Noontime business was slow on Monday at the Innside Restaurant in downtown Chattanooga, as the eatery served dine-in patrons for the first time in weeks amid the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Still, owner Tiny Wycuff said the time is right to start offering customers more than carry out.
"I'm more than ready for business to get back to normal," he said about the easing of restrictions, which allowed restaurants to reopen on a limited basis starting Monday across most of Tennessee.
With $14.2 billion in estimated sales generated by Tennessee's restaurants in 2018, much is at stake moving ahead for restaurateurs and government coffers, which collect tax revenues.
The same holds true for the state's 330,000 restaurant and food service workers, who amount to 11% of all employment, according to the Tennessee Hospitality & Tourism Association.
Meanwhile, the National Restaurant Association estimates U.S. restaurants have already lost nearly $80 billion due to the coronavirus and could lose $225 billion if eateries remain closed for 90 days.
Downtown Chattanooga alone has more than 170 restaurants, according to figures from the nonprofit redevelopment group River City Co.
Tony Davis, owner of the Purple Daisy on St. Elmo Avenue, had been offering curbside service and was ramping up dine-in services on Monday.
Tables inside and outside were 6 to 8 feet apart, he said. Employees were wearing masks and gloves, and there was plenty of hand sanitizer to go around, Davis said.
He said the eatery is operating with a skeleton crew and rotating them in and out until the restaurant can bring back the full staff.
"They need to go back to work," Davis said.
Wycuff said his Chestnut Street restaurant also is following the 50% occupancy rule and all the other necessary steps to reopen.
"We talked to the health inspector about what we should do and how we should do it," he said.
A trio of men who ate dine-in at Innside Restaurant said they had no qualms doing so.
"We were going to order in, and we found out we could sit down," diner Wayne Saunders said. "It was a pleasant surprise."
Many restaurants hadn't made a decision yet to reopen for sit-down patrons on Monday.
Rudy Gomez, manager of Taziki's on Gunbarrel Road, said the eatery plans to open its dining room on Thursday.
"We're trying to make sure we're ready to go," he said. "We're making sure we've got all the team. It's going to be a little different but it's going to be good. We're doing this together."
Amy Donahue of River City said health and safety is "the most important thing," and she thinks reopening will be a slow process.
"We know many restaurants are not opening right away, even though they can," she said. "It could be staffing or supply issues and limitations on the number of individuals in a restaurant at any time."
Donahue said River City plans to keep updating its website and other online resources on the status of downtown retailers and restaurants.
In Cleveland, Tennessee, two popular longtime eateries are taking different paths, with Jenkins Restaurant & Deli having reopened Monday after preparing Sunday.
Angela Gibson, front of the house manager at Jenkins, said it reopened at 11 a.m. with the restaurant's staff donning masks and gloves under "ServSafe" certified training guidelines.
"Employees are being checked for symptoms as they come in," she said. "As far as I know, we are good to go to get back to some normalcy."
But, the Bald-Headed Bistro's owners said it's too soon to reopen.
"This past month has been an unreal experience in all of our lives and businesses," the business said in a social media post. "We are eager to participate in restarting our economy — however, in respect to our guests and employees, we feel that it is a bit too soon to resume 'business as usual.'"
Eric Taslimi, owner of Slick's Burgers on Main Street in Chattanooga, said there are no immediate plans to open.
"There's so many things you have to take into account — what the customers are comfortable with, what the employees are comfortable with, what the owners are comfortable with," he said. "It came up so quickly, we're just watching to see how it's going to go. We're not in any rush. We want to do it correctly."
Richard Adams, son of owners Rick and Nancy Adams at Southern Star, said it's hard to assemble the staff on such short notice given the word that restaurants could open in Chattanooga came down last Friday.
"It's kind of quick to turn around and call all these people that have filed for unemployment and say, 'Come back,'" he said. "We don't have a set date. We are still doing our to-go orders, and we have a blue-plate special every day from 10:30 [a.m.] to 2:30 [p.m.]. I guess you could come inside and eat that in the dining room, but we are not fully staffed."
Major fast-food chains are not rushing to take advantage of the lifting of restrictions on their indoor seating in Tennessee and Georgia, with most major chains sticking to only takeout or drive-thru service at least for now.
Fast-food restaurants are often able to generate as much as 70% of their sales from drive-thru windows, even before the coronavirus raised concerns about people gathering in groups such as in a restaurant setting.
"With the number of cases (of COVID-19) we've seen, we're very cautious in our approach to reopening," said Nicole Moorshead, vice president of marketing for J&S Restaurants Inc. in Cleveland, Tennessee, which operates 43 Hardee's restaurants in the Mid-South region.
Hardee's has no immediate plans for restoring indoor seating and has reopened only 30 of its Hardee's units in the region for drive-thru service so far.
McDonald's, the nation's biggest restaurant chain, also is not immediately opening its restaurants for indoor seating, although the company continues to do a brisk business through its drive-thru, delivery and take-out operations.
"This is not a race. As states ease restrictions, we will move thoughtfully and judiciously to make changes to our operations in collaboration with our franchisees, when McDonald's is ready," a statement said.
Wen Choo Choo, the franchisee for 11 local Wendy's restaurants, also is maintaining only drive-thru and delivery business, at least for another week, while it assesses the new guidelines in the Gov. Bill Lee's "Tennessee Pledge" and the state orders for Georgia restaurants to open with indoor seating.
According to state executive orders and guidelines in Georgia and Tennessee, restaurants can accept dine-in customers provided they follow more than 30 guidelines such as limiting guests to 10 patrons per 500 square feet of space.
Chick-Fil-A, which has 260 restaurants in Georgia and 96 outlets in Tennessee, also said it is taking "additional time" to reopen its dining rooms in states that are starting to ease business restrictions.
"Safe service is our top priority," the company said in a statement.
At the same time, many consumers remain wary of dining in at local restaurants. A nationwide survey by Gallup found that nearly 80% of Americans said they would wait to return to normal daily activities even after restrictions are lifted.
Staff writers Ben Benton and Lisa Denton contributed to this story.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.