that we’d like, so we elected not to open the dining room on Valentine’s Day,” Dugan said.
He plans to bring back indoor dining at the restaurant, but said his concern is that it will result in costs going up with no guarantee that diners will return. The last time the county allowed limited indoor dining in the county, he said, customers were not ready to return.
“We’ll see if they’re ready to come in now,” said Dugan. He is concerned limited indoor dining may not help at all, because it could drive people away from ordering curbside pickup.
In addition to the capacity limit, there is also a 90-minute limit to the time people can dine in a restaurant. For Jabbar, he said with those restrictions in place, the resumption of indoor dining won’t help struggling restaurants much.
“It helps a little bit, but it doesn’t move the needle much,” Jabbar said.