You might be wary of dining in at a restaurant. I get it. COVID-19 has completely changed the way we interact with one another. Every cough or sneeze comes with worried glances and people physically moving away from you. So, what’s it like to eat at a restaurant during COVID-19? NCND headed to The Oak for dine-in to find out.
On March 17, 2020, Gov. Roy Cooper ordered bars and restaurants to close their doors due to COVID-19. On May 22, restaurants were able to reopen for inside dining at 50%, which completely changed the landscape of dine-in restaurants. Tables are sometimes sporting X’s or caution tape. The Oak decided to do something different for its dine-in options.
Enter The Oak: Now Open for Dine-in
The Oak is a scratch kitchen and bourbon bar located on Lake Boone Trail in Raleigh, NC. With over 90 bourbon options, The Oak hosts bourbon dinners and bourbon tastings – paired with fresh, carefully-sourced produce and protein.
While they’ve been doing curbside pickup and patio dining, The Oak’s dining room wasn’t open until July 28, more than two months after restaurants were allowed to open dining rooms. When The Oak did open its dining room, its dine-in plan had a twist.
Maintaining Hospitality While Social Distancing
“We didn’t want to put X’s on tables,” The Oak General Manager Hali Haught said. “When you go into a lot of restaurants right now, the way they’re social distancing is just an X on the table. That’s just not welcoming…and that defeats the purpose of hospitality.”
The Oak’s twist: planters in between tables. The Oak removed 26 seats from their dining room to meet the 50% dine-in regulations. Now, with their Garden Oasis dine-in option, those spaces are instead broken up with tall planters that are filled with houseplants.
Assistant General Manager Maribeth Boyd spearheaded the planter project. “Instead of isolating people in their bubbles, we [wanted to] create an enjoyable and comfortable environment,” Boyd said.
Growing Through COVID-19
Most of the houseplants in Boyd’s planter project are from the Raleigh Farmers Market and local nurseries.
Originally, the Garden Oasis project was a dual idea between Boyd and Operating Partner Ryan Riek, who are both plant people. Riek gave Boyd free reign when it came to choosing the plants and designing the planters. “Not only did we want to do something that was beautiful visually, [but] we also wanted to do something that was good for the air quality as well,” Boyd said.
Riek plans to expand the plants beyond COVID-19. Part of the dream is to grow their own herbs and vegetables for use at the restaurant, and the planters are a step to get them there.
Taking Paths Towards Sustainability
“You do what you have to do to survive,” Riek said. While a viable option for restaurants during COVID-19, the Paycheck Protection Program is not enough for many businesses to bring their staff back on.
The Oak is still down about 70% revenue, but hoping to get back to 50% over the next few months. Riek is still optimistic. “If you can put together an environment that allows you to get back to 50% and people feel safe, I feel like there’s a path for sustainability,” Riek said.
The Oak has had to raise prices slightly due to the pandemic. “It’s about give and take,” Riek said. “This is how we’re going to get by, by doing it right and making people feel safe.”
Do What’s Best for Your Business
Riek addressed the stresses that both businesses and patrons are going through because of the pandemic. “Our jobs are to bring people together,” he said. “We want to entertain you. We want you to come out and not have to worry about day-to-day life stresses…Now going out to eat causes those stresses.” Riek encourages businesses, especially in the hospitality industry, to focus on how to adapt to those issues.
The Oak’s main goal is to help their customers feel comfortable. The hospitality professionals at The Oak have instituted specific rules to keep their staff and customers safe. Signs are placed around the restaurant reminding patrons to wear their masks in order to receive the hospitality the restaurant is known for. “We take it very seriously,” Riek said.
But it comes down to doing what works for your business. Riek knows that not all businesses have the ability to move tables out of the space and put in planters. “As we think through this, you have to do what is best for you, and also what works for you,” Riek said.
Bring Creativity into Your Adaptations
Riek and Boyd both expressed the need for being creative during this time. “It brings both the restaurant and the customer together when you start doing more creative things,” Boyd said. “When you start to do creative things like [the planters], you have the ability to provide a [socially distant] space without it feeling sterile or uncomfortable.”
They’ve also moved from two shifts, six days a week to one shift five days a week. “That stings a little bit, but it also really gives us the ability to play with what we’re doing with our food,” Boyd said. The Oak is now able to offer weekly specials and change up their menu at-will. They’re also able to bring in less fabricated cuts and allowing the back-of-house to explore different cuts of meat as they break the protein down. “The team loves that,” Riek said. “They just get to literally play with food all day.”
Build A Strong Team, Build A Strong Space
Riek also talked about the importance of the team during the pandemic. “We had team members who wanted to come back to work, and felt safe here,” Riek said. Boyd agreed, stressing that the time away also allowed for the team to make decisions together about the reopening. “It really let the team have a strong voice in deciding,” Boyd said. “We really wanted them to give us input.”
The Oak’s owners and managers made sure their team was comfortable serving customers inside, and that they were ready to come back to work. “I really thought about the morale of the team,” Riek said. “If I let them go through this, and not have another place to go to besides their home, this could be very detrimental for them.”
“You do this day-by-day, hopefully with a team that supports you, because without the team, you can’t do it,” Riek said. “The only thing we can do is hope we provide the right environment.”