Operators, Small Venues in Underrepresented Cities Speak Out

The Blind Horse Restaurant & Winery, Kohler, Wisc., took measures to ensure the safety of its employees and customers by installing state-of-the-art Far-UVC 222 lights indoors. Pictured here: the restaurant's outdoor dining area, which was expanded to support customers outdoors. (Photo: Courtesy of The Blind Horse Restaurant & Winery)

While bars and restaurants in major cities have received a lot of attention during the COVID-19 pandemic – in terms of what they're doing to survive – operators in small cities may not have received the same focus. As a result, Bar & Restaurant spoke to several businesses to see what they’ve done to navigate the crisis.

In Kohler, Wisc., one restaurant is focusing on Far-UVC 222 lights, while in Anaheim, Calif., air purification is key. And over in Hickory, N.C., virtual wine tastings are making a big difference. However, a focus on simply doing everything right is working for one business in Tequesta, Fla., while an establishment in Tulsa, Okla. is getting valuable help from a well-known industry consultant.

Here’s what we learned.

Far-UVC 222 Lights in Kohler, Wisc.

The Blind Horse Restaurant & Winery, based in in Kohler, Wisc., took measures to ensure the safety of its employees and customers by installing state-of-the-art COVID-19 “killing technology,” called Far-UVC 222 lights from Healthe. The lights apparently can help with inactivating the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.

“We believe our business will be stronger than ever with the goodwill and trust that we have built with the community and our employees," said Tom Nye, master winemaker and general manager of The Blind Horse.

As soon as Far-UVC 222 lights became available, Blind Horse installed them and started a campaign to educate the local health department as well as employees and the public. “We installed Far-UVC 222 lights in certain buildings where they were more appropriate,” said Nye. “Far-UVC 222 is a form of UVC that is safe for use in occupied spaces. We installed fans in other rooms that sucked up the virus and used standard UVC light to kill the virus. Both products offer 99 percent effectiveness and real time mitigation.”

Blind Horse also has an outdoor space and, like many restaurants, took advantage of that with expanded seating, in addition to the Far-UVC 222 lights that it incorporated indoors. “But real time mitigation was always necessary, since we have severe winters here in Wisconsin,” said Nye. “The public response to our mitigation efforts have been extremely well received. Our customers feel safe coming here and we hear often about how we are the only restaurant and winery they will visit. Our business has been able to build back up to only be off by about 10 percent of normal levels.”

Nye added that his restaurant and winery has always strived for the safest sanitation measures, and they’re pleased to see more and more industry partners adding or adapting to these precautions. “It’s in everyone’s – winemakers and wine drinkers – best interest to do so,” he said.

Virtual Wine Tastings in Hickory, N.C.

Cafe Rule & Wine Bar in Hickory, N.C. has adjusted its offerings to attract and welcome back as many customers as possible. Pre-COVID, the restaurant had about 25 members as part of its WINE RULES Wine Club. Today, since COVID, the restaurant said it is proud to have experienced a 500 percent increase in its membership base – an impressive goal given the current circumstances.

Cafe Rule & Wine Bar’s Executive Chef is Dave Robbins, and its Director of Operations and Wine Director is Paul Nance.

Traditionally, a membership in the WINE RULES Wine Club offered perks such as access to monthly themed dinners, discounts on bottle purchases and birthday rewards. Pivoting during COVID, Café Rule (pictured below) began implementing virtual wine dinners by providing everything one would need to enjoy a night out in the comfort of their own home.

Photo by: Aisling & Company

Here’s how it works: Once a month, Café Rule announces the next date for its virtual wine dinner. Those who purchase tickets to the wine dinner receive a link to sign-on, and a time to pick everything up from the restaurant. Via curb-side pickup, guests receive a full meal and wine. During the actual event, a wine representative guides the guests through a tasting, highlighting information about the winery, varietals and food pairings.

So far, Cafe Rule & Wine Bar’s events have sold out month after month, and due to the high demand, they’re adding more virtual wine dinners to the calendar.

Air Purifier in Anaheim, Calif.

Newly reopened The Anaheim White House Restaurant (pictured below) – an Italian steak house in Anaheim, Calif. – added a new purification system that sanitizes both air and surfaces. From ActivePure, this NASA-based technology is considered one of the only solutions on the market that destroys DNA and RNA viruses, including COVID-19.

Chef and proprietor Sir Bruno Serato said he had the system installed during lockdown as an added layer of protection for guests. “I want my guests to enjoy their dining experience without feeling stressed about COVID-19 and other transmittable contaminants,” he said. “The Air Surface Pro [from ActivePure technology] is an investment that, for me, is priceless because my guests and staff are priceless to me.”

Photo: Courtesy of The Anaheim White House Restaurant

In addition to eliminating viruses like COVID-19, the technology claims to kill bacteria, allergens, and mold in the air and on surfaces. “I am hoping that other business owners, especially restaurateurs, will install this technology so that, together, we can fight COVID-19 and other contaminants,” said Serato.

Doing All the Right Things in Tequesta, Fla.

Chef Erik Pettersen, owner of Evo Italian in Tequesta, Fla., said that as a restaurant owner in Palm Beach County, they are now allowed to be at 100 percent capacity, “but to keep my patrons and staff safe, we continue to keep tables spaced apart.”

South Florida residents, snowbirds, and visitors have resumed dining out in large numbers, according to Pettersen. “We are very busy with reservations every night and continue to fulfill a lot of take-out orders for those who still prefer to dine at home. Eating outside has become more popular during the pandemic and continues to remain popular,” said Pettersen.

Prior to the pandemic, Evo Italian had a dining patio, but they’ve since added more tables. “We place hand sanitizer on each table and guests have the option of using a QR-code menu for a touch-less experience,” noted Pettersen. “Our servers, hosts and kitchen staff wear masks. If a diner needs a new utensil, their server brings it to them on a napkin to avoid touching it. Our host stand is outside and take-out orders can be picked up outside, so people who are uncomfortable entering enclosed areas, do not have to.”

Pettersen said that restaurants are so bustling right now, including Evo Italian and other area eateries in Palm Beach County, that many of these businesses need to hire more servers. Evo Italian, in fact, is actively seeking people with and without experience, if they are eager to learn and are reliable and committed.

“Working in the restaurant industry can be a great new career path for people looking for a job,” said Pettersen, who noted that the unemployed may want to look to South Florida and its server shortage, for starting a new career. “The other thing restaurant owners will have to navigate is the increase in minimum wage. That will impact the industry when it goes into effect,” Pettersen said.

Getting Help from an Expert in Tulsa, Okla.

Owner Scott Christian of the Hochatown Saloon in the Tulsa, Okla. area is back to having live entertainment on weekends. He used restaurant coach Izzy Kharasch of Hospitality Works to advise him on increasing business. To start, they did a big social media campaign last year about the saloon’s new sanitation practices. They featured pictures of Izzy training them and of a staff member wearing a “COVID Killer” t-shirt.

Photo: Hochatown Saloon Owner Scott Christian

The saloon also changed its carry-out containers to hold heat better, because they were doing more takeout, and they introduced a phone app for ordering technology because they were short on staff. Recently, the saloon’s Facebook page said it needed to hire 20 people, so things are looking up.

Learn More: To get more valuable insights from industry leaders and the bar and restaurant community, plan to attend the Nightclub & Bar Show, the most important event of the year for operators. The event takes place June 28-30, 2021 at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Details can be found at NCBShow.com.