Restaurants try to carry on as carry out dwindles

Carmen Legaspi, of La Reyna Mexican restaurant in Vinton. She says business at the establishment has dropped by at least 60% since the governor’s order suspending on-premise food and beverage service. PHOTO ANGELA HOLMES


By Angela Holmes

Restaurant owners who have had to rely on carry-out orders and deliveries since Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered a statewide suspension of on-premise food and beverage service on March 17 will have continue to be creative in generating revenue as the suspension extends to April 7.

Carmen Legaspi, who runs La Reyna Mexican restaurant in Vinton with her husband Carlos, has never faced anything like the current challenges in the nearly 40 years she has been in business.

“Even in 2008 [during the Great Recession], it was slow, but this doesn’t compare – nothing compares to it,” she said. “This time, it’s a different feeling.”

According to a preliminary assessment released Thursday by the Iowa Restaurant Association, 82% of the 670 restaurants and bars surveyed have laid off employees, and revenues across all types of concepts are down 84% compared to last year.

Of Ms. Legaspi’s 10 regular employees, only two full-time workers remain with her to cook and manage carry-out orders.

But the carry-out business has not been consistent. With only three or four daily orders during the week, business has plummeted by at least 60%, she said. That has fared better than La Reyna’s space in the NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids, which closed temporarily due to the lack of carry-out orders.

Chevy Bunshaw, managing partner of Short’s Burger and Shine in Marion, said business is “as good as expected with everything going on,” but carry-out just doesn’t compare to customers dining in and ordering drinks.

“A good 15-20% of our business was in-house alcohol sales,” Mr. Bunshaw said.

Although Ms. Reynolds amended state law to allow establishments to sell alcohol to-go in closed containers, that doesn’t make up the difference, he noted.

“You can buy alcohol for a lot cheaper at grocery stores, so we have cut our prices – we don’t make any money off it.”

Alex Perez, general manager of Stella, located just down the road from Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, is also feeling the loss of alcohol sales, especially in a college town.

“A lot of our regulars are students who are now back home,” she said.

Stella’s carry-out business has gone “really well, but obviously doesn’t compare” to people coming in, ordering appetizers and drinks and tipping, she said.

The restaurant’s core menu remains the same with burgers and chicken being the top to-go items, as well as the Cajun offerings Stella is known for.

While the restaurants’ carry-out business is coming primarily from regular customers, managers said they are seeing some new faces in this time of need.

“That’s one good thing – people in the community are realizing that small businesses are hurting and they are trying to help,” Ms. Perez said. CBJ