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Eateries get creative to stay afloat

When the covid-19 outbreak slowed revenue at Big Box Karaoke in downtown Fayetteville, its owners shifted, offering their Asian inspired food and premium sake for pickup and delivery. But as the months wore on, the business looked to another solution to help make up for slowing sales — a patio.

Owners Mailena and Justin Urso recently added a patio with seating for a dozen or more patrons outside the business on Block Avenue. Justin Urso said it was a risky capital investment, but the couple thought it was something they had to do to keep the doors open.

Big Box’s main draw is private karaoke suites for groups of various sizes, but since its start the business has also been supported by selling food, cocktails, craft beer and sake. Justin Urso noted that the business’s inside bar area is small — perfect and intimate for the pre-covid-19 days — but limiting for the new requirements of social distancing that reduced inside seating capacity.

“A lot of folks still aren’t ready to go inside,” he said of customers. “So we asked, ‘how do we serve more people?'”

Gallery: Patio at Bike Rack Brewing in Bentonville

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The outdoor space, which includes tables and high-top type bar seating, can handle about 16 patrons when operating under the restraints of covid-19 regulations. When and if rules are relaxed, it could seat about 30.

Justin Urso said the food and beverage aspect of Big Box was never intended to be the business’s major revenue source, but the addition of the patio was a necessity in the new world of covid-19.

“If we didn’t expand the space, we couldn’t serve customers,” he said.

Montine McNulty, chief executive officer of the Arkansas Restaurant Association, said a lot of the state’s restaurants are looking to patios and outside seating, and many have added them or are hurrying to do so to help deal with covid-19 restrictions on customer capacity. She said cities have been helpful in many cases, relaxing some rules and requirements to allow businesses to operate out of doors more freely.

“People are looking for safety, and some folks are confident it’s safer outside rather than inside,” she said.

Don Dugan owns and operates the South on Main restaurant, Dugan’s Pub and Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro, all in Little Rock. He said he opened the patio at Dugan’s as soon as the weather allowed. He removed some tables at Dizzy’s to conform with social distancing rules, and he renovated a neglected outside space at South on Main to provide a new and ample outdoor dining space.

He said the Dugan’s and Dizzy’s location had covered seating, and the South on Main tables are protected by umbrellas. Weather, he said, is a major factor, particularly during the summer.

“Heat is a challenge,” Dugan said.

He said the option to dine outside seems to make some patrons feel more comfortable, and it’s one of the many steps that he’s taking to keep things going during the pandemic.’

“It’s what we do,” Dugan said of restaurant owners. “We solve problems, and we figure things out.”

When Bike Rack Brewing Co. built its second location in the 8th Street Market in Bentonville in late 2016, it included a large outdoor space for patrons to sit and sip beer, play games and listen to music. Co-founder Jeff Charlson said that outdoor space has helped the brewery deal with the financial impact of covid-19, but it’s just a part of company’s strategy to keep afloat.

He said even with the available outside space, it’s been a challenge as typical revenue streams, like sales of kegs of beer to bars and restaurants dried up. Some tables outside had to be removed and others spread out, and folks sometimes have to be encouraged to not mingle or stand near other customers.

“In some cases we’ve had patrons really mad at us,” he said.

He said the company’s pre-covid use of entertainment in the outdoor space and even general marketing plans were scrapped since they couldn’t deal with the accompanying crowd and comply with social distancing requirements.

“It’s been a crazy, wild time,” he said. “We’re looking forward to 2021.”

Mike Whatley, the National Restaurant Association’s vice president of state and local affairs, said the group is seeing a shift in the restaurant segment toward adding outdoor service as businesses try to adapt to the reality of covid-19.

He said the moves vary and include things like setting up a few outdoor tables like a European cafe on sidewalks, full-scale patio additions or expansions, and in some cases even closing off streets or parking lots to give restaurants room to spread out their customers.

He said weather is a big challenge when dealing with outdoor service, along with available space and cost. Adding to the cost concerns, Whatley added, is that federal funds to businesses that could be used for such projects have dried up recently, and it is uncertain when and if the next wave of financial help for businesses struggling to cope with covid-19 will arrive.

Whatley said the restaurants that are operating during the pandemic are doing so by evolving and looking at every way they can find to serve customers — from curbside delivery, takeout and with options like outdoor seating.

“Restaurants that are surviving are adapting to every opportunity,” he said.

According to data from the National Restaurant Association, since the start of July close to 100,000 dining rooms have been forced to close by state and local dictates regarding covid-19. The association predicts that the food service industry has lost $165 billion in sales for March through July, and could lose $240 billion by the end of the year.

Jeremy Gawthrop, co-owner of Wood Stone Craft Pizza in Fayetteville, closed both of his pizza joint locations in March during the initial stages of the covid-19 outbreak and reopened briefly for takeout service before closing again in June. He said Wood Stone’s Uptown location on Mall Avenue will be opening in a few weeks, and a patio deck currently under construction at that spot will open shortly thereafter.

“We were looking for a time [to reopen] when we had a fighting chance,” Gawthrop said.

He said with the new patio Woodstone’s Uptown location will have about 1,500 square feet of outdoor space to make up, at least a little bit, for losses of inside seating because of social distancing requirements.

“It gets us about 12 tables back,” Gawthrop said.

He said adding the space was a big capital investment, but it was a move the business had to make, adding that he expected the space to be useful when covid-19 is eventually overcome and things returned to normal. Until then, he said, restaurants, his included, will have to adjust their plans anyway they can to stay afloat.

“There is no playbook here,” he said.

Customers use the newly installed patio at Big Box Karaoke on Block AVe. In Fayetteville Thursday Aug. 27, 2020. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T.WAMPLER)

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