Rebuilding America: Our series dives into our community's efforts to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

One Hays restaurant owner said the business saw an 85% to 90% drop in sales overnight after a statewide shutdown order from Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly in response to COVID-19.

Thirsty’s Grill & Pub, 2704 Vine, Suite B, was just one of the Hays restaurants left scrambling after all dine-in service was shut down. Not all Hays restaurants have reopened since Phase 1 of reopening began.

Thirsty’s has. It was closed to dine-in customers from March 20 until May 5. Brent Schulte, owner and manager, said the restaurant’s business during that time quickly shifted to carryout and curbside service. He began offering online ordering on May 13 and is offering free delivery for the time being.

"Our business has come back well — 65 to 70% of our previous volume," Schulte said. To-go orders make up about 25 to 30% of that business.

Seating capacity reduced

Reduced seating capacity, mandated by the state’s 6-foot social distancing requirement, has also contributed to the loss of revenue.

Schulte has opened up his small party room and larger venue banquet room, but total seating capacity is still 75% of what it used to be, he said. Large groups, which typically reserve the larger room for graduation parties and summer reunions, have been canceling reservations into July and August.

Rehiring staff has also been a challenge for some area restaurants. Schulte said he lost all of his college employees who lived in the dorms after Fort Hays State University told all students not to return to campus after spring break and went to online-only instruction.

Schulte said he has retained 65 to 70% of his employees who live in the area. Many of those employees have been switched to different positions preparing to-go orders for customers.

"One of my struggles is, do I hire new people?" Schulte said. "I don’t want to have to let people go. My biggest fear is if we get a few new (COVID-19) cases, business will drop. We don’t know what is going to happen in the fall."

Gutch’s Bar & Grill, 111 W. Seventh, was closed completely from March 22 to April 30. It began offering curbside pizza delivery only on May 1 and 2. The restaurant began offering dine-in services again on May 4.

"People got scared to dine in even before the shutdown order came," said Stefani Yeager, Gutch’s manager. "Carryout (business) was not strong enough at that time to maintain a full staff. It was in our best interest to step back and see how things played out."

Since the restoration of dine-in service, Gutch’s is at 80% of its original seating capacity. Staffing during the week has not been a problem, Yeager said. On weekends, the restaurant has about half the staff it used to. She lost two employees when FHSU shut down.

"Day-to-day business is a roller coaster" in terms of sales, Yeager said. "Overall, I’ve been pleased with the turnout. Obviously, it’s not what it was before, but I wasn’t expecting it to be."

Customers will see changes

Patrons returning to Hays restaurants will see obvious changes. Because of social distancing mandates, certain tables and booths are off-limits. Large parties may not be able to sit together. Many restaurants offer condiments only upon request to reduce the number of hands touching those surfaces. Almost all restaurants have reduced their hours.

Some restaurants, such as Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar, 4101 N. Vine, have cut back their menu items. Applebee’s, Thirsty’s and Gutch’s all have employees wearing face masks, although this is not the case at all Hays restaurants.

At Applebee’s, staff also are wearing plastic gloves, which they change regularly. Wait staff there also bring drinks on trays, and customers remove the glasses from the trays themselves.

Many restaurants have gone to disposable paper menus. Thirsty’s has taken the concept of reduced contact one step further and is offering its menu via a large QR code in the center of each table. Customers can scan in the code using their smartphone to view the menu in its entirety. Paper menus are available upon request, and customers are encouraged to take them home.

Thirsty’s customers may also pay their bill by scanning in a QR code on their check and paying via credit card. Many restaurants, including Thirsty’s, no longer place checks on a tray or inside a folder, again to eliminate one more surface that must be cleaned.

Sanitizing emphasized

All of the restaurants contacted emphasized that cleaning and sanitizing their establishments has taken on an even higher priority. Restaurants are utilizing a two-step sanitizing process that includes wiping down all tables, chairs and surrounding surfaces with both the disinfectant they have always used, plus a second solution containing bleach.

Martha Baker, marketing director for J.S. Ventures Inc., which owns the Hays Applebee’s franchise, said the restaurant recently created a new position, a sanitation specialist.

Schulte at Thirsty’s said hand sanitizer dispensers are located just inside the restaurant’s entrance. Customers waiting for tables are no longer allowed to congregate inside the lobbies at Thirsty’s or Applebee’s. Instead, they are asked to wait outside or in their cars.

Delivery challenges

For some Hays restaurants, another challenge has been getting deliveries.

"Right now the whole entire (delivery supply) chain is broken," Schulte said.

Out of 200 cases of food he recently ordered, 70 to 80 cases didn’t arrive. The challenge, he said, is finding substitute products.

Beef prices have doubled, and domestic beer on tap is in short supply, although Schulte said he has had no problems getting beer in bottles. To-go boxes are also in short supply. He is anticipating produce shortages in a couple of months as farmers in California have been plowing under their crops.

"I didn’t anticipate the supply chain problems would be as bad as they are," Schulte said.

Despite all of the changes and challenges, all of the Hays restaurants contacted said they have heard nothing but positive comments from customers.

"Overall, most people have been understanding" at Gutch’s, Yeager said. "They realize we are trying. They tell us they’re glad we’re here."