Gov. Brian Kemp’s recent announcement that Georgia restaurants can fully open starting June 16 was encouraging news to three veteran Jewish restaurant owners in an industry struggling to survive. Gearing up for increased business in dining and catering segments, they have taken health care precautions to ensure their employees and customers stay safe with promising plans for the future.
The executive order, which will initially be in effect through June 30, allows restaurant to drop the requirement that employees wear face masks unless they are directly serving customers. Although the easing of restrictions may make it possible for some restaurants to return to profitability more quickly, restaurant owners are still being very cautious.
Increased health precautions include masks, gloves, plastic cutlery, hand sanitizer, temperature taking, spacing out tables or providing outdoor dining.
Along the Chattahoochee River, just south of I-285, the popular restaurant and special events facility Ray’s on the River has reopened with a long list of safety upgrades.
When we visited soon after the reopening last month, we were greeted with a hand sanitizing station 15 feet from the front door. The hostess confirmed the reservation and then took our temperature with an electronic device pointed at our foreheads.
The long-time owner of the restaurant, Ray Schoenbaum, has even installed a new ultraviolet light system in his heating and air-conditioning units. The technology, which dates back to health concerns in the 1930s, is designed to destroy the bonds that hold the coronavirus together, which prevents them from causing disease.
Schoenbaum’s riverside location near the Chattahoochee is an Atlanta favorite. He’s doing everything he can to keep customers happy.
“The business today is about having other people say to other people on social media that they feel safe. It’s people not questioning what you’re doing. I have not had a complaint yet from a customer that they didn’t feel comfortable. I read social media and I get an average of 30 [messages] a day. So it’s 200 a week I’m reading. They talk to other people and tell them how they feel. Gradually the word is getting out. And a lot of people who weren’t coming out are coming out just to see what it’s like.”
For the first time in its history, Ray’s on the River offered table service outdoors, in widely spaced umbrella tables just steps from the river. The expansion outdoors, in an area that had previously only been used during private parties and special events, has proven successful. Business, our hostess assured us, had been good, particularly on the weekend, when over 400 guests have shown up daily.
Schoenbaum, now in his 70s, has spent his whole life in the business. His parent started the Shoney’s chain of family restaurants. He’s owned Wendy’s franchises, started the Rio Bravo chain and opened and closed more restaurants than he can count.
Still, he says the basics still apply whether it’s a table for two or a wedding for 250.
“I’m looking at every day building our business, trying to keep our people happy so they can live comfortably and come out of this with a great attitude.”
At Alon’s Bakery & Market, which has locations in Dunwoody and Virginia-Highland, owner Alon Balshan is still requiring customers to wear masks and will maintain safe distance in the indoor and outdoor tables at the Dunwoody restaurant.
Plastic cutlery will be available in sealed packs and at the Virginia-Highland location, the number of customers allowed in the bakery and delicatessen will still be restricted.
Alon’s never closed during the pandemic, although business hours were cut back. Even on days when his business dropped by 90 percent from a year ago, the two locations continued their take-out and retail businesses.
Balshan is a firm believer that trust and caution are the keys to more normal times. Business at his Virginia-Highland location is nearing 75 percent of what it was last year, he said.
“I still think that there is a certain sense of paranoia. So in the end, it doesn’t matter what [politicians] or anybody else says, it’s the people that vote in how they go out. They decide whether they’ve lost confidence in going out or they’re not. If they feel comfortable, they’re going to come out.”
He also has ambitious plans to expand his business during the coming year. He has signed a lease at Phipps Plaza to develop a 5,300-square-foot location similar to his Dunwoody operation to serve the business and residential communities in the area. Construction is expected to start in October and a March opening is planned.
He is also putting the finishing touches on a new building housing a wholesale bakery that will service restaurants and other food service locations. That operation is expected to be up and running next month.
Goldberg’s Fine Foods, which stopped table service for a month during the pandemic, will be able to expand its business now that the governor lifted some restrictions. President and CEO Wayne Saxe welcomed the news, but said he is in no hurry to compromise the safety of his customers.
Employees behind the takeout counter as well as waitresses and servers wear masks. Recently, signs in front of the soda beverage dispensers indicate that users should wear plastic gloves for each use.
Saxe is emphatic that safety is still a primary concern at his 12 locations.
“At Goldberg’s, we are going to stand by the fact that everyone has to have a safe space. What we’ve done from day one is make sure customers feel safe. We take temperatures at the door. We go above and beyond.”