Eateries adjust to new normal

Blair, Bedford and Cambria counties along with other green counties are allowing diners to eat inside restaurants, although at a limited capacity and with social distancing between groups.

Huntingdon and other counties in the yellow phase can allow limited outdoor dining, as well as takeout and delivery, which also are allowed in all of the state’s counties.

Lena’s Cafe in Altoona has been in business for 80 years. Casey Higgins is the third-generation owner of the family restaurant, which has never seen challenges like the one brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve all worked harder than we’ve ever worked at the restaurant,” Higgins said.

After most businesses and restaurants were closed in March, Lena’s opened for takeout and curbside pickup, Higgins said. Since then, they’ve sold more than 300 pans of frozen lasagna. They’re also selling quarts of soup, trays of meatballs and family-style meals, “just to scrape every nickel and dime we can,” Higgins said.

“We just had to adjust,” he said. “It was trial and error to see what worked and what didn’t work. Customers have been great about it. We haven’t really had any complaints.”

Much of the state has entered into the “green phase” of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan, which allows for restaurants to open at 50 percent capacity. The more densely populated areas of the southeastern part of the state remain in the more restrictive yellow phase.

Higgins planned to open the cafe to dining over the weekend to see how it goes. The capacity and spacing regulations could be problematic for a place like his, as it’s a “very small footprint,” he said.

“That’s a problem for a lot of small family places,” he said. “We pack people in — that’s how we make money.”

Eateries across the nation are facing similar challenges.

The Wine Kitchen on Carroll Creek in downtown Frederick, Md., had just 36 hours from the announcement that outdoor dining would be allowed to resume when owner Jason Miller welcomed his first customers under those guidelines on May 29.

“We made it happen,” Miller said.

It helped that the business’s location in Leesburg, Va., was serving customers outside, “so we had already developed a lot of procedures that we adopted here,” he said.

Among those procedures are using a mister to sanitize tables after customers leave, as well as options for touchless menus and payments.

Instead of picking up a physical menu, customers can scan a QR code from a card on the table and look at the menu on their smartphone, Miller said. When it’s time to pay, customers receive a receipt with a unique QR code allowing them to pay online as well.

For those unable to use the electronic option, there are disposable menus available.

“Our first choice is to limit waste, and the more we can limit our staff standing at the table is better for everybody,” he said.

The Wine Kitchen has about 20 employees, half its pre-COVID-19 level, Miller said.

The patio can accommodate 28 diners maintaining social distance, which is half its normal capacity.


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