For some restaurants, 50% capacity means just that, half the business they'd normally get, but many are building momentum upward of 75% to meet Baton Rouge's pent-up desire to dine out.

“Little by little each day, we’re busier and busier,” said Charlie Ruffalo, a spokesman for BRQ Seafood and Barbecue on Jefferson Highway, where business is “about half, maybe more” from where it was before state-imposed coronavirus pandemic restrictions hit in mid-March. “We’re obviously encouraged,” he said.

Some restaurants also are seeing increasing demand for catering to business staffs and to small off-premises family get-togethers or parties and noticing a rise in bookings for future events as restrictions are eased.

However, at least one small restaurant owner said she is struggling with capacity and distance restrictions and expenses that would make dining in its limited amount of space difficult. Another restaurateur says one location frequented by older diners is doing less business than another location, likely because they are cautious about dining out with the coronavirus still active.

On March 17, Gov. John Bel Edwards issued an order shutting down nonessential businesses and made all restaurants carry-out or drive-thru only in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus. As statistics improved, Edwards partially lifted the stay-at-home order on April 30, allowing outside distanced seating; again on May 15, allowing dine-in seating at 25% of capacity. Then on June 5, the state entered Phase 2 of the recovery, allowing 50% of dine-in capacity.

There’s no indication on when restaurants will be able to go back to a full dining room, though Edwards has set June 26 as the next date for any further easing of stay-at-home restrictions.

“We’re waiting a little bit for more restrictions to be released,” Ruffalo said.

He isn’t making any predictions for how the rest of the summer will end up for BRQ, preferring to take things week by week. He’s hoping larger crowds show up for Father’s Day. “We’re encouraged because we know people like barbecue in the summer,” he said.

One encouraging sign is that BRQ has been hiring employees. “It seems like every week, there are a couple of new faces,” Ruffalo said. “We are holding on to managers.”

It’s a mix of people who are applying to work at the restaurant. There are some restaurant workers who had been in the kitchen and want to be in the front of the house as servers or hosts. “We’re all starting over,” Ruffalo said. “It’s kind of weird. There’s not anything traditional about all of this.”

At Owens Grocery & Market, a soul food restaurant on Balis Drive, owner Cynthia Owens-Green said she still hasn’t opened for dine-in customers. The restaurant has a small dining area, and Owens-Green said she doesn’t have the money to take measures other restaurants have done, like install plexiglass in front of the cash register.

“We’re trying to get going slowly but surely,” she said. “We’re doing what feels like is safe for us and our patrons.”

Business at Owens, which has offered breakfast and lunch in Valley Park since 1979, has “been fluctuating," Owens-Green said. She’s seeing more regulars show up each day, but many people are still worried about the pandemic.

“DoorDash and Waitr have kept us going,” she said. There has been an uptick in catering orders as people want meals for family get-togethers, Owens-Green said.

Justin McDonald, who co-owns Mansurs on the Boulevard and French Market Bistro, also said he’s seen his catering businesses pick up. “People are starting to have more parties off-premises,” he said. “They’re starting to call about things months in the future.”

Business at the fine-dining restaurants are about 60% to 75% of what it was before the pandemic, even with only half the seating available. “There’s definitely a pent-up demand we are trying to address and accommodate,” McDonald said.

But the large private parties and business dinners that are the bread and butter of upscale restaurants like Mansurs and French Market Bistro still haven’t come back because of social distancing rules. “We’re waiting for that to come back,” McDonald said.

Stephanie Phares, owner of Zeeland Street Market, said business at her Garden District breakfast and plate lunch spot is “still a good 30% off. Some days are better than others,” she said.

One change that Phares said has been brought on by the pandemic is that people seem to be eating better. “The items people are getting to go are less cheesy and greasy,” she said. “People are more likely to get a veggie omelet.”

Even though Zeeland Street can hold more than 100 people, about half of the business is to-go orders. Phares said she’s seen an uptick in large catering requests, like a hospital or nursing home wanting 40 to 60 lunches for employees. “I think people want to treat their workers and make them feel safe,” she said. “They want them to deal less with the public.”

Zeeland Street hasn’t offered dinners in about 12 years. Phares offered dinner service for a couple of months during the pandemic to take care of people in the Garden District because so many restaurants had shut down. That’s stopped, but she’s looking at bringing dinners back by the fall: “Maybe when things go back to normal when LSU comes back and school starts,” she said.

Emelie Kantrow Alton, who co-owns the two Bistro Byronz locations and Flambee Café, said she feels like her restaurants are “back at ground zero."

"Things are moving slowly in a positive direction,” she said. “There’s a tremendous amount to go, but I walk around and I feel some energy in the restaurants again.”

Business is back about 60% to 70% at the properties. Alton said the Perkins Road location of Bistro Byronz is a little busier than the original Government Street property. That may be a result of the Government Street restaurant having “a little bit older” customer base that is leery of going out during the pandemic.

More than 75% of the staffers at her three restaurants have returned to work, although some workers are at a different capacity with reduced hours. Alton said it felt good to bring back all the employees who were ready to work again.

“We’re trying to stay cautiously optimistic,” she said. Since people aren’t traveling as much, Alton said she hopes that leads to more restaurant business in the summer. “We’re hoping we don’t have a resurgence that sets us back,” she said.


Email Timothy Boone at tboone@theadvocate.com.