Starting June 1, one of Omaha’s great traditions can resume: People can take a Fab Four pizza from Sgt. Peffer’s across North Saddle Creek Road to the Homy Inn and enjoy it with a nice pale ale, or if it’s a special occasion, champagne on tap.
They can have their pie and drink with it too because of loosened anti-coronavirus restrictions that Gov. Pete Ricketts announced this week. Effective June 1 in 89 counties, including the Omaha area, bars and lounges can reopen under the same rules that now apply to restaurants — including operating at 50% capacity, with parties spaced out by at least 6 feet.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Terry Finkel, owner of Homy Inn. “It’s going to be tough only having 25 people, and nobody’s supposed to sit at the bar, but I mean, it’s better than nothing.”
Several bar owners similarly welcomed the news of relaxed restrictions. They’re glad to be able to open taps and tabs again, but the pandemic and its restrictions are still around, so they’re not exactly breaking out the bubbly.
“It’s great that everybody’s open, as long as everybody kind of adheres to the rules,” said Bret Schnittgrund, who with his wife, Cindy, owns The Session Room in downtown Omaha. “For sure, we’re going to be following all of them.”
He said the restaurant and bar could have opened May 4, when in-person dining was allowed to resume, but they decided to wait until June 1. They’ve been preparing.
“All the tables are 6 feet apart,” Schnittgrund said. “We can’t use any of the games … like the dartboard. Those are all off limits. You can’t have more than six people at one table. And supposedly you can’t stand. So we’ll have somebody that will seat people, and we’re just going to monitor as best we can.”
Regulars are hungry, and thirsty, for The Session Room to reopen. The Schnittgrunds have been hearing from them, and will be happy to see the happy hour usuals and the construction workers from nearby projects for lunch again.
“I’m grateful that we can reopen, and hopefully everything works out,” Schnittgrund said.
Angela Honig, owner of Sippin’ Sirens Neighborhood Bar at 42nd and H Streets, sees her regulars as family.
“We’re really a neighborhood bar,” she said, “and it went from being elbow to elbow on the weekends to nothing.”
Honig hopes that with the loosened restrictions, her regulars will return.
She said everyone coming together again is something to look forward to.
Another neighborhood bar owner, Nancy Kendall, said that it may take awhile for the Kendall Tavern, near South 23rd Street and Gilmore Avenue, to bounce back from the financial strain of the past two months.
“Hopefully I can do it,” Kendall said. “(Regulars) are raring to get back here so they can see people.”
George Robinson, the owner of the Grown Folks Social Club, is optimistic but cautious about reopening.
“I want to open with a lot of caution because I don’t think anyone really knows how things will end up in 31 days, if the virus will spike again,” he said.
Robinson’s club at 3713 N. 24th St. opened in November. He said business was just ramping up when the coronavirus shut things down.
“Hopefully everybody stays safe, and let’s get back to operating at full capacity,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”
Ice House, a popular west Omaha spot for watching sports and for rehydrating parents and coaches after sporting events, has been open since May 4 for food. If its experience is indicative of the future, bars can expect to be buzzing with cooperative patrons.
“I was expecting it to be busy, but it has been just as busy as before,” general manager Samantha Suiter said. “Obviously at half capacity, we can’t have as many customers in here, but all the customers have been great. … I’ve had some people that have come in that are upset about the (no) darts or pool, but that room’s completely closed down, so they can’t even go up there.”
Suiter said all the Ice House servers and kitchen workers must wear masks. Workers immediately sanitize tables, menus and even pens immediately after each use, she said. Customers have been good about following social distancing rules.
“I feel like that contributes to how busy we’ve been because they feel comfortable coming here because they see how much of an effort we’re putting into (safety),” Suiter said.
Mike Colvin, an occasional patron of the Homy Inn, said he will wait a bit before visiting a bar.
