Normally, late spring would be when business at Palomino’s really kicks into gear.
The spring breaks and first tastes of warmer weather tend to mean a fuller dining room and the first patio crowds for the Mexican restaurant in Independence’s Fairmount neighborhood.
“This is the peak season for us,” Palomino’s owner Veronica Chavez said.
Chavez estimated business has been down about 80 percent since restaurants had to close dining rooms on March 17, one of many examples of how restaurants around Eastern Jackson County have been forced to adjust and struggle to remain viable with pick-up or delivery sales during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re trying,” said Chavez, who laid off a few employees and has retained a few. “It’s not just here, not just in Missouri.”
On the Square in Independence, Cindy McClain said Friday morning that all but two restaurants in the McClain Restaurant Group, El Pico and Square Pizza, are closing their doors during the COVID-19 restrictions.
Those shuttered for the time being include Ophelia’s, Cafe Verona, the Courthouse Exchange, Clinton’s, the Main Street Coffee House, Yogurtini and Up Dog. Six other entertainment and retail businesses on the Square had either been closed prior to Friday or have now closed.
“It’s hour by hour, day by day,” McClain said, “and El Pico and Square Pizza might be closing this weekend. We just don’t know.”
“This is so hard, so unbelievably difficult. Over the past week I have called up about 110 of our employees and tell them they no longer have a job.”
McClain said that in talking with some employees, many didn’t feel comfortable working “while all of this was going on.”
“We feel like it’s a social responsibility to do what is best for our patrons and our employees, even though it is so hard to tell our employees that they have lost their job,” she said.
McClain stressed the closings will be monitored and that each restaurant and store hopefully will open when the pandemic restrictions are over.
“We’ve never experienced something like this before,” McClain added. “No one feels good about any of these changes.”
Palomino’s has added limited delivery (within 5 miles) and been active on social media to remind people they’re open, and Chavez said they’ve continued to see some usual customers and receive some large catering orders, which have helped. She’s and other owners of nearby local restaurants have shared their struggles with each other.
“When you have a small business, you’re able to be a little more personal (in knowing customers),” she said. “A lot of regulars that come in once a week still come and get food to go.”
Chavez says she hasn’t thought much beyond if the current restrictions continue past late April. For now, she’s been careful to freeze and preserve what food she can freeze and gauge how much to purchase from vendors.
“It’s a new way of life, a new way of doing business,” she said.
At least one local restaurant that established a loyal foothold in recent years, Happy Greek on 23rd Street, decided the best choice was to close temporarily rather than continue with just pick-up and delivery orders.
“In an effort to help protect our community and reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, we have made the heavy decision to temporarily close until the risk decreases,” owner Denise Pugh, a longtime registered nurse before she helped open the restaurant, posted on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “We appreciate your understanding while we take these cautionary measures to ensure the health and safety of everyone.”
Greg Hunsucker, owner and president of V’s Italiano Ristorante, said he’s laid off about 90 percent of employees for the time being and is trying to spread around hourly workers as they offer curbside service, with a leaner available menu posted daily online and regular social media and email blast messages.
Weekday business has been about one-third of the norm, Hunsucker said, and the first full weekend without a dining room netted about half the normal revenue.
“It’s not what we would hope, but better than I thought it would be,” he said. “Everybody’s thankful that we’re here, thankful we’re open.
“We’re shaking all the trees we can shake.”
In some cases, employees have had the chance to spruce up the space more than they would with regular service.
“We’re trying to make sure the place looks great when we reopen,” Hunsucker said.
While people have every right to be concerned about coronavirus exposure if they venture out for food, the veteran restaurateur said, his personal experience is that employees are more diligent about cleanliness right now.
“I can assure you,” he said, “restaurants are cleaner today than they’ve ever been.”