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Photo by Anne Braly / Some restaurants, such as Niedlov's Cafe & Bakery on Main Street, are using outdoor seating to help distance diners during the coronavirus pandemic. Firepits and patio heaters help keep guests comfortable in cooler weather.

From one side of the plastic shield came a voice, a man calling out to anyone on the other side who might hear.

"Hello. Hellooo," he yelled, volume rising. "I'd like to place an order."

Silence.

"Is anyone there?" he tried again, yelling through a hole in the plastic shield separating the kitchen from the dining area at China Cafeteria on Market Street.

To his right, an "Out of Order" sign hung on the restaurant's self-serve drink machine. Nearby, another sign posted to chairs blocking access to the restrooms stated the same.

Eventually, a woman walked out of the kitchen into the prep area where orders are placed and delivered, saw the man and hurried over to take his order.

There was a time when the line for lunch at China Cafeteria was backed up to the door. No longer. The dining area is empty, with tables pushed against one wall and several chairs for waiting customers lined up against the other. The cafeteria-style restaurant has been converted to takeout only. And at noon — the height of lunch hour — there were just three customers.

As COVID-19 continues to pummel the restaurant industry, the sharp decline in business may be most visible in Chattanooga's downtown districts, where restaurants have long depended on the city's big employers — Unum, BlueCross BlueShield and the Tennessee Valley Authority among them — to fill tables during the weekday lunch rush. But with many corporate offices emptied and thousands of employees working from homes in suburbia, there are voids beyond the half-capacity safety restrictions created by the coronavirus.

"Our lunch business was heavily dependent on downtown workers. For 11 years, we would average around 225 people at lunch. Now, I'd say business for the year has been down 15 to 20%, but our lunch counts during the week are down around 60%," said Nathan Lindley, owner of Public House at Warehouse Row, directly across the street from TVA.

Lindley recites a timeline he knows by heart: "We started getting nervous late last January, and I thought if TVA went away, we wouldn't survive. Then March 16 happened. That was when TVA shut down."

On March 19, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke issued a mandate closing all restaurants in the city. That lasted a little more than a month. By late April, restaurants could reopen at 50% seating capacity. By Memorial Day, business at Public House began picking up. Lindley said every day was like a Saturday — not the same kind of business he'd seen when downtown employees spent their lunch hour dining out, but business was steady.

"I don't know if it was due to stimulus money or people traveling regionally, but sales at lunch and dinner started coming back," he said. "It was a different crowd. People were getting lunch around 1:30 or 2 o'clock as opposed to 11:30. It definitely wasn't our business crowd. But it was OK."

Then Thanksgiving came along, and stimulus money was long gone. Christmas came and went without much notice. No parties. No holiday lunch gathering with friends. And again, no business lunches.

"The holiday season was really strange," Lindley said. "I didn't even realize it was Christmas. For 20 years, I've always gauged my Christmas business by, like, 'Oh my gosh! I can't believe how tired I am.' Christmas was [previously] my busiest month of the year."

When will things get back to normal, whatever the new normal will be? Lindley said he doesn't anticipate a significant increase in business until people return to work downtown.

Photo Gallery

Loss of downtown Chattanooga workers

GLASS HALF FULL

From a consumer's perspective, the pandemic, with its social distancing and seating requirements, has made dining out a more positive experience for some Chattanoogans.

Ginny Minninger and husband, Art, had lunch at Tony's Pasta recently.

"We walked right in and were seated in a sparsely populated dining room," said Ginny Minninger. "A year ago, our group waited 45 minutes for a table and had to accept being split up, at that. The place was bustling, crowded and noisy. It took forever for our meals to be served. But this time, the service was good, and the food was the quality we expected. And I was grateful for a quiet atmosphere."

Minninger said the entire recent experience was positive. Seating limits and spacing made her feel safer.

"We're not eating in restaurants that don't allow a safe distance," she said. "Our preference is eating outside when weather permits."

Betsy Christensen, too, prefers outside dining to dining indoors, even with tables placed at least 6 feet apart.

"We really like lunch at State of Confusion because of all the outside seating," she said. "And they have good heaters for the cold weather."

Most restaurants offer some kind of al fresco dining. Along Main Street, small tables dot the sidewalk in front of some restaurants; other places offer large patios with heaters to ward off the chill.

"We have heaters, and in the winter, when the sun comes out, it's feels pretty nice," Lindley said of the patio at Public House.

 

ACROSS THE RIVER

It's been a mixed bag of business for restaurants on the North Shore. Beast + Barrel on Frazier Avenue met COVID's ax, but the lunch business at River Street Deli nearby remains brisk. Owner Bruce Weiss credits social media and existing, if coincidental, strategies with his success during this difficult time for restaurateurs.

"We were already set up for takeout," he said.

Still, the mayor's mandate requiring Chattanooga restaurants to provide only takeout and curbside service forced changes.

"I had to immediately change my model to takeout only," Weiss said. "And then I started to hit the social media big time. I post on Facebook twice every day and on Instagram. I had a new website made prior to the pandemic, and that has helped, too."

Now that his dining room has reopened with at least 6 feet between tables, his takeout business remains strong. Before the pandemic, takeout was about 5% of his lunch business. Now it's 65%, he said.

Robin Derryberry, president of Derryberry Public Relations, continues to work at her Market Street office and supports nearby eateries daily.

"I haven't missed a day in our office since the pandemic," she said. "A year ago, I would've met clients for lunch in a local restaurant. But times have changed.

"Now I grab lunch and sometimes drop off lunch curbside for our clients before returning to my office to visit virtually. I love Southern Star's refrigerator case, where I can grab food and go. And of course, I stop by River Street and grab whatever Bruce tells me to eat."

 

A RETURN TO NORMAL

Seth Champion, owner of Champy's on M.L. King Boulevard, said downtown won't be the same until its workplace inhabitants return.

"I can definitely tell a difference with lack of employers and employees," he said. "But we are about to turn a corner, and I look forward to a bright and prosperous spring."

In the meantime, Ginny Minninger stressed the importance of supporting local restaurants.

"Supporting our restaurants contributes to the financial health of our community," she said. "It's important to stay sensitive to the owners' personal investments and dedication by using their services to whatever degree people feel comfortable. We want these restaurants to be there when normal returns. And that requires our support in the meantime."

Email Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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