After a three-week shutdown due to a positive COVID-19 case, Nino’s Italian Restaurant on Bluebonnet Boulevard quietly reopened earlier this month and has been doing a surprisingly brisk business, all things considered, says owner and executive chef Elton Hyndman.
“We didn’t want to publicize it too much because we weren’t sure how things would go and we were immediately up to the 50 percent capacity (allowed under phase two),” he says. “People are so excited to be out, they’re spending two or three hours at a table, which creates its own challenges, but it’s a compliment they like to spend so much time here.”
But while Nino’s enjoys a loyal following of patrons, operating under current conditions is far from easy and not sustainable in the long term, Hyndman fears.
Though the state restrictions allow restaurants to serve up to 50% capacity under phase two, Nino’s space is so small the restaurant is actually operating at about 40% capacity to allow for adequate distance between tables.
Then there’s the additional cost of personal protective equipment for employees, sanitizing equipment and higher food costs, which have fluctuated dramatically throughout the crisis.
“Meat prices went up in the beginning drastically but they have fallen,” he says. “But the intangibles, paper goods, now are astronomical.”
Other restaurant owners report similar challenges as they constantly adjust to new ways of doing business. Ruffino’s Baton Rouge and Lafayette restaurants are “holding steady,” owner Ruffin Rodrigue says. But catering orders at the downtown location are completely dead.
“We’re waiting on phase three,” Rodrigue says. “Hopefully it will be soon.”