Servers at Porky Butts BBQ are getting used to a new routine.

They sprint outside — even in the cold, rain and wind — to hand meals to drivers, taking care not to linger. That’s a big change for workers who enjoyed leisurely conversations about jobs and family with familiar customers seated in comfy booths.

“I had to reposition people,” said owner Blane Hunter. “Instead of running to tables, they’re running to cars.”

This scene will increasingly be re-created after Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts announced that all restaurants and bars in Douglas, Sarpy, Cass and Washington Counties must close their dining areas immediately due to coronavirus. Chefs and restaurant owners are coming up with various ways to stay open and retain employees by offering takeout and delivery. They also held an industry brainstorming session and are advocating for state and federal assistance.

Industry representatives and economists say it’s too early to assess the effect of the pandemic on the nation’s restaurants. One D.C. chef told The Washington Post that he thinks 75% could fail without some sort of aid.

Locally, industry insiders are worried.

“Potentially, there’s a huge impact,” said Zoe Olson, executive director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association. “The restaurant industry is the second largest in the state behind agriculture.”

Already, the layoffs have taken a toll. Anthony Hitchcock, chief operating officer of Omaha’s Flagship Restaurant Group, said he furloughed employees when the Flagship restaurants closed indefinitely.

Hitchcock shut down the outlets — and doesn’t have plans to reopen for takeout or delivery — because of safety issues, he said. In Omaha, Flagship properties include Blue, Blatt Beer & Table, Roja, Plank and the Flagship Commons food court at Westroads Mall.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about revenue, it’s about health and safety,” an emotional Hitchcock said.

Hunter took a different route with the hope that he wouldn’t have to let workers go. All 17 of the restaurant’s staffers remain employed, he said, though five young part-timers haven’t been on the schedule for the past week. He’s giving priority to those with families to support.

He also isn’t planning pay cuts at this time.

“We’re going to take a hit as a business, but we are a family here and we want to take care of family,” Hunter said.

The first day of curbside service earlier this week went more smoothly than Hunter had expected. He set up four spots for cars, and customers came. The restaurant already had a takeout business, so curbside delivery wasn’t a huge leap.

Hunter is serving his entire menu and plans to add more portable and lower-priced barbecue and veggie bowls. He’s also instituting third-party delivery; he wanted to use his employees for that, but his insurance agent convinced him it wasn’t an affordable alternative.

Owner Kip Oetter at Jack and Mary’s Restaurant said he reduced his staff from 42, including some part-timers, to four. He’s also giving curbside delivery a try for two weeks, then will evaluate.

He’s busy brainstorming ways to keep restaurants visible and relevant during what could be a catastrophic time.

On Wednesday, he hosted a meeting of 13 Omaha chefs and owners to gather ideas.

“It’s hard for everyone to wrap their minds around,” he said. “It’s terrifying.”

The group — which met in his parking lot because it was larger than 10 — talked about donating $500 each to create a small-business website focusing particularly on restaurants. It would have restaurant listings, hours and links to menus.

“We talked about our circumstances and that we wanted to create a buzz about locally owned restaurants,” Oetter said.

Dante chef and owner Nick Strawhecker is approaching the situation from a public policy standpoint. With other restaurateurs, he sent a letter to Ricketts on Wednesday with three recommendations:

  • Immediately support emergency unemployment benefits to all hourly and salaried workers furloughed during this crisis.
  • Eliminate sales and payroll taxes immediately.
  • Call for rent and loan abatement for small-business owners, employees and workers impacted by the closure of the restaurant industry.
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Restaurant owners and managers also are finding ways to help their workers through hard times. Several who were interviewed said they are helping people navigate the process to get unemployment benefits. They’ve also given employees food to help them short term.

“We started packing all perishable items at our restaurants and giving them to employees — cucumbers, lemons, heads of lettuce, avocados,” said Flagship COO Hitchcock.

Workers say they have appreciated the kindness of bosses and others as they face an uncertain future.

Felicia Wyldes was a server at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Council Bluffs until earlier this week, when the restaurant closed its dining room. She had the option to work the takeout counter but said it was better financially if she filed for unemployment. Without tips, she would have taken a substantial pay cut.

She praised her supervisor for his help and caring.

“My manager is absolutely amazing. He took the time to call every individual rather than sending out a mass text,” she said.

A co-worker echoed that, but said kindness can’t allay her fears. Her partner also was a Buffalo Wild Wings server and they have a 6-month-old son.

“What now? That’s a good question,” said Maggie Garvey of the Bluffs. “Honestly, the only thing going through my head is that I’m absolutely terrified, especially for my son. We don’t know how long this will last.”

Betsie covers a little bit of everything for The World-Herald's Living section, including theater, religion and anything else that might need attention. Phone: 402-444-1267.

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