“If the bars and restaurants open up and we don’t see any real spike in cases, then I’ll start to consider it,” he said. “I’ll let someone go in first.”
The Drover can’t seem to catch a break.
The popular Omaha steakhouse caught on fire in late December 2018 and reopened in August of last year. Before too long, general manager Daryl Leise said, “we were going at full speed,” with the return of hourlong waits on weekends.
Then came another catastrophe, one with a weird name: COVID-19. Gov. Pete Ricketts told restaurant owners to close their dining rooms because of the pandemic. Some turned to takeout and delivery while others, like the Drover, went dark for the seven-week duration.
Ricketts gave restaurants in much of the state, including Omaha, the OK to reopen dining rooms at 50% capacity on May 4, with other restrictions.
Leise took him up on it, the memory of the yearlong break still fresh in his mind.
He’s in the minority. Zoe Olson, executive director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association, estimated that only 30% to 40% of eligible restaurants are serving customers in their dining rooms.
Restaurateurs who opened are reporting mixed results: Crowds are down, though most say they’re slowly picking up; and revenue, though improving, is still below pre-coronavirus levels.
“I have heard restaurant owners say losses are less now than they were,” Olson said this week. “Sales are down 50% to 60% of normal instead of 80% to 90%. Nobody is back to 100% of what they were a year ago.”
The dining room reopening process was an adventure, said Omaha restaurant owners, chefs and managers contacted by The World-Herald. They had to reconfigure seating for social distancing, deep clean their buildings, devise ongoing sanitization regimens and rehire employees, among many other tasks.
“We came in with a tape measure to make sure tables are 6 feet apart,” said Tammy Dean, daytime manager at Shirley’s Diner in the Millard area. Like workers at other restaurants, she and her staff also created extended sanitization stations with bleach buckets.
Health officials provided a detailed list of steps restaurants must take to ensure the safety of diners and employees. Owners with questions about the guidelines have been consulting by phone with the Douglas County Health Department, said Joe Gaube, supervisor of food safety compliance.
For now, he said, restaurants are on an honor system because inspections have been suspended temporarily. Workers throughout the department have been deployed to help with anti-coronavirus efforts such as testing and contact tracing.
Gaube expects inspections to resume within a few weeks.
Restaurateurs opting to reopen May 4 were pinched for time. When Ricketts announced his decision, they had only eight days, including two weekends, to clean buildings and convert operations.
At Spezia, a high-end Italian eatery near 72nd Street and Mercy Road, owners were getting ready to launch takeout when they found out that they could serve customers in their dining room in a few days.
“We did everything on the fly,” dining room manager Joshua Diaz said.
Now Diaz and his peers have shifted to making sure that employees follow safety guidelines. The most notable rule is mandatory masks for all workers.
A World-Herald spot check indicated that they’re taking the rule seriously.
People waiting for takeout at the Pacific Eating House near 132nd and Pacific Streets this week could see each worker inside wearing a mask.
Deb Reese, an Omahan who was eager to return to her favorite restaurants, said employees were wearing masks at both Firebirds and Oscar’s when she recently visited.
“Everyone at Oscar’s had personalized Oscar’s masks,” she said.
Owners and managers said their employees see masks as a necessity, though they’re sometimes annoying.
“We have to do what we have to do,” said Mo Tajvar, owner of Omaha Prime in the Old Market, where masks seem incongruent with the fine-dining experience. “It’s not ideal, but we do have to keep ourselves and our guests safe.”
A part-time manager at Shirley’s said he thinks that the masks make his interaction with diners, some of whom are regulars, less personal.
Restaurant personnel also had to come up with plans in the event of waiting lists.
“We tell people to bring their cells, and if there’s a wait for tables, they can stay in their cars, and we will text them when a table becomes available,” said Dean, at Shirley’s.
So far, that hasn’t been a problem. Aside from Reese, who said she encountered a three-party waiting list at Firebirds, no one interviewed for this story said crowds had been at that level, except perhaps on Mother’s Day.
