‘Like we opened a new business’: Anchorage restaurants adapt to life without dining rooms

Crush, a restaurant in downtown Anchorage, is offering curbside pickup, following the suspension of dine-in services on Monday, March 16, 2020, as the city responds to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Abbey Collins/Alaska Public Media)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration made an announcement on March 17 that rocked the state’s service industry: The governor shut down dine-in service at all bars, breweries and restaurants across Alaska.

The governor’s measure is part of the state’s effort to increase social distancing and curb the spread of the coronavirus. A day earlier, on March 16, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz had also limited restaurants to take-out only in the state’s largest city.

Some businesses are keeping the doors open by adapting to this new normal. But, the transition hasn’t been easy: thousands of Alaskans have lost their jobs as businesses scale down.

“It was almost like we opened a new business in two days,” said Robert DeLucia, one of the owners of Crush Bistro in downtown Anchorage.

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DeLucia had to lay off 18 people when his dining room closed, reducing his staff to just 10. And, he said, he had to get creative with the restaurant’s offerings because to-go food has never been part of their business model.

Instead, the restaurant turned to take-and-bake. Customers can choose from a handful of different meals, but they’re served cold with cooking instructions.

“I feel a lot more comfortable putting this food out there,” said DeLucia. “That it’s going to be hot and going to deliver the quality that we expect from Crush. I like the fact that I’m largely putting out food that people have to put into their ovens at 400 degrees, so there’s a sanitation piece that I really like.”

Delucia said the response from customers has been good, but Crush is still refining its plan to make sure the system is sustainable if pandemic-related closures drag on for a while. The current statewide restrictions are in place until at least April 1.

Catch up on the latest coverage of coronavirus in Alaska

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance for restaurants remaining open. The CDC says there is currently no evidence of COVID-19 being transmitted through food or food packaging. But proper hygiene, sanitation and social distancing are critical for restaurant employees.

DeLucia notes that the restaurant business is well positioned when it comes to food safety and cleanliness. They’re already held to high standards, he said. But, he says his business is going a step further now. They’re limiting the number of people in the kitchen at one time. The staff is also monitoring themselves for signs of illness before going to work.

“We’re minimizing the exposure that our food has with multiple people,” said DeLucia. “Best protect not only what we’re sending out but our staff as well.”

Customers can also pay online and choose curbside delivery, so they don’t have to walk into the building — opening doors and signing bills.

A few blocks away, Susynn Snyder is navigating a new business through the new limitations. She’s the general manager of Alaska Burger Company, which just had its grand opening at the end of February.

“We’ve limited our staff, that’s probably the first thing we actually did,” said Snyder. “And secondly, we got on Grubhub. I’m working on DoorDash right now as we speak. We got online ordering up and running. We took care of app ordering as well.”

Snyder said she’s anxious and stressed by the uncertainty of how long the governor’s order will last. Still, she said, the situation has pushed the business to expand take-out and delivery availability. That’s a positive thing, she said.

Snyder said they’ve ramped up cleaning procedures at the restaurant, and she’s looking into implementing a contact-free pickup area.

That’s something other restaurants, like Snow City Cafe, have already started. Kate Weller is the cafe’s general manager. They have no-contact pickup stations, and pens are sanitized after customers use them to sign for orders. Weller said they’ve taken cleaning to a new level, and developed a system that keeps people at least 6 feet apart when they come to pick up food.

Still, the last week has not been easy. Weller said she had to lay off about 75% of her employees, some who have worked at Snow City for many years. Now she’s down to a staff of 13 people.

Weller says Snow City had seen increased sales every day since the restrictions on dine-in service went into effect. But that changed after a “hunker down” order started in Anchorage Sunday night. Since then, Weller said, they haven’t been meeting sales goals. She’s hopeful business will pick up again.

Not all businesses impacted by the mandates have found success.

“It’s a mixed bag,” said Bill Popp, President and CEO of the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation. “Some businesses are seeing some pretty good response from customers. Others, not so much and are pulling the plug.”

“This is affecting pretty much every line of business in Anchorage,” Popp said. “And 90%, 95% negative.”

Popp said businesses need help from the state and federal government, and that help needs to come quickly. Locally, Popp is co-chairing a business resiliency task force that he says is working to come up with immediate strategies. They’re also advocating to the state and federal government.

Popp said the restaurant industry in particular is a huge part of Anchorage’s economy.

“Very large employers, hundreds of millions of dollars in payroll in our $25 billion, or what was a 25 billion dollar economy,” said Popp.

The Small Business Administration is offering disaster assistance to Alaska businesses impacted by the pandemic. Businesses can apply for low-interest loans though the organization.

DeLucia, at Crush, said this is not exactly a scenario he ever thought he’d have to deal with when he got into the restaurant business.

“Never,” DeLucia said. “I can honestly say never had I thought about this at all. It’s kind of maybe a bit naive on my part. But this has been unbelievably eye opening.”

But, like others in Anchorage, DeLucia is adapting in order to keep the doors open.

Several new websites show which businesses are still open and what services they’re offering, including one compiled by Edible Alaska.