Coronavirus morphs into ‘nightmare’ for Lehigh Valley restaurants. How they’re coping.

Bolete

Bolete in Salisbury Township. (lehighvalleylive.com file photo)

The dining room at Bolete is filled with takeout containers. So is The Crust Pizzeria and Restaurant’s. Griddle 145′s is not — rather it’s completely empty, like a ghost town.

“It’s eerie,” Griddle 145 owner Sherry Eisenhard said.

This is the case for establishments across the Lehigh Valley. The rapid spread of the coronavirus pandemic has forced restaurant and bar owners to close their doors to the public, only offering takeout, curbside pick-up or delivery. While Gov. Tom Wolf’s statewide shutdown is the safe thing to do for the sake of Pennsylvanians, it’s taking an unprecedented toll on the restaurant industry.

Every Lehigh Valley dining establishment is feeling the heat in some respect, but some are hurting harder than others. Even when the world felt like a normal place, The Crust did most of its business through takeout orders and deliveries, so the shift, while strange, has been a bit easier to swallow. On the other hand, Eisenhard said that even with a weekend that was slightly better than the previous week, Griddle 145 is only seeing about 10% of its usual sales. “This is a nightmare situation we are in,” she said.

Eisenhard is not alone in this nightmare, which has filled every day with a “Groundhog Day”-esque repetitiveness. Savvas Kiprislis, owner of the Keystone Pub & Grill in Bethlehem and Whitehall, said that he’s down 60% to 80% of his usual business on a given day. Karen Widrick, one of the owners of Edge Restaurant in Bethlehem, said that the curbside to-go orders are only bringing in 20% of what they’re used to. The Edge team also had to hit pause on bringing their new venture, Surv, to Easton. Roma Ristorante, located in the Airport Shopping Center, pivoted to a pick-up system for a week straight, and never cleared 1% of its average sales, according to general manager Geno Grantham. Now, Roma is 100% closed. “I don’t know when or if we’re going to reopen," he said.

Like The Crust, there are still restaurants that are holding together. Owner Erin Shea said that Bolete has stayed busy, relatively speaking. She credits the restaurant’s wide group of supporters for that. And those supporters have been understanding in the strange shift being made. “Every day, we learn something to take on to the next day,” said Shea, who also runs Silvershell Counter and Kitchen and Mister Lee’s Noodles in the Easton Public Market with her husband, chef Lee Chizmar. Matt Reichard’s The Other Fish has actually been busier than usual, fortunately. Reichard also notes that his customer base is “amazing," having grown strong over The Other Fish’s nearly two decades in Bethlehem.

But even the restaurants seeing some success aren’t getting there without sacrifice. That’s come largely in the staffing numbers. Eisenhard said that Griddle 145′s staff is now just her, her husband and a chef. Widrick said all of her employees are gone, “including myself." The money Edge makes now is going towards bills, and whatever tips come in are going to her unemployed employees.

Kiprislis is down to a skeleton crew as well. “I’m basically open right now for my employees,” he said. “But I’m only open for some of them.” Reichard, despite The Other Fish’s business, obviously can’t have a full staff working at all times, and his waitstaff is taking the biggest hit, so he’s rotated them in and out so that they can put in hours as well as make some tips.

Shea’s sister lives in Seattle, and she also has some friends living around the world, so she had a bit of heads-up on what might be hitting the U.S. pretty soon. For about a month, she had been having conversations with staff at all three restaurants about having to lay many of them off and what they should do regarding filing for unemployment. It was just a matter of when. On Saturday, March 14, Bolete was open as usual and busy as usual, but Shea felt like the staff was at risk, even before Gov. Wolf’s mandate. "What are we doing?” she thought. The following Monday, they closed for pick-up only.

Beacons of light can be useful in a time like this. The Crust is one — General manager Karen Diaz’s staff has been sending over pizza deliveries to the Lehigh Valley Hospital every day, and on top of that, they’ve opened the daily delivery to customers who want to purchase a pizza, sandwich or salad for a random hospital employee. The Crust then matches that donation, too.

Remaining optimistic is a challenge. Kiprislis said that restaurant industry members are some of the most resilient people he knows, and other owners have been working to keep spirits up. But the wave of uncertainty is growing to be too much.

Last week, Eisenhard could count the number of orders Griddle 145 took in a day on one hand. Even if things did get a bit better on the weekend, they’re not putting a dent in the overwhelming trepidation that Eisenhard and other restaurant and bar owners are feeling.

“This is our livelihood,” she said. “We opened this place up eight years ago. We have three kids to feed, we have a mortgage and bills to pay. And all of a sudden, it’s like nothing.”

“If this goes on for months, something’s got to give,” Kiprislis said. “We may have to close down and see what happens from there.”

But this has to end eventually, right?

“I don’t think anything will be the same,” Shea said. “Hopefully, some things for the better, about how we take care of each other as a community.”

“We deal with trials and tribulations in our work every day,” Kiprislis said. “We have to roll with the punches. This punch is a long, 12-round fight.”

The local culinary industry is taking jabs left and right from the pandemic. If this is the end of the first round, these restaurants need the Lehigh Valley in their corner.

Connor Lagore may be reached at clagore@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @ConnorLagore. Find lehighvalleylive.com on Facebook.