When the coronavirus pandemic took hold and a state order forced restaurants to close their dining rooms, Paul Bartolotta, chef, owner and co-founder of The Bartolotta Restaurants, faced an array of emotions as he and his management team agonized over how to handle their 17 Milwaukee-area restaurants and catering facilities.
After offering curbside service for two days, Bartolotta opted to completely close all his restaurants, which include Ristorante Bartolotta in Wauwatosa, Lake Park Bistro and Harbor House in Milwaukee, and Mr. B’s in Brookfield.
“The risk-reward wasn’t there for me,” he said. “I certainly wasn’t going to make enough money to work in the positive and I didn’t want to put my employees at risk.”
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As a result, Bartolotta’s workforce abruptly went from an army of about 950 employees to a skeleton staff of 12.
“It has been gut-wrenching, challenging and difficult,” Bartolotta said from inside Ristorante Bartolotta in the heart of Wauwatosa’s Village District. “There’s so much at stake. We’ve got families’ lives to worry about, a company that my brother, Joe, and I founded 27 years ago and his legacy to build upon. I certainly feel that weight.”
The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on Milwaukee-area restaurants, with many struggling to find ways to stay afloat amid limitations on their operations and a cautious, even fearful, customer base. Several establishments have been forced to permanently close their doors due to lost business from the coronavirus.
So far, most of Milwaukee’s popular restaurants have survived the pandemic, although a few beloved spots have decided to call it quits.
Crazy Water, which has operated in Walker’s Point for 18 years, plans to close in early July. Owner Peggy Magister says her decision to close was voluntary and that this gives her the chance to offer Milwaukee something new. After a brief shutdown, the restaurant will reopen as a refined Mexican cantina called La Dama. “The concept is a refined Mexican cuisine, something you would find in Mexico City and many other cities in the U.S. My chef for 18 years was born in Mexico City and lived much of his life in Qaxaca learning to cook from his mother and grandmother. This style of food is what La Dama is about,” Magister wrote in an email.
Long-running Mexican eatery Samano’s in Cudahy is closing, but the decision to shutter the business stemmed mainly from an old and troublesome building, not from financial woes brought on by COVID-19.
Others, like vegetarian-focused Beans & Barley, opted to close a satellite location in the Mequon Public Market but the restaurant’s long-time main location on Milwaukee’s East Side, which features a restaurant and market, remains open. Bavette La Boucherie and Bowls, have also pulled out of the Mequon Public Market, which opened in June 2019. Both with continue to operate their Milwaukee restaurants.
Blue’s Egg, which has a popular West Side establishment, shuttered its Shorewood site in April.
As the coronavirus pandemic took hold, restaurants had to abide by a state order that took effect in mid-March that only permitted them to offer delivery, carry-out or curbside pickup and prohibited them from serving customers inside their establishments.
Some restaurants have reopened for dine-in service as restrictions have eased. Others have opted to continue with just carryout and curbside service. A few, including some of the area’s most popular establishments, remain closed altogether as they weigh their options.
Restaurants in the City of Milwaukee have been operating their dining rooms at 25% capacity as part of a staged reopening plan that began on June 5. Establishments in the 18 suburban communities in Milwaukee County have been open with capacity recommendations, not restrictions, since May 22.
Word came late Friday that the City of Milwaukee will move to phase four of its reopening plan, which will allow bars and restaurants to operate at 50% capacity beginning at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.
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The decisions have been painstaking for many restaurateurs, including Bartolotta, as they struggle to find ways to generate revenue while keeping employees and customers safe.
“It’s been hard,” Bartolotta said. “We went from shock to being kind of angry to having hope and saying we are going to figure it out.”
Bartolotta is often up before dawn and working late into the night working on a reopening plan.
“I don’t think this is going to be short-lived,” he said. “I would love to think that by December we will have a vaccine and go back to our merry lives. I am not planning on that. I don’t have the luxury to have that level of optimism. I need to prepare for a worst-case scenario.”
He and his management team are in the final stage of planning and setting dates for a relaunch of the restaurants while still aware that many consumers aren’t yet comfortable with having a meal in a sit-down restaurant.
“I don’t need to be the first boat in the water,” he said. “I need to be patient. I feel I need to try a couple of restaurants shortly and see what consumer confidence is like.”
Some of Bartolotta’s restaurants are likely to open “in the very near term,” he said. Ristorante is expected to be the first to welcome back customers.
“It has the most history for me and my family,” Bartolotta said. “It allows us to learn in a little bit smaller environment. It also has the ability to do outdoor dining.”
Ristorante has been redesigned for 24 seats. Prior to temporarily shutting down, it featured 52 seats and nine bar stools. Dividers have been installed as part of the company’s health and safety protocol.
The most dramatic change, however, will be a request that all diners wear masks.
