By Gordon Anderson
And just like that, you could eat in a restaurant again. After two months of a stay at home order which limited dining establishments to offering takeout service only, North Carolina entered Phase II of a reopening plan, which allowed dine in service again, even if at partial capacity.
But in Lee County, like everywhere else in the state, the restaurant scene’s approach to reopening has been far from uniform. It also reflects the case-by-case approach establishments took during the shutdown, when some stayed open for takeout the entire time and others decided at some point or another that doing so just didn’t generate enough revenue.
That was the case for Jeff Towson, who owns downtown Sanford’s Smoke & Barrel. Towson closed the restaurant in late April, but reopened on Tuesday. He said business has been good since.
“Obviously, in the grand scheme, not being open for that long wasn’t a good thing,” he said. “But we did have some renovations planned that probably would have impacted the business anyway. So we were able to use that time to do those projects.”
Towson said the limits on capacity don’t seem to have affected him yet, although he knows it’s likely to be felt if and when he begins having live music on weekends again.
“I think people are looking to get back out,” he said. “It’s definitely much better than not being open at all.”
For Vikki Felicio, who owns Jim’s Restaurant on Tramway Road, opening back up — at least as of late May — didn’t seem like a good idea just yet. Felicio was able to stay open for takeout for the duration of the shutdown, and while she said there’s been a financial hit, she doesn’t feel comfortable hosting diners yet and will continue offering takeout only for the time being.
“You want to do the right thing for your business and for the employees, but also for the community and your customers,” she said. “And so it’s hard to know what the right thing is. I just know that I couldn’t live with myself if something happened.”
Felicio said she’s grateful to her regular customers, who were supportive of her during the shutdown and remain supportive of her decision to continue on a takeout basis.
“They all understand, and they’ve been so awesome,” she said. “I have regulars who still come every day, sometimes twice a day.”
Like Towson, Mike Davison of Davison’s Steaks on U.S. 1 realized early that he couldn’t justify staying open for takeout only and shut down after about a week. He reopened on May 22 and said the response has been good, even at less than 50 percent capacity.
“It’s not really ideal to get a steak to go,” he said. “So after that first week, we went home and kind of sat there scratching our heads and figuring out what to do.”
Davison also used the time to make some renovations, but said he’s glad to be back open — and that his customers are glad to be able to come back.
“Some people are still nervous to come out,” he said. “I’d guess we’re doing about 60 percent of what’s normal. But I think a lot more people are excited to be able to come out, have a nice meal, and have someone else cook for them. I had one guy I know very well come up to me at the end of the night to say thanks and he had tears in his eyes. So it’s special.”
Coming out of the shutdown, Lee County will even have a few new options soon. In addition to several new restaurants being announced in May, Wild Dogs Brewing — which had yet to open as of the start of the stay at home order — recently shared to social media that its brewing equipment had arrived.
While owner Craig Krause said the arrival of the equipment was a step in the right direction – it came from China, and the pandemic led to a month-and-a-half delay – there’s still lots of work to be done.
“We’ve still got some construction to do inside, and we’re waiting on our permits for that,” he said. “But we’re hoping for a July 4 weekend opening. And if we can’t make that, we hope to open sometime later in July.”