ZEELAND — Outdoor seating has been a game changer for restaurants and bars reopening this summer, making Laura Gentry even more grateful that she expanded outdoor seating space at her Zeeland brewpub a few years ago.
Even with the outdoor seating in Tripelroot’s beer garden next to the brewpub, the business has switched up its menu, seating and style of service. Navigating reopening during the coronavirus pandemic has required restaurants and bars to change how they operate to abide by new safety regulations and to reassure customers that their business is safe.
“One of the biggest challenges is people weren’t allowed to eat out for three months,” said Gentry, who owns and manages Tripelroot. “It’s not necessarily always that people don’t feel safe, but they have gotten used to not eating out.”
After a nearly three-month shutdown, restaurants and bars were able to reopen their dining rooms starting June 8 but are required to limit indoor capacity to 50 percent and space seating 6 feet apart.
To help scale down operations and as an added safety precaution, Tripelroot has switched from its usual full table service to a walkup system to minimize contact with customers and cut down on labor costs. Gentry said she has not been able to call back all of her employees due to the new limited operations.
“We also honed in on our menu because with capacity constraints it’s not conducive to have a whole bunch of ingredients,” Gentry said.
The first weekend of Tripelroot’s reopening didn’t get near the 50-percent capacity limit — sometimes it was close to getting full but the brewery never had to turn anyone away, Gentry said.
“It’s really cool and awesome to see people in there again, but you have that weird feeling of, ‘This is going to be different,’ with people wearing masks and spaced apart,” Gentry said. “We’re trying to be flexible and accommodate these new rules and guidelines.”
Business has been slower in downtown Zeeland compared to most summers, Gentry said, with some businesses still closed. Another challenge has been fewer tourists coming to West Michigan this summer with Tulip Time and all other large in-person events getting canceled because of COVID-19, she added.
“We’re stronger together, and it will be great to have everybody open back up,” Gentry said. “Hopefully we can get back there, I think it’s just definitely a struggle.”
Tripelroot opted against offering takeout during the shutdown besides the first weekend, but instead had a popup pretzel shop and also sold handmade paczkis to help generate some revenue.
“We made probably 800 paczkis and offered those for takeout on Tuesdays for a while,” she said. “Every Tuesday, I would schedule pickups and schedule pickup times about five minutes apart.”
Gentry is considering expanding outdoor seating further into some parking space in front of Tripelroot, but she is concerned customers will not feel safe eating there if Main Avenue is not closed down.
The Zeeland City Council on June 1 approved temporary changes to the right of way license agreement and a policy for the sale and consumption of alcohol on public property, allowing businesses to apply to stretch seating space into sidewalks and parking spaces. On June 15, the council voted to close Main Avenue if it becomes necessary to help businesses and restaurants, although no action has been taken to close the street.
Gentry said if Main Avenue were closed, it might help raise comfort levels with eating outside in an expanded area, at least for her establishment.
“In this industry, I feel like we’re going to have to become extremely flexible and keep reinventing new ways to stay relevant in people’s lives,” Gentry said. “We’re all kind of hoping that people open back up again and people can get back in their routines.”
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