“We’ve just got to deal with it. We can wear masks,” Bartolotta said. “You pull it down, you talk, you pull it back up. You take it off and put it on the table. When the waiter comes by you put it back on.”
Although Bartolotta expressed confidence that his restaurants will carry on, it’s certain that many others won’t.
The Wisconsin Restaurant Association previously predicted that as many as 50 percent of the state’s independent restaurants could go out of business because of COVID-19. As restrictions have been eased, the organization has changed the estimate to 30 percent, a devastating figure, nonetheless.
“It’s been brutal,” association President and Chief Executive Officer Kristine Hillmer said. “There are a lot of challenges for restaurants. They’ve been closed for two or three months. Most restaurants cannot sustain their business on carry-out and delivery only. It helps a little bit but when you close down someone’s dining room, you are losing money pretty quickly.”
Staffing issues are also hurting restaurants, she added.
“It is currently difficult to find staff or recall staff,” Hillmer said. “Some are making more money on unemployment than they were at the restaurants. Even pre-COVID-19, staffing was a really difficult thing for restaurants.”
Although leveling off some now, prices of food supplies have risen, adding to the challenge, she said.
Restaurants also now must spend money on personal protective equipment, sanitizing products and reconfiguring their dining rooms.
“It is extremely challenging to run a restaurant right now,” Hillmer said. “Some just don’t want to open and then, instead of having it be a slow bleed having it becomes a hemorrhage. That’s why you are seeing a lot of restaurants not opening yet. It doesn’t make sense for them.”
Although the Milwaukee area hasn’t experienced mass restaurant closings at this point, that’s likely to change in the coming months, Hillmer said.
“I think it’s going to come down the road,” she said. “The other thing I really fear is that we are really seeing a change in consumer behavior. I think you are going to continue to see more carryout or eating at home.”
Restaurants in Milwaukee are being hampered by widespread cancellations of events and the closure of tourist attractions in and around downtown.
“There isn’t that reason to go downtown,” she said. “It changes consumers’ behavior. As you see those dynamics, I think you’re going to see more restaurant owners throwing in the towel because they just can’t make it.”
A new pilot program that would allow Milwaukee restaurants to fully open could offer some relief. Restaurants would be permitted to open at 100% capacity if their applications to the program and their required COVID-19 mitigation plans are approved by city officials.
Another pilot program, the Active Streets for Businesses initiative, gives businesses the ability to seek fast-track city approval to use sidewalks, parking lanes and the public right-of-way for expanded restaurant seating.
Like Bartolotta, long-time Milwaukee restaurateur Omar Shaikh opted to temporarily shut down his popular Downtown steakhouse, Carnevor, after only a few days of offering curbside service.
“We actually got quite a bit of support with it and then beef prices spiked, and we decided it wasn’t worth it,” Shaikh said. “We have a pretty good set of guidelines of how we are going to operate our business so that it is safest for employees and safest for customers as well. But it also comes down to the economics.”
Carnevor’s business is highly dependent on business travelers and really thrives during the NBA and Major League Baseball seasons.
“Before and after Bucks’ games, the players come in, fans come in,” Shaikh said. “For baseball, we get a ton of players from opposing teams. Without that and without any of the shows and concerts, it’s really hard to predict what our business is even going to be.”
Shaikh wants to reopen Carnevor on Aug. 1, which would coincide with the end of the additional federal unemployment benefits his furloughed employees have been able to receive. The decision assumes that Milwaukee will continue to move through the phases of reopening.
“We lose more money at 25% than we would just keeping the doors closed,” he said. “When you go to 50%, we’re probably still not covering the nut.”
The long-term effects for Milwaukee’s restaurant industry could be staggering, Shaikh said.
“I do know that quite a few restaurants aren’t going to make it,” he said. “Some are fortunate enough to have investors or are well-financed enough to be able to sustain these times. But a lot of small mom-and-pop restaurants don’t have large reserves, like the big chains do. Independents don’t have the luxury.”
Mass closures of restaurants in the Milwaukee area could be on the horizon, Shaikh warned.
“I think restaurants are hanging on as long as they can and they are waiting to see what the plan is from the city to reopen at capacity amounts at which they know they can pay the bills,” Shaikh said. “I think this is just the very beginning of what we are going to see.”
Shaikh is part of a group of restaurateurs from across the state who have banded together and take part in periodic virtual meetings with the city’s political leaders and health officials.
“We want to be part of the conversation, especially when it comes to establishing some of the criteria,” he said. “There are a lot of smart, really good operators out there. We were initially frustrated. The biggest thing for us is that we want ongoing communication.”
The Milwaukee area enjoyed a rich food scene before the pandemic struck, the Wisconsin Restaurant Association’s Hillmer said.
“We have a lot of independent, culturally diverse restaurants,” she said. “It would be such a tragedy for our state and Southeast Wisconsin to lose some of that cultural identity that we have through food.”