Milwaukee’s restaurants are navigating a challenging balancing act during this coronavirus pandemic. When the lockdown was first ordered in March, carry-out was the only option allowed. Then, with about a day’s notice from the city, Milwaukee restaurants and bars were able to reopen dining spaces and outdoor seating on June 5.
But just because restaurants can reopen their dining rooms, doesn't mean they are. Restaurants have to weigh capacity restrictions, social distancing requirements and other safety measures to calculate whether operating this way can still bring in a profit.
After reopening dine-in services to the public, there are now over a dozen Milwaukee restaurants that have temporarily closed their doors again as either employees or customers have tested positive for the coronavirus.
The restaurant Lazy Susan MKE in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood has remained open for carry-out services only — and doesn't plan to make dine-in services available anytime soon.
"I’m people over profit, always. Right now, if I can sustain my business like this — it’s not ideal, but if I can do it and if I’m smart about it — I should just keep doing this for as long as I have to," says chef and owner AJ Dixon.
The city of Milwaukee suddenly announced that restaurants could reopen with capacity limits last month. Dixon says it "felt like a shot in the knees" to make the announcement when there were much bigger events happening like the continuing protest movement against police brutality.
"I felt that it was used as a distraction tactic to kind of pull people [away from the protests] over to another thing — that's my personal feeling on it," she says.
When the coronavirus pandemic first hit the area, Dixon closed the restaurant before the official order came through. While they had to shut down operations, Dixon worked with her staff to make an action plan in order to keep as many people working as possible in a safe, carry-out model.
"We need to do this to survive and we need to do this to sustain — and closing was not an option for us," says Dixon. "It was a big shock, kind of a 'is this really happening?' kind of a thing."
While there are many suggested guidelines from organizations, Dixon notes they are broad and are "for you to follow at your discretion, and what's going to work for me is not going to work for someone else."
The challenge, Dixon says, has been sifting through all of the information to see the similarities, pick and choose what works best for her establishment, and then implement it.
Currently, Lazy Susan offers carry-out meals Wednesday, Thursday and Fridays that are pre-ordered the day before. Dixon says there will be no big changes to this service or plans to implement dine-in services in the foreseeable future due to safety and physical space limitations.
"We're only doing one menu a night. I'm creating enough work for the people that I have on staff. There's no waste, I'm ordering exactly what I need. I'm monitoring my expenses very carefully, which at a time like this is really, really important," Dixon explains.
Since she decided to only offer a carry-out model, Dixon says feedback from the community and her customers has "been really supportive."
As for the financial reflection of the times, she says the restaurant is "doing OK. We could always be doing better ... some weeks are better than others." But for now, Dixon says that model seems to be pretty sustainable.
"I call it 'riding the wave' — we're just going to see how long we can physically do this until I'm forced to physically open my doors again," says Dixon. "Because I don't want to get sick, I don't want my staff to get sick."
"It's really hard to try to figure out a good balance, but for me it's more-so just trying to keep everyone safe," she adds.
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