With parties seated 6 feet apart, capacities range from 130 at Spezia to 100 at Omaha Prime to between 70 and 80 at Shirley’s, Cunningham’s and the Drover.
Some restaurateurs may have been wondering if all the preparation was worth it.
At Cunningham’s, a west Omaha bar and grill that reopened May 13, business is double what it was when it was takeout-only but still “10 times less” than it was before the pandemic, said assistant general manager Danny Offner.
Leise, at the Drover, said he’s doing perhaps 40% of his former business.
But, all said, it’s not entirely about the bottom line. It’s about connections with longtime customers, providing jobs for employees who are like family, meeting new diners and offering hospitality.
“Many people have said how grateful they are that they’re able to sit down and have a meal and a glass of wine,” said Spezia’s Diaz. “There’s value in being able to do that for somebody.”
For Tajvar, it’s not just about feeding people.
“Our job is to make a difference in people’s evenings,” he said. “It’s a special-occasion place, and people come to celebrate. When they choose us, it makes us feel good about who we are and what we do.”
None of the people interviewed said they had thought seriously about giving up. Olson, of the Nebraska Restaurant Association, said a state-by-state breakdown of a National Restaurant Association survey in April indicated that 2% of Nebraska restaurants had closed permanently and 4% expected to close.
The May survey is being conducted this weekend, Olson said, so she hopes to have updated figures by the end of next week.
In Omaha on Friday, owner Kathleen Jamrozy said she was shuttering the Flatiron Cafe for good. She blamed the closing on the coronavirus.
Olson thinks the pandemic will change the restaurant industry. It’s too soon to tell how, she said.
Leise, at the Drover, admitted to pondering such existential matters. He thinks that some restaurants will fail in the next year or so through no fault of their own.
“There’s always the question in your mind as far as how are we going to survive this? More so, though, is how is our restaurant industry going to survive and what will it look like on the other side?” he said.
For now, he’s staying the course, even as he faces a second straight year without the usually phenomenal crowds from the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting and the College World Series.
“We’re just looking ahead, looking forward and being positive,” he said.
The Flatiron Cafe in downtown Omaha has closed for good.
Owner Kathleen Jamrozy said she told her staff Thursday that the restaurant wouldn’t return after the coronavirus pandemic. It was in the historic triangular Flatiron Building near 17th Street and St. Marys Avenue for 24 years.
Jamrozy and the staff were cleaning out the building on Friday.
The restaurant was known for its sumptuous menu, rich ingredients and fine service.
“I tried to see a path forward for us,” Jamrozy said, but she knew the restaurant was as much an experience as it was a place to buy food and she couldn’t see it thriving in the current environment.
She said she considered offering takeout or curbside dining but rejected that idea because the 100-plus-year-old dining room and attentive wait staff was an essential part of dining at the Flatiron.
“It wouldn’t work as a curbside (restaurant) or (with) waiters in protective gear,” she said.
In addition, she said, the profit margin in fine dining is slim and she was afraid the coronavirus pandemic would be prolonged. The restaurant’s last day was March 14. It was closed for a few days in early March to install new carpeting and otherwise “freshen” the dining room.
She has six months left on the building’s lease and is hoping to sell the business, which had one of the best years in its history in 2019.
“It’s pandemic priced,” she said. “Maybe someone who knows the beautiful space and understands that there is real value in the name and place (could buy it). If they can ride out the storm, it would be worth it.”
She said she is offering refunds to people who have gift certificates.
In December 1995, she sent invitations to a grand-opening party. The invitations had a black-and-white photo she had taken of the building.
“I didn’t know if anybody was going to come,” she said. “But it was as if nothing else in the city was going on that night.”
She said she appreciates all the people who supported her that day and throughout the restaurant’s tenure.
“It makes me sad that we can’t bookend that with a beautiful going-away party to say thank you to the community,” she said.