Joseph Sanchez, Celena Warner and Chepe Flores dining at Bo & Vine Burger Bar in downtown Salem. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter)

When Salem restaurants reopened their doors for dine-in service in May after being shuttered for nearly three months, Brian Kaufman played it safe.

Kaufman, a part-owner of Basil & Board, located at 500 Liberty St. S.E., waited a week before allowing customers to dine inside to be sure another state closure order wasn’t coming.

He did the same at Bo & Vine Burger Bar, another restaurant he co-owns located at 176 Liberty St N.E.

“The restaurant business is tough to open and close and open and close,” said Kaufman.

Kaufman said that both restaurants survived while a state order shutting restaurants for dine-in service was in effect by offering take-out. Basil & Board changed its menu, offering take-home family dinners including roasted brussels sprouts and pork tenderloin or meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Since the order was relaxed, sales have picked back up.

His experience is mirrored by other restaurants in Salem, now operating openly again but with new and costly procedures in place as the pandemic continues to rule life in Oregon. They’re adjusting to a new normal that includes rearranging dining rooms, juggling staffing levels, ordering just the right amount of food and squeezing condiments into to-go containers. More recently, they have to get customers to wear masks while coming and going.

The hospitality industry is coming back after being one of the hardest hit by tough state orders that greatly restricted restaurants, bars and brewpubs. In the first two months of Oregon’s pandemic experience, the state’s leisure and hospitality industry lost 108,400 jobs – over half the total employment in the industry. The Salem area lost 6,700 such jobs.

According to the Oregon Employment Department, there are 459 eating and drinking establishments in Salem. That number doesn’t include a small number of self-employed or family-run eateries that don’t participate in the state’s unemployment insurance program.

With a return to dine-inn service, the sector in May added 15,900 jobs across Oregon, including 1,100 in Salem. Recent federal data showed that 156 local restaurant companies relied on an emergency loan program to sustain their payroll.

Restaurant owners are optimistic they can make the new normal work even with reduced sales. But hanging over all of it is concern that Gov. Kate Brown will halt her phased-in reopening or even reverse course if case counts and hospitalizations rise. The governor paused any more openings for a time in mid-June, and then relented.

Greg Staneruck, Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association regional representative for the Salem area, said in a statement that the pause frustrated restaurant operators who spent money bringing back employees and restocking perishable items.

“These challenges, on top of all the guidelines for reopening, are further deepening the financial hole that restaurants find themselves in as they deal with the ongoing ramifications of COVID-19,” he said.

Some businesses, such as Roberts Crossing, a restaurant and bar 3635 River Rd S., closed for good.

‘New normal’

Katrina Adams, co-owner of Adam's Rib Smoke House, said that after restaurants were shuttered for dine-in service in March, she remained open because barbecue is an easy take-out meal. But she had to lay off nearly three-quarters of the restaurant’s 20 employees.

The smokehouse, which has locations at 2505 Liberty St N.E. and at 1210 State St., reopened in May, with limited seating and hired back staff. She said that sales are down by 25% from a year ago but are up after being down considerably during the shutdown.

Adams said that the hardest part about reopening has been the new sanitation guidelines. She described how salt and pepper need to be in packets. The smoke house’s seven sauces also need to be put into to-go containers and not squeeze bottles.

She said customers want to try all of them, adding to costs. But she said it hasn’t been the catastrophe she worried it would be.

 “This is something that is here to stay,” she said. “So we are just working within it.” 

Halden Jensen, dining room manager at Gamberetti's, said the Italian restaurant also switched to take-out during the shutdown. After reopening, he said the restaurant, located at 325 High St S.E., is doing about 80% of the business it was doing previously. He said that the staff is about the same level between 20 to 25.

Jensen said the new difficulties are meeting the new cleaning responsibilities while balancing staffing to make sure they don’t violate social distancing requirements.

“If you run things tight and they are run well, it’s viable,” he said. “But as far as allowing the natural ups and downs of running the business it’s extremely difficult at best.”

Kaufman said that he’s reduced wait staff and balanced menus with items for take-out and dine-in. He said that the bruschetta board doesn’t travel particularly well.

Sean Newton, the general manager of The Coin Jam, shows off the newly renovated bar, arcade and restaurant. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter)

Pent up demand?

Josh Lehner, a state economist, said in a July 1 blog post that there is pent-up consumer demand that’ll help the economy recover.

“A key question is just how strong is that pent-up demand?” he said. “Does cabin fever and increased household savings outweigh the fears and uncertainties about the virus?”

He pointed to how video lottery sales are at 90% of their levels are from a year ago. However, the number of seated diners at Oregon restaurants using OpenTable, an online reservation platform, is at about 40% of its numbers from a year ago.

Lehner also pointed out that employment at bars and restaurants is still 45% down from what it was a year ago. Limited-serve restaurant employment is down 31% while full-service restaurant employment is down 59%.

State numbers show that despite the recent bounce back in restaurant jobs the  Salem’s restaurant industry is not what it used to be. The leisure and hospitality industry was still had 7,200 fewer jobs in May from a year ago, according to Employment Department numbers.

Despite the uncertainty, some are pressing forward.

The Coin Jam, a downtown bar that attracts customers for its menu as much as its retro video games, still hasn’t reopened.

Sean Newton, its general manager, said the bar has been rearranging games and tables and while also sanding them to make them look new. He said it’s also added some small aesthetic changes to enhance its1980s look, including additional lighting around the replica Han Solo frozen in the carbonite chamber from “The Empire Strikes Back.”

He said that to keep food waste down, the Coin Jam will provide a more limited menu, dropping items such as the scotch eggs and tri-tip sandwich. The Coin Jam will begin serving food on Tuesday, July 14, with a full opening July 19.

“We want people to come back and say, ‘ah, I’m home,’” he said.

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 Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.