Exterior of FIG, a restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina

Andrew Cebulka

For Chef Mike Lata, reopening his two Charleston, South Carolina restaurants will be “baby steps every step of the way.”

Lata co-founded FIG in 2003 with business partner Adam Nemirow, and the duo opened The Ordinary nine years later. In the 17 years FIG has been in business, the restaurant has won three James Beard awards and is up for its fourth this year, this time for the prestigious outstanding restaurant award.

But since mid-March, both restaurants’ dining rooms have been closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Now, with South Carolina restaurants allowed to reopen their dining rooms at half capacity, Lata plans to reopen FIG and The Ordinary on Memorial Day.  

South Carolina is among the many states across the country that are allowing restaurants to reopen at limited capacity and with new safety measures in place, such as spacing out tables.

Restaurant operators are deciding how to proceed. Reopening dining rooms could put employees and customers at risk of contracting Covid-19 and spark a second wave of outbreaks, but many businesses need the revenue to stay afloat. The National Restaurant Association estimates that the industry lost $80 billion in sales in March and April due to the pandemic, and nearly 5.5 million food service workers lost their jobs in April. 

FIG and The Ordinary furloughed all but four employees after both shuttered their doors. While other fine-dining restaurants chose to pivot to takeout and delivery, Lata said that they decided against it as a cost-saving measure and used the time to strategize instead. In the interim, he joined the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a lobbying group fighting for changes to the federal government’s stimulus program.

As the clock on his funding from the Paycheck Protection Program began ticking, Lata started hiring employees back several weeks ago and introduced curbside pick-up. Small businesses that receive PPP loans have eight weeks to spend the money, and employers have to spend 75% of the money on payroll expenses — or repay the loan in two years, with interest. 

“If we’re going to reopen with tight restrictions and protocols and redeveloping all of our systems — it’s going to take some time to figure that out — so why don’t we start bringing people back for the curbside program?” Lata said.

Interior of The Ordinary before the coronavirus pandemic

Andrew Cebulka

He acknowledged that some of his employees, like dishwashers, prep cooks and hosts, are making more money through unemployment benefits. And some furloughed workers’ concern about the virus means that they aren’t interested in returning to the restaurants yet. 

“We’re trying not to just frankly offer their job back, because if they say no, we’re supposed to report that to the unemployment department,” Lata said. 

He is also trying to ensure that he doesn’t have to furlough everyone again once the eight-week PPP funding dries up. 

Last Friday, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster announced that restaurants in the state could reopen their dining rooms at 50% capacity, starting this past Monday. Restrictions on outdoor seating were lifted earlier in the month. 

“I think we needed more time to warm up to the idea and get a running start, which is why we decided not to [reopen immediately], and I think it definitely would have been better for everyone to say, ‘You’ve got 10 days’ instead of three,” Lata said.

The ticking clock on the PPP loan also puts pressure on Lata to reopen FIG and The Ordinary. 

“Maybe in a perfect world, without this economic pressure that we’ve been given, this eight-week timeline to use this money to keep our restaurants afloat, we probably wouldn’t be opening this soon, but we feel like anyone that would be at risk won’t be here,” Lata said.

The state’s recommendations for reopening include using paper menus, seating no more than eight customers at one table, spacing tables six to eight feet apart and taking employees’ temperatures before they start a shift.

Lata and his team are drawing up floor plans and using measuring tape to ensure that tables are far enough apart. But they face many more decisions, like if they should take reservations or how to encourage customers to act responsibly, even when drinking alcohol. They’re even considering adding a second door to FIG. 

It’s unclear how many customers will return. Lata said that tourists are key part of its customer base, and the pandemic has devastated the tourism industry. After their dining rooms reopen, FIG and The Ordinary will still offer curbside pick-up, which could be useful for its local customers. 

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