Omaha restaurants attempt to respond to a pandemic: “The shockwaves are yet to be felt.”

At Hardy Coffee Company, sharing tables is encouraged. People are meant to engage with each other, to share a power strip for their computers, perhaps to make conversation. 

“All of a sudden we have to be six feet away from each other,” said Autumn Pruitt, the owner of the three Hardy shops around Omaha. “It’s the opposite message of what we’ve been saying for years. It has to be different for now.” 

Initial steps restaurants took – increasing cleaning and encouraging caution – because of the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic pale in comparison to the latest changes many Omaha restaurants are making in response to the call for social distancing to slow the spread of the virus.

This afternoon, restaurants in Omaha are being asked to go to drive-thru, takeout or delivery only. Bars will be shut down, per a new order from Douglas County.

Many local restaurants have already made that change, pivoting from fine dining to take-away. Most are already offering curbside pickup for customers. Some are offering their front-of-house staff the chance to keep working as delivery drivers.

(I’ve got a list of where to get takeout locally and I’ll share my favorite options coming later today.)

Too many local restaurants to count have now temporarily closed their doors altogether. To give you an idea, some of the Omaha staples that are closed: V. Mertz. Au Courant. M’s Pub. The Boiler Room. The Drover. La Buvette.

All say it’s unclear how long they’ll have to remain shut.

What is also unclear is the future for the thousands of service industry workers in the city, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck. Around the country, restaurants have already started to lay off staff; the Union Square Hospitality group in New York, for instance, laid off 2,000 workers this morning.

Ryan Miller, who owns Benson’s Bärchen Beer Garden, decided earlier this week to close the restaurant for the foreseeable future. The restaurant is now offering delivery via Grubhub daily from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Last weekend, the restaurant did close to $23,000 in business. On Monday, the number sat closer to $9,000.

“If this was going to be the trend, we might as well close,” Miller said. He anticipates being closed for at least a week. Now, he said the goal is to figure out how to pay his staff. 

“A lot of restaurants aren’t positioned to absorb this,” he said. 

Paul Kulik, who owns Le Bouillon in the Old Market, is attempting a reposition, planning to stay open as long as possible.

“The shockwaves are yet to be felt,” Kulik said. “And they’re probably going to be pretty seismic.”

Starting Wednesday, the restaurant will transition from a fine dining space and wine bar to curbside pickup and delivery only. Kulik plans to offer an accessible menu of everyday items, plus the option of a family meal. The restaurant plans to use Grubhub for local delivery, and its sister wine shop, Howard Street Wine Merchant, already had a delivery program in place. That will continue. 

“It’s an odd moment to figure out what the right answer is,” he said. “We don’t want to endanger anyone, but we do want to run up our efforts to accommodate guests.”

That’s Pruitt’s plan.

All three locations – in the Old Market, 1031 Jones St.; in Benson, 6051 Maple St.; and in North Downtown, 2112 N. 30th St. – will close at 6 p.m. The Benson and Old Market shops are to-go only, with a full menu of baked goods and coffee. The Highlander location is offering curbside pickup.

Pruitt said the bakery will now individually package all its bakery items. They’ll also deliver their coffee beans around the city of Omaha for anyone who places an online order.

Pruitt said lots of Hardy customers come to the shop daily. She’s hoping to provide a sliver of normalcy now that they can’t.

“We still love to provide that moment of groundedness in someone’s day,” she said.

Neighborhood bars – places people flock to for a similar moment of connection – are closing, too. Clark Ross closed his bar, Mercury, earlier this week.

“Limiting gatherings to ten people was the final nail in the coffin,” Ross said. “It became impossible to run.”

Mercury plans to be closed for the next two weeks, and will reassess the situation at that point.

He said he’s concerned for the staff. He’s also concerned for the community.

“Bars have always been the place for the community to gather,” he said. “People are going to get stir-crazy.”

Miller had similar thoughts.

“Eating out is a social aspect of our lives in Omaha,” he said. “You take that away, I think it gets kind of empty for a lot of people. You take the heart of the city when you take this away.”

2 responses to “Omaha restaurants attempt to respond to a pandemic: “The shockwaves are yet to be felt.””

  1. Anne Hellbusch Avatar
    Anne Hellbusch

    Thanks for addressing this “new normal”, Sarah. As part owner of Spirit World, there have been challenges, to put it mildly. Eating out has always been part of the social fabric of Omaha and this is definitely a shock to that system. Your newsletter becomes even more crucial in helping us feel connected.

    1. Sarah Baker Hansen Avatar

      Thanks, Anne. I am doing my best to stay connected with all of you, and with the industry, during this strange time.

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