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Restaurants adapting amid capacity limits, cautious customers

News Photo by Alyssa Ochss Doctor Rick Chura and Ernie Butterfield enjoy food and drinks at the Black Sheep Pub on Thursday.

ALPENA–Restaurants in Michigan have been open for nearly two weeks since they were allowed to open at limited capacity on Feb. 1.

Locally, some restaurants have found nothing has changed while others are struggling with limited capacity and customer fears that it might not be safe to dine out at all.

Kris Conger, owner of Black Sheep Pub in Alpena, said the reopening has been a lot better than when restaurants were limited to just doing take-out orders.

Conger said she’s seen both her regulars and new faces coming in the doors. However, she’s noticed that some regulars are still hesitant to come in.

“Well, I have my regulars, they’ve always been so supportive,” Conger said. “I think a few don’t come in right now just because I don’t know if they’re not sure right now whether or not (it’s safe). We do keep things extremely clean here and spray and all that. But I’ve noticed a few faces that are new as well, so it’s been good.”

News Photo by Alyssa Ochss This sign has a “welcome back” from the Center Building and reminds guests and customers of safety precautions at the restaurants.

Some local restaurants, including Black Sheep will have special weekend meals for Valentine’s Day. Conger said Black Sheep plans to have dishes such as shrimp scampi and prime rib available.

At the Black Sheep bar sat Doctor Rick Chura and Ernie Butterfield, who were both excited restaurants were opened again.

“Absolutely, it’s been a long time coming,” Doctor Chura said. “I don’t think there was a big need to close the restaurants. They were doing fine with the restrictions they had but you know it is what it is.”

Brian Bannasch, the owner of The Lighthouse Restaurant and Nautical Lanes in Rogers City, said he hasn’t seen a big change in business.

“It seems like all the locals are back and the regulars are back and we’re seeing an influx of new people too,” Bannasch said.

News Photo by Alyssa Ochss This sign hangs on the Center Building above one of the dining rooms at The Fresh Palate.

However, that doesn’t mean they didn’t have to change things to comply with orders from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services as well as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Bannasch has had to rearrange bowling lanes and shorten weekend hours to 10 p.m. instead of midnight.

Lucas Moquin, a tasting room associate at the Thunder Bay Winery in Alpena, said they are very excited to be back and capacity hasn’t been an issue for them.

There have been some changes however.

“Overall good, we’re very excited to be back and have customers in the tasting room,” Moquin said. “We’re still being cautious. I think everybody’s being more cautious than not, but we’re very excited to be back and we’re doing good so far even with the limited hours we have open.”

While the winery isn’t expecting a Valentine’s Day rush, wine tasting has changed quite a bit.

News Photo by Alyssa Ochss Lucas Moquin, tasting room associate, in front of the menu featuring specialty drinks and other beverages.

“We’re trying not to focus on doing wine tastings,” Moquin said. “Our flights are still available. We’re pushing flights instead of tastings just because we want to limit the people crowded around the bar.”

Chris Bauer-Carlson, owner of the Court Yard Ristorante with his wife Lora, said he’s happy to be back among his staff and his customers.

“First and foremost it is great to see all of our friends and patrons coming back to the restaurant,” Bauer-Carlson said. “And it’s been excellent to have all of my waitresses and staff back at the restaurant. They’re like family to me and I was very concerned for their well being.”

However, he said the 25% capacity still isn’t enough to cover expenses. Bauer-Carlson said at this point it’s not about the money, but about getting back into the community.

He’s seen a lot of regulars come back, young and old, rather than new customers.

News Photo by Alyssa Ochss This sanitizing station stands at the front entrance of the main dining area of The Fresh Palate.

This Valentine’s Day weekend, Bauer-Carlson said he’s not taking reservations except for people who really need it such as the elderly, the immunocompromised, and those who don’t feel comfortable yet being surrounded by people. He said this is so he can keep track of how many people are coming into the restaurant.

Alcona Brew Haus Owner Sandy Arens said the changing rules and restrictions over the last two years have caused some customers to lose confidence in local restaurants.

Alcona Brew Haus is located in Harrisville and Arens said they were only open 10 months before COVID-19 hit.

Along with business being slow, limited capacity is also an issue as there isn’t enough room to fit the customers who don’t make a reservation beforehand.

When the Brew Haus has customers come to the door without making a reservation and they’re at capacity, they’d have to turn them away.

News Photo by Alyssa Ochss Carly Zolnierek, front of house manager at The Fresh Palate, pours liquor into a cup ready for serving.

Arens said it hasn’t happened often, but with the holiday weekend she is expecting it.

Arens urges customers to make reservations and support their local businesses.

“Just that we really hope that customers will venture out and try to support the local restaurants and businesses because we really need our customers,” Arens said.

Fresh Palate Owner Eric Peterson noticed people have been apprehensive to come out, as well.

“It’s been okay I think people are still a little bit scared to come out,” Peterson said. “It’s also the slowest time of the year so it’s hard to judge. We haven’t been that busy but we’ve still been pretty busy with the take out and to-go style stuff and I feel like people are trending into now.”

Peterson said some of his staff are hesitant to want to come back because of the virus and that it’s more expensive now to be open.

“Just like everybody we had to switch what we’re doing and do it in a new way,” Peterson said. “It’s a lot more expensive for me to be open right now with all this sanitizing and PPE and take-out turned more expensive too because then you’ve got all the boxes and all that stuff. It’s been a challenge in general.”

Carly Zolnierek, the front of house manager at The Fresh Palate, said she was happy to get back and see the customers.

Zolnierek said they’re already getting reservations for Valentine’s Day and they have a feature menu coming out, as well.

“Happy to get back into a routine,” Zolnierek said, “And see the customers we haven’t seen in a long time. Smiling faces not behind masks. Taking reservations has been good just to make sure you can get a seat. We kind of know what to expect. We’re still a little short staffed but this time of the year we are anyway.”

News Photo by Alyssa Ochss Signs like this one remind customers to maintain a safe social distance.

News Photo by Alyssa Ochss Candace Showalter, a bartender, and Carly Zolnierek, front of house manager, stand behind the bar at The Fresh Palate.

News Photo by Alyssa Ochss This sign, covered in snow, stands in Downtown Alpena welcoming people into the Thunder Bay Winery.

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