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Restaurants allowed back at full capacity, but find customers still leaning toward takeout

Restaurants allowed back at full capacity, but find customers still leaning toward takeout

From the ICYMI: Here are the most-read stories from the past week series

After being closed to dine-in or restricted for months during the coronavirus pandemic, restaurants were allowed to operate at full capacity again when Indiana entered Stage 5 of Gov. Eric Holcomb's Back on Track Indiana plan two weeks ago.

Region eateries have been able to accommodate more customers. But many are still spacing out diners, restricting capacity on their own, and doing more takeout and delivery business than dine-in. Some Northwest Indiana restaurateurs said many customers were still wary about dining in and they did not expect the dine-in business to fully return to pre-pandemic levels until a vaccine for COVID-19 was developed and became widely available.

"As for moving to full capacity, this is obviously welcome news that will allow full bar access as well as no restrictions on the amount of guests one can have at the private events hosted at Byway short of typical building capacity limits," said Dave Toth, an owner of Byway Brewing in Hammond. "Our carryout business remains robust, but is certainly down from the understandable peaks seen during the period in which we were closed due to COVID restrictions."

With many diners preferring to eat outside where the Centers for Disease Control said the coronavirus is less likely to be transmitted, Byway Brewing is planning to put in heaters at its patio this fall so people can dine and drink alfresco for longer.

"We’re planning the install of not only propane heaters under both of our pergolas, but clear vinyl marine curtains around both of them to block the wind and allow customers to enjoy eating and drinking outdoors longer into the fall and early-winter and sooner in late-winter/early-spring," Toth said. "Not surprisingly, we have found that many customers really enjoy having a beer outside, not unlike a sort of 'tailgate' setting, so we’d like to accommodate them as much as possibly deeper into the fall and even early winter."

Customers are paying less attention to what stage Indiana is in than how bad the COVID-19 outbreak actually is, said Brent Brashier, chief BBQ officer at Doc's Smokehouse and Craft Bar in Dyer.

"Based on my anecdotal observations, the governor’s edicts really have very little impact on the thinking of most of our customers," he said. "With the cases, hospitalizations, and positivity rate rapidly rising, many people are opting to avoid dining in, our carryout business remains strong. It’s incongruent that we were forced to shut down in the spring when all the COVID-19 metrics were much lower than they are now."

The restoration of full capacity hasn't had much impact at a time when many customers are still getting their food to go or delivered. Doc's continues to take the same precautions as it did before.

"It has had no measurable impact on our business, other than we have more guests complaining about wearing masks," Brashier said. "We have maintained our 6-foot separation between tables and will continue to follow the CDC guidelines for safe operation, including frequently sanitizing high-risk surfaces, temperature check and masks for staff."

Some restaurants, like Steak & Shake and Grindhouse Cafe in Griffith and Whiting, respectively, have remained closed to dining in throughout the pandemic — regardless of what the state allows — as a precaution. That option that is more financially viable for eateries that can do a strong enough takeout or drive-thru business.

Tzatziki Greek Street Food at 7231 Indianapolis Blvd. in Hammond is still operating at half capacity, but getting by on takeout. Its newly opened Schererville location at 332 Indianapolis Blvd. does takeout and delivery only.

"The Hammond restaurant is staying at half capacity with social distancing," Tzatziki Manager Alex Holevas said. "Diners feel more comfortable that way. And I don't want to get it and bring it home to my kid and my wife. I've been lucky none of the employees have had it. We've heard horror stories where restaurants have had to close for a couple of weeks."

Lately, it's been more of a struggle to ensure customers wear masks and practice social distancing.

"We've had people just walk in without a mask," Holevas said. "People were good about it at first. It's complacency. People are sick of it."

But customers have been more likely to grab takeout or delivery, including through apps like Uber Eats, DoorDash and Grubhub.

"We might fill all the tables that are open on Friday or Saturday, but takeout is where it's at right now," he said. "People want takeout."

Many people who had been dining outside Sip Cafe coffee shops in Crown Point, Cedar Lake and Highland have been opting more for takeout and delivery since the weather started to get colder, owner Rhonda Bloch said.

"It seems as though in the last couple weeks that we are beginning to get a lot of to-go orders. Grubhub has once again picked up as well," she said. "I believe it has to do with the days it’s cold and you can’t sit outside on the patio. I can’t wait to see the changes in the next couple of weeks. However, business has been great throughout it all."

Takeout has been strong during the coronavirus pandemic but dining in is not what is was, said David Huerta, who owns the Fat Burrito in Highland and the new Chiro's Family Restaurant down the street.

"Full capacity hasn't really helped," he said. "Even without full capacity, Fat Burrito does a lot of carryout. Chiro's is more of a dine-in place and people don't want to take their pancakes home."

Fat Burrito, which has been established in Highland for two years and in Crown Point for even longer, has done a robust carryout business during the pandemic after dropping off a little bit at first.

But it's been harder to get customers to come out to dine in Chiro's, the new 200-seat diner that serves traditional American cuisine for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Huerta said.

"For most of the pandemic people are scared and don't want to go out to eat," he said. "We have a capacity of 200 and will sit your wherever you want and can definitely keep people more than 6 feet apart. It's been really hard to start a new business due to the COVID-19 around the world. People don't want to go out."

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Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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