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Serving Wings and a Prayer: It’s Back to Business for Fairbanks Restaurants

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Most of America now eats at the dining room table, or at the kitchen table, or on the couch, or in bed, or out on the front stoop. But in Alaska, at a place called the Roundup Steakhouse and Saloon, something remarkable happened in this age of infection.

The place was open! People weren’t sitting at home! Food could be ordered and served, and it wasn’t in a takeout box!

Walt Rodgers, a 55-year-old car salesman, came in Friday night to feel it and celebrate it, and think about the meaning of it all: ordinary things, long taken for granted, now feeling wondrous and different — if just a little bit dangerous.

“People need personal interaction,” he said, sitting at the bar with a beer and a basket with the remains of his fried dinner. “I mean, text messages and Skyping and all that, that’s not how we exist,” he said. “It’s just not. We are designed for personal interaction. That’s how we exist. We need to figure out a way.”

Fairbanks’s restaurants were among the only ones in the country open to in-person indoor dining, a distinction that came as the first few states began to reopen amid the pandemic. It happened through an alignment of state and local relaxation of rules in Alaska last week, and a handful of restaurants including the Roundup that were ready to restart under strict limits about capacity and separation of customers.

Other states were also moving slowly to lure diners out of their homes.

In Colleyville, Tex., near Fort Worth, restaurants reopened outdoor patio dining on Friday. In South Dakota, where the governor has not issued a formal stay-at-home order, some restaurants have remained open for at least some portion of the pandemic — as long as only a few customers were inside at a time. By Monday, restaurants are expected to open for limited dine-in service in Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, has moved quickly to reopen, defying even guidance from the White House.

Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, also expected to see its first restaurant reopenings on Monday, after the city ordered them to stay closed through the weekend as an exception to the statewide relaxation that took effect on Friday.

Even here in Fairbanks, a region of about 100,000 that prides itself on its remoteness from the ordinary doings of American life — it lies just 200 miles from the Arctic Circle — only a few places were able to open their doors right away.

Food supplies are tough to get, for one thing, restaurateurs said, with several wholesalers shut down. Some employees are nervous about going back to work. And the economics are difficult; the state rules allow only 25 percent of normal seating capacity, with tables at least 10 feet apart, edge to edge.

Just how brisk business will be also remains a question. Some would-be diners no doubt remain nervous about closed spaces and the adequacy of safety protocols and are no more willing to walk into a restaurant than they are to board an airplane. Anchorage’s mayor, Ethan Berkowitz, said on Friday that even when things open in that city on Monday, he would be sticking with takeout, at least for the time being.

Sam Slater, who owns a glass repair business in Fairbanks, may well have been the pioneering diner in the city, first of the first as doors began to open. He had heard last week that the Red Fox Bar and Grill, co-owned by a friend of his, Rick Mensik, was aiming to open for lunch on Friday at 11 a.m.

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“So I just texted Rick and I said, ‘What do I got to do, make a reservation or what, you know?’ I said it kind of jokingly,” Mr. Slater said. Under the new rules — no walk-in customers allowed — a reservation was indeed required, Mr. Mensik replied. “So I put it in and I was there at 11,” Mr. Slater said.

Mr. Mensik said he took the order at 11:01: Wings, the house specialty and one of Mr. Slater’s favorite dishes, and a beer.

“He wanted to be the first, so that’s what we did,” said Mr. Mensik, 69, a musician who rambled across the country playing in soul bands and Las Vegas lounges before arriving in Fairbanks in the early 70s for a gig and falling in love with the city.

Fairbanks has not been among the nation’s hardest hit places in the pandemic, with 79 coronavirus cases and two deaths — though it has the third-highest incidence rate of any borough, as counties are called here, in the state. The economic downturn has so far been less gloomy than in some places too. In March, the unemployment rate was 5 percent, one of the lowest in the state, partly because of expansion at nearby Eielson Air Force Base, which has had spillover benefits.

At the Roundup on Friday night, the bartender, Jonalynn Johnson, 22, was among those feeling grateful to be still collecting a paycheck. Ms. Johnson had only started the job in January. After the shutdown, she pivoted from bartending to running pickup and to-go orders, and was able to stay on.

“I had to totally change gears and learn a new job just to survive,” Ms. Johnson said through a face mask made from the cloth wrapper of a bottle of Crown Royal whisky. “But luckily I have a really awesome boss who puts up with me,” she said.

Mr. Mensik at the Red Fox, who is getting by with only 11 of his usual 33 employees, said that he has had to improvise in getting supplies for the kitchen. His regular produce supplier is not getting shipments from Anchorage, and another wholesaler no longer has delivery drivers, so Mr. Mensik has to dispatch someone to pick things up.

“We’re going to close Monday and Tuesday because we’re having trouble getting food,” he said. “We’re going to be out of chicken wings, and we can only get wings on Friday.”

The Roundup had 22 employees before the shutdown, said the owner, Gene Lunney. He kept eight on, working pickup and delivery orders and in the kitchen. On Friday night, he had two delivery drivers, a server, a cook and a bartender on the clock. Even back open, he said, the place seemed comparatively empty because of the new capacity limits.

“I’ve got a 40-foot bar there and can only put four people there with the new mandates,” he said. “They’ve asked us to go 10 foot with the seating and we’ve got that. It really thins things down.”

New questions of dining logistics are emerging too, like when to have a mask on in the restaurant. One can’t exactly eat through it when the food comes.

“Most people use them to order and put them on when the waitress is there, who’s also wearing a mask,” Mr. Mensik said. “And then, you know, you just put it around your chin and enjoy the meal.”



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