These local restaurants are adjusting to the current capacity limits set by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Dominic Damiano’s hat is off.
The owner of Clemenza’s at Uptown Station in Fort Walton Beach tips his hat to thank the community for its support since the coronavirus outbreak. Ten years worth of customers kept them alive, he said.
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“When we went to to-go orders only — our whole customer base has been around a long time and they’re very loyal — they just dug in hard,” Damiano said. “Our military families came in and they ordered 10 pizzas and would hand them out to people. Guys were coming in and handing out $50 bills to the servers and doing everything they could to make us successful again. People are buying gift cards and they don’t even need ‘em.”
Damiano kept his entire staff. Most of them have worked there for 10 years, he said.
“They have loyalty to me, so I figured I should have loyalty to them,” Damiano added. “So I never laid anyone off and paid everybody and adjusted schedules.”
Upon reopening the dine-in area, Damiano didn’t want to take the restaurant apart to meet the capacity limits, he said. He simply spaced the tables apart.
The biggest change since reopening has been the amount of to-go orders.
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“We’ve just been getting slammed with to-go orders,” Damiano said. “People say, ‘You always give back to the community.’ We don’t give back because we expect anything in return. It’s been wonderful. Now we’re back up and running and they’re kicking our butts.”
Sister restaurant Mama Clemenza’s European Breakfast in Miramar Beach had a slightly different experience.
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Giovanni Filippone, the managing partner and executive chef, said he thinks being a breakfast place and closing at 2 p.m. made it a less popular choice for to-go orders. Since reopening the dining area and adding more outdoor tables, the customers’ response has been positive, he said.
“It’s been a steady flow of people, and it seems like the customers are tipping the staff a little bit better,” Filippone said. “Business has been well. They understand that we’re spacing things out. People have been willing to wait an extra 10 or 15 minutes for a table.”
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Filippone was happy to reopen, he said.
“You close your doors and you have no idea if you’re going to reopen and when you’re gonna be able to reopen,” Filippone said. “When we got the OK to reopen, it was thrill and excitement.”
Like Filippone, Eugene Mayhew, the owner of Gator Café in Baker, was grateful to reopen. During the first two weeks of switching to to-go orders only from the front windows, the restaurant’s business was down 80%, he said.
The past two weeks have been good.
“Still doing a lot of to-go orders,” Mayhew said. “That helps out, so you don’t have to find everyone seating. We’re running at only about 10% off right now, so business is pretty much like usual again.”
The staff members wear masks and gloves, and some of the booths are closed to adhere to social distancing recommendations. Mayhew hopes nothing like this happens again, he said.
“Hopefully, the precautions of what we’re doing now will help us if something like this happens. We’ll be ready to go and know what to expect,” he said. “This time, we didn’t know what to expect.”
Business hasn’t slowed down much at Main Brew Coffee in Fort Walton Beach; it’s just changed.
Owner Patrick Tatum said that while the dining room was shut down, the shop stopped accepting food orders. Tatum purchased a second iPad so one staff member could take coffee orders from cars outside.
“People understood and they all went through the drive-thru,” Tatum said. “We had to focus on long lines, make adjustments there and move as quickly as we can. For us, Starbucks shut down, so we were able to pick up that crowd right there.”
Food returned to the menu when the dining area was allowed to reopen. But because Main Brew Coffee is a small venue, only 10 people are currently allowed inside with the 50% capacity limit — and it fills up fast, Tatum said.
“Before, we probably did two-thirds or maybe even three-fourths of our business in the front through the dining area, and now it’s completely flip-flopped,” Tatum said. “Even with everything opened back up, we’re still doing most everything through the drive-thru.”
While sales are normal, things are still stressful.
“The food supply took a hit, and so it seems like every time I make an order, they’re out of something that I need,” Tatum said. “Like today, I’m a coffee shop – we do a lot of lattes – I couldn’t get any milk. I had to leave the shop and scramble to find some milk. I think I was down to three gallons.”
While to-go orders and drive-thrus kept many restaurants afloat, the four AJ’s locations were completely closed for more than a month, said entertainment director Dan Collins. They reopened each location one at a time.
“We’ve added stickers on the floor for spacing at the bar,” Collins said. “We’ve removed all the bar stools. In our indoor area, we are seating at 50% capacity, which of course has affected business and business is down. We’re hopeful things will keep progressing like they are and everyone has taken the proper measurements to push us forward.”
The main change has been training the staff to help customers adhere to the new rules and posting the proper signage, Collins said. Business is slowly returning to normal, he said.
“It was a little slow at first because people were poking their heads out,” Collins said. “Of course, there’s a lot of tourists in town now and they want things to be like they used to be, and it’s not there yet. We have guidelines we have to follow. We want to get past this together and get as close to normal as we can as fast as we can.”