In the Midst of Survival

By: Brianna Fayerverger

It is a hugely uncertain time for those in the service industry. Restaurants and bars have closed their doors, and that has meant so many people have already lost their jobs. For restaurants in Summerlin, the decision to switch to take-out-only, close completely, or adapt in some other way weighs heavy.

What would generally be seen as patio season, enjoying the breezy days of spring with a hike up to Red Rock Canyon, followed by a mimosa is not happening anytime soon. The Red Rock Canyon Scenic Loop is closed. The community is quiet, a kind of silent panic that has come to define the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. People now are putting on masks to leave their homes and are actively keeping their distance from each other at grocery stores and while picking up food for themselves or family. 

In the heart of Summerlin, BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, a favorite amongst residents, is struggling and competing with other neighboring restaurants just to keep their doors open. With the announcement that Gov. Steve Sisolak made on March 17 regarding the closures of non-essential businesses and leaving only essential businesses open, BJ’s knew they had to stay open to do what they could to keep business up and running. 

With a limited menu at hand, they are trying to offer ways to enjoy your favorite meals. The website offers take-out through the app and curbside “touchless” take-out to ensure that there will be no physical contact or order delivery through a third party company such as Postmates, Uber Eats, or DoorDash. BJ’s recently received a permit from the City of Las Vegas that would allow them to deliver alcohol through the pandemic and generate more sales by enabling them to sell their most popular in house beers for guests to enjoy at home with their food.

“Sales are down, but we are finding success in other areas, a lot of DoorDash and online orders,” said Paul Vilardo, general manager for BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse. “We are keeping the team busy.”

The company had to furlough a majority of their hourly employees, leaving team members who are capable of doing take-out and some cooks. The affected workers were paid for accrued and unused vacation time and sick leave. BJ’s has provided emergency paid leave to employees who did not qualify for that benefit under state and local laws.

“When I first heard the restaurant had to close, I was nervous about how I would afford my rent and other bills like everyone else,” said Jason Whitehouse, a server for the company. “I didn’t hesitate at all when they asked me to work a couple of take-out shifts a week, it gave me relief because we rely on cash tips and credit card tips for survival.”

“All 209 of the chain’s restaurants remain open, though exclusively for take-out and delivery,” BJ’s said. BJ’s comparable restaurant sales declines peaked during the week of March 24, 2020, at -82% and have since improved to -70% during the week of April 21, 2020. The improvement is driven by sequential weekly growth in the company’s off-premise sales from both take-out and delivery. 

Depending on remaining sales, “The company will evaluate all restaurants regularly and consider closing certain locations based on their strength of off-premise sales and associated cash flows,” BJ’s said.

In a statement made by the company on their website is a message to all guests, “First, we want to express our sincere concern for everyone who has been impacted by the coronavirus and know that the uncertainty of this time is challenging. For over 42 years, BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse has been taking care of its people so they can take great care of you. Our passionate team members have always been proud members of their communities and have been dedicated to serving and delivering hospitality to our guests.” Amongst the Covid-19 pandemic, BJ’s is focused on finding new avenues to grow sales and provide value to customers.

Right now is the focus ahead and the reality, post Covid-19. Recovery will be a challenge. It will be a rebound that won’t happen overnight. They’ll be more wary and demanding guests, not necessarily as it relates to the price or selection, but involving safety, cleanliness, and overall quality. 

BJ’s is prepared to handle new protocols if they arise. Once the stay-at-home order from Gov. Sisolak is lifted,they will enforce strict policies, such as guests congregating around the hostess stand or on bar stools and every other table will likely stay empty. The challenge is not adapting but how to adapt, as the industry has continuously adapted and grown, in terms of safety for decades.

Restaurants across America have been taught food-safety practices for years. They watch the public and pay attention to health and safety more and more over the years. They’ve always had a heavy focus on health and safety, not just food-borne illnesses, but virus transmission. Now looking forward is a better relationship between the guests and restaurateurs. Guests will pay more attention to detail after this. 

The restaurant managers and team members are staying positive through this all and are just hoping business goes somewhat back to “normal” after the shutdown. “I think once their fear and guidelines are allowed to come back, over time it will,” said Vilardo. “I think people are itching to come out and see entertainment, have good food and beer and that’s what we offer here.”

Whether open for take-out, closed, or innovating to stay afloat, many Summerlin area restaurants share a sense of resiliency, citing events like the 2008 recession and the 2017 Las Vegas shooting as devastating periods in history that prove the city can overcome tragedy.

It remains unclear how the restaurant industry will recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s hard to say what the restaurant industry will look like when we finally emerge from our houses in the coming weeks and months.

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