Local Restaurants Adjusting to COVID-19

Mar 25, 2020

It’s been a few days since Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered all restaurants and food establishments in the state to suspend all dine-in service and offer only delivery and take-out.

Locally, restaurants are making the required adjustments, so they can stay open.

At University Town Center, just a mile or so from the WUWF studios, cars in the Chick Fil A drive-through are wrapped around the building, as they usually are in the lunch hour. On this Tuesday, Panda Express and Panera’s also have some drive-through activity.

“Business is good, but not as good. We’re down about 30%. We’re thankful for all the customers that have come in,” said Rick West, owner and franchisee of VooDoo BBQ and Grill, also in the University Town Center.

Inside the New Orleans-style restaurant, a few scattered chairs offer customers a place to sit where they can wait for their orders.

“We’ve always done a pretty good take-out business; our food travels very well. In fact, last year, we won  (Inweekly's) Best of the Coast for Take-Out/To-Go, which we really don’t want to have to use that. But, it is nice that we’re already good at it. We want to have our guests back into the restaurant as soon as possible.”

Rick West is owner and franchisee of VooDoo BBQ & Grill in Pensacola. The restaurant is located in the University Town Center.
Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media

With the location of the restaurant at Nine Mile Rd. and University Parkway, West typically sees a lot of customers from the University of West Florida. But, remote operations at the university has curtailed that traffic. The near empty parking lot is proof business is slower than usual.

“We miss the university a lot, between students, faculty and staff, not only the business, but the friends we have, as well, that come in, the regular guests,” West said. “We’ve still seen some staff members, that are over still working a little bit, like yourself. I actually had a couple come in for lunch today and get the take-out to go.”

West says they also have numerous UWF students as employees. On that front, he says there’s just one lived on campus and hasn’t yet been able to return. He says the only layoff has been his pregnant daughter, who decided to step aside to free up hours for others on staff.  

“We applied for a Florida Emergency Bridge Loan and in the process of finalizing the federal SBA Disaster Loan to help us get through,” West explained.

A small crew is on duty for lunch service Tuesday at Santino's Pizza and Grinders on North Davis Highway in Pensacola.
Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media

Ryan Labombard takes my order at Santino’s Pizza and Grinders on Davis Highway. Earlier, WUWF spoke by phone to his boss is Laura Russell.

“I own all four of the Santino’s. A lot of people think we’re a chain restaurant and we’re not. I actually own all four in existence,” said Russell.

That includes locations in Pace, Pea Ridge, Gulf Breeze and Davis Highway.

Russell says there are a few ways to order, by coming in, with a limit of five customers at a time, or by calling or ordering on-line with curbside pickup. She says the new operation is running fairly smoothly.

“Well, we started it pretty early on, because we were seeing that was going to be the trend. So, I would say we’ve doing that maybe five days or so,” Russell said. “You know, it’s slower. Our sales are about 50-60% of what they were.”

Russell says the impact of the new restricted operations has varied from store to store, with some like the Davis Highway location across from West Florida doing much better at lunchtime.

“On a typical day, it depends. But, in this environment, it does seem that people are eating out less with us during the lunch hour and I think that’s due to people not being at their normal jobs and doing their normal routines.”

For now, Russell believes they’re doing enough business to sustain and keep her staff intact.

“You know, we’ve got a pretty tight group of people that work for me and we’re doing our best to keep everybody,” she said. “Now, some of their hours, they’re probably not getting the hours that they normally would get. But, we’re hopeful that everybody will stick around and that we can hopefully keep everybody that we can.”

In an effort to be creative and engage youngsters who’re stuck at home, Santino’s has come up with kids kits, where kids bake their own pizzas. Russell said the kits have been well received, so far, and overall feedback from customers has been positive.

“You know, I think everybody’s trying to be as supportive as possible. You know, I think people are understanding that we’re all having to alter our daily lives and I think they’re understanding of that and that they’re appreciative that we’re trying to stay open.”

Ashley Sloan has just grabbed lunch-to-go at the Firehouse Subs located in University Town Center in Pensacola.
Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media

“I think it’s very important to implement all the safety precautions that they’re taking for it.”

Back at University Town Center, Ashley Sloan just picked up lunch at Firehouse Subs, “It’s a very serious issue that we need to take control of and get it to die down as quick as possible.”

Sloan is a business student at Pensacola State College, who works for a pediatrician’s office in Pensacola. She says buying lunch is the least she can do to help keep the local economy afloat.

“I think it’s great, especially the little businesses that we don’t take a lot of time out of our day usually to go check out and see what they have going on,” said Sloan. “I think that with all this, we’ve all come together as a community and going outside of our comfort zone to help out all the small businesses and support one another.”

As for the restaurant owners, they are cautiously optimistic that they’ll continue to get enough support to keep them in business until the coronavirus crisis is over. Unfortunately, no one knows just how long that will take.