El Agave

Danny Velasquez, an employee at El Agave in New Albany, prepares a meal in the restaurant's kitchen. 

Moises Lemus, owner of El Agave in New Albany, said it has been a challenge for his restaurant to adapt to the coronavirus.

There has been a learning curve in terms of changing how the restaurant operates, Lemus said.

“It’s just been weird times,” Lemus said. “I don’t know how else to describe it. This whole thing, the way it’s affected restaurants, has been challenging.”

At the start of the coronavirus, business was really slow, but there has been an uptick since then. However, business is still down compared to what it would normally be with the dining room open. El Agave has been serving customers through its drive-thru window or by curbside.

During normal times, he can predict what sales will be, but the coronavirus has changed that.

“When you don’t have steady business it’s really hard to see into the future,” Lemus said. “We’re used to knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

Knowing how many people to schedule to work during coronavirus can be difficult because the restaurant does not know how busy it will be.

“We’ve had to cut hours and split shifts,” he said.

It is difficult to say how much longer the restaurant can continue operating without having its dining room open.

“That’s a hard question because it all depends on your sales to stay afloat,” Lemus said.

He noted that El Agave saw an increase in business a couple of weeks ago when the stimulus checks came out.

“If we did business like that week, we could stay afloat,” he said. “It’s just an up and down, up and down.”

He thinks his restaurant will gradually reopen its dining room as opposed to all at once. For instance, dining may be allowed at every other table so social distancing guidelines can be followed, he noted.

“That way you don’t have people dining next to each other,” he said.

As long as the coronavirus is a short-term situation, Lemus thinks his business can survive the storm. But it might be a different story if it lasted a year or more.

“The way we’re doing business right now wouldn’t work long term,” Lemus said. “I’m just ready to ride this out and ready to be back to normal.”

It would not make sense to maintain a 7,000-square-foot restaurant and just do business out of the drive-thru window, he said.

Mike Carroll, owner of Ciao Chow in downtown New Albany, said his restaurant is currently getting about 60 percent of the business it was prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are surviving,” Carroll said.

He said it’s been a “rollercoaster” and that he appreciates all the people who have supported the restaurant during this time.

“We thank them so much for helping us to get through this,” Carroll said. “Had it not been for their support, we would have had to shut the doors.”

The business normally has 16 employees but is now down to six, and alcohol and dessert sales have “plummeted.”

Fortunately, the business has been able to offer meals through carryout, curbside and delivery.

Carroll said he is pleased with how Gov. Tate Reeves has handled the coronavirus situation. The governor has not tried to rush things and get businesses reopened to quickly, Carroll added.

The worst thing would be for someone to come to the restaurant and spread the virus to employees and customers, Carroll noted.

Carroll does miss having the dining room open, saying half the fun of his restaurant is the atmosphere.

“What’s an Italian restaurant without a lot of kids and a lot of families and a lot of noise?” he asked. “We really want to get our dining room open and get our folks back in.”

When the dining room does reopen, he thinks it will be done gradually. He has already pulled some tables out of the restaurant to prepare for reopening.

 “We’ll definitely be spacing it out,” Carroll said, adding that the seating capacity may be cut by more than 50 percent initially. “We’ll definitely be keeping things at a distance inside the dining room for folks when we do open the dining room. I think people will understand.”

Carroll thinks there will still be many people who want to get meals by carryout or curbside when dining rooms do reopen. Some people will still be very leery of eating inside a restaurant, he added.

Austin Kent, owner of The Warehouse Fish and Steak in New Albany, said his business slowed down significantly when the coronavirus first hit the area around mid-March. But Kent said business has improved in the past couple of weeks.

“When everything first shut down, we were probably doing maybe 30 percent of what our normal business was,” Kent said. “The last two weeks it’s really picked up. We’re kind of happy with how things are going.”

Customers call in their orders and get the food delivered to their vehicles.

“I think we’re doing well enough that we’re able to keep the doors open and able to at least provide our employees an opportunity to work,” Kent said. “I think we could sustain this model for as long as we needed to.”

In terms of reopening restaurant dining rooms, Kent prefers taking things slowly and making sure the situation is under control. He does not want to see the pandemic reignited.

“Despite the circumstances, we’ve still been blessed with enough business that we can at least keep our employees working and give them a chance to earn some income,” he said. “We’re trying to be adaptive as best we can. We’re not in a bad situation by any means.”

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