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story.lead_photo.caption Mike Mays waits for his lunch Wednesday near makeshift signs showing customers where to pick up their food outside the Flying Fish restaurant in downtown Little Rock. Many Little Rock restaurants are limiting service to curbside or carryout because of coronavirus restrictions. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/John Sykes Jr.)

Once just a fraction of the income for restaurants in Little Rock before the covid-19 pandemic, takeout and delivery service orders are now the only sales keeping their doors open.

And the businesses are doing anything they can to scrape up the few customers looking for takeout.

Like several restaurants in Little Rock on Wednesday, the Flying Fish in the River Market District was surrounded by a lot of makeshift signs advertising their takeout services. Still, restaurant manager Rafael Cervantes said, traffic is significantly down.

"It has been pretty slow," Cervantes said. "I mean, as you can see, we've got a couple of to-go orders, and that's pretty much it."

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Daniel Bryant, principle partner of Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken, estimates that his River Market franchise, one of the seven restaurants he owns in the Little Rock area, is operating at 20% of its usual business.

"Which, if you think about it, is not that unexpected," Bryant said. "Most restaurants don't do more than 10% of their business -- 10% or 15% -- as takeout, and so, if you double that because you don't have dine-in, then that's about where that would put you."

Even with their dining rooms shut down and their income in free fall, restaurant owners and operators still have to meet health standards, particularly during a pandemic. Restaurant business and delivery companies are taking all the necessary precautions, according to Bryant.

"We all take it really seriously, because we all understand if the contamination continues that it's just bad for everyone," Bryant said. "So, I think that all restaurants are taking all the precautions that they can. I don't even think third-party delivery services like DoorDash or UberEats are taking it lightly."

The state Health Department doesn't regulate food delivery services such as Grubhub, which pick up and deliver takeout orders for customers. Delivery businesses are aware of the responsibilities they face during this time, said John Collins, spokesman for Grubhub.

"We launched contact-free delivery, which allows diners to request their food be left in the lobby or at the doorstep to avoid a direct hand-off for their safety and the safety of their driver," Collins said. Grubhub shared resources to ensure that restaurants and drivers follow the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for safe food delivery.

"We're providing two weeks of support pay to cover medical expenses and loss of income for delivery partners whose health is impacted by covid-19."

Bryant said his businesses are following health officials' guidance and that anyone worried about getting takeout or orders from his restaurants should rest easy.

"It is a strict program of repeated wipe-downs after every customer comes through," Bryant said. "Every employee had gloves on. We make sure to wipe down our door handles. We keep the area around the register where people have ordered clean and wiped down."

The Health Department's restaurant inspectors remain at work making sure food service outlets meet state requirements for their customers' safety, according to department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill. For instance, customers and employees are advised to keep their distance from one another until the food is handed off and paid for.

Inspectors also are making sure restaurants adhere to the new social-distancing guidelines specific to the coronavirus to protect workers, the department said. Restaurant workers, customers and the inspectors themselves must all honor those guidelines to stay safe, according to the department.

State regulations for restaurants include prevention of bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat foods, hand-washing requirements and telling ill food service workers not to report to work.

"If the current rules are followed, it is believed that the risk of covid-19 transmission is low, provided the social-distancing directives are properly implemented," McNeill said.

Dr. Richard McMullin, senior scientist for the Health Department, said the inspectors are making sure to emphasize preventive measures despite being shorthanded.

"We are going over personal hygiene and exclusion of any employees that happen to be showing symptoms of illness -- those people should be excluded," McMullin said. "We are taking special efforts to remind people of those sorts of things."

Inspectors looked into higher-risk establishments before a full outbreak to prepare them for a larger outbreak, according to McMullin.

"We prioritized our inspections for the higher-risk restaurants kind of in preparation for this," McMullin said. "We're still conducting inspections as normal with the exception of if there are any complaints."

McMullin suggested that restaurants avoid situations or services that cause patrons to stand near one another.

Because person-to-person contact is discouraged, some workers like Cervantes are suggesting that patrons order their food through delivery services.

"On the business side of things, if they come, they come -- it's good," Cervantes said. "But in the healthy [side], I'd rather them stay home."

Keeping their businesses safe is a matter of following health guidelines, but keeping them financially viable and doing what they can for their employees is another challenge altogether.

Gus's Fried Chicken had only a handful of workers Wednesday. Bryant prioritized his full-time workers who were comfortable working during a pandemic.

"Your people that are full time and have been with you a long time, your more key senior people -- you try to keep them working and those are the people you saw at the restaurant," he said.

The downtown area has been hit particularly hard, according to Bryant, because there just are not as many customers in the area.

"Downtown has been faced with, I would say, more challenges than even other areas due to the fact that a lot of the offices are working from home, most of the hotels are sparsely populated -- there's just frankly not a lot of people down here."

To help cope with the diminished traffic, the city of Little Rock will not be issuing parking fines in the River Market, making access for some customers easier.

Several of the restaurants like the Flying Saucer, which features an extensive bar, are making do by selling alcohol to-go. Manager Olivia Clack said a patron must order food in order to get to-go alcohol, but sealed beverages are optional for everyone of legal age to buy it.

"It changed a lot of the ways we normally practice business," Clack said. "We're doing to-go growlers, to-go beer, which is pretty cool."

The Flying Saucer is following the same strict guidelines that other establishments are, Clack said.

"There should be no reason not to order from any of the restaurants really," she said.

Metro on 03/26/2020

Print Headline: Restaurants' fortunes shift to takeout, delivery orders

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