MY FIRST RESTAURANT EXPERIENCE AFTER THE END OF CORONAVIRUS LOCKDOWN

Yesterday, for the first time in months, I went to a restaurant for dine-in service. This visit was possible because of the gradual lifting of lockdown restrictions in America.

I live in Dane County, Wisconsin, where the county-issued “safer at home” directive would expire on Tuesday, May 26, 2020. However, following the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision that struck down the governor’s “safer at home’’ order, businesses in many counties across the state started to immediately open up.

After such a long shutdown, re-opening the economy is not like flipping a switch. Many businesses had come to a screeching halt, as lockdown orders were given in states across America. Economic struggles followed, along with state and federal efforts to provide financial relief to those affected. And now, many businesses that were shut down for many weeks, are slowly re-opening, trying to get their operations up and running again.

The city of Wisconsin Dells overlaps with four counties – Columbia, Sauk, Adams, AND Juneau – and is known as the “Waterpark Capital of the World”. The city draws large numbers of tourists from nearby states like Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota, and from lots of other places.

My mother and I, on Sunday evening before Memorial Day, visited Wisconsin Dells – one of the top tourist destinations in the state. For years, we have visited the Dells many times, and sometimes on special occasions such as New Year’s Eve, Christmas, Independence Day, etc. Full of hotels and restaurants and man-made as well as natural tourist attractions, the city is popular among people of all ages.

Wisconsin Dells not only draws tourists from faraway locations, but also relies on a robust workforce made up of Summer Work Travel program participants from all over the world. These young people bring a lot of energy to the thriving tourist destination.

Few weeks ago, during the lockdown, we drove through Wisconsin Dells one evening, and the city was almost completely dark, with no visitors, no lights inside the restaurants, no activity, and it seemed like a ghost town. It was quite a sad experience to see a place, which is usually bustling with tourists in spring, to be so empty.

During our visit to Wisconsin Dells, yesterday evening, the scene was quite different. The roads leading to Wisconsin Dells were pretty busy, and so were the roads and streets in the city. Not as busy as other springs, but still busier than we expected during a pandemic. There were people on the streets, in light clothes, largely due to the warm weather. I did not see any visitors wearing masks, as they walked on the sidewalk of downtown Dells, enjoying with friends and family, taking groups photos and selfies, and more. Tourists did not seem to be social distancing.

My mother and I decided to go to a restaurant for dinner. It was not a new location, but a restaurant that we had been to many times in the past.

Keeping the name anonymous, I would say that during most of our visits to this restaurant, we found the place to be quite busy. Around special days and long weekends, such as the Memorial Day weekend, a wait list to get a table at this restaurant is not unusual. When pancakes are served all day, along with a large menu of many other delicious items, it is understandable why tourists and local residents would flock to such an establishment.

As we entered the restaurant yesterday evening, there was a bit of a wait, but not for the same reason as we had previously experienced. There was no host at the reception area. A young waitress, wearing a disposable face-mask, came out of the dining area to greet us. She said that she was the only person working and that we would have to wait 20 minutes to get a table so that she could manage her workload. The young woman was very polite, and sounded somewhat helpless. We agreed to wait.

There were two occupied tables, each with a couple. As I scanned the dining room, I saw that a few tables still had not been cleaned after diners left. There were used plates, glasses, and silverware. I got a sense of the staff shortage that the restaurant was suffering from.

After a while, the young server showed us the way inside, from the waiting area, and we were seated. The menu was a single black and white sheet of paper, and not the thick laminated colorful menu that we were used to seeing. After a few minutes, the server came to take the order, only to apologize and rush to the next aisle, without completing taking our order.

A situation was escalating at a different table, where the diners, as we understood from overhearing the conversation, had waited for a long time for their food to arrive. And when the food did arrive, the dishes were not made in the way that the diners had requested. Furthermore, they had not received their appetizers prior to the main course, which actually were then served a few seconds after the main course was placed on their table. Up until then, the couple was sipping on straws, drinking soft beverages, as they waited.

When the diners complained, the young server apologized and said that she would fix the problem, but it would take a little longer. The couple could wait no further, and angrily said that they had waited for a long time.

At this point, the man angrily got up, and told his partner that he was leaving. He took out cash from his pocket, threw it on the table and said that he would pay for the drinks, and that he was leaving without taking a single bite of food because it was not made according to their instructions. The lady, angry at the restaurant’s service as well as embarrassed and hesitant to leave, sat there, confused. The man said that if she wanted to stay, she could, but that he was going to his car. Then she got up, and they both left the restaurant.

In the meantime, there was another family in the waiting area. As the angry couple left, the family that was waiting to be seated also left after understanding that an unpleasant situation had just taken place. At this point, the restaurant had lost two sets of diners right before our eyes.

The server finally made her way back to our table, apologizing, and my mother and I placed our orders, sympathizing with the young woman. When asked, she said that the manager had told her that she would be the only one working, with no explanation as to why there were no other members of the staff. Obviously, there was a cook in the kitchen, who was preparing the food, but no other servers.

The young server was not a native English speaker, as she expressed, and spoke slowly. She seemed to be in a lot of stress, having been given such a huge responsibility without anyone else to help her.

Our order arrived properly, and we were satisfied. There was another table with two diners, who also observed the whole situation like we did, and also seemed sympathetic.

After we finished dining, the server was not bringing our bill, and I had to get up to lightly prompt her to hand me the bill. She did, and the payment was successfully made, without any hassle.  My mother and I left the restaurant, satisfied with our meal.

The entire experience made me realize how deeply impacted many businesses, including restaurants, have been. Even after re-opening, and even as customers are flowing in, restaurants are struggling to maintain adequate staffing. As a result, the service being delivered, especially at the restaurant we went to yesterday, was less than satisfactory for some people. In business, this is quite harmful because once a diner is unhappy with the food or service at a café or restaurant, that person is very unlikely to come back again.

What frightens me is that issues such as this may be taking place in many establishments across the state or country. Once the flow of a business has been disrupted, it would be hard to gain back the momentum. With extra precaution and cleaning efforts, shortage of staff after re-opening, and the long road to recovery from the financial losses during the pandemic, the future of many restaurants is uncertain.

The pandemic is going to have a lasting impact on the American economy. We may be digging our way out of the widespread lockdowns, but restarting the economy and gaining full speed ahead would involve overcoming many other post-lockdown challenges.

We must be strong in our resolve to help businesses and other organizations in our communities, as well as our friends and neighbors who are struggling, overcome the enormous difficulties (as a result of the pandemic) and to once again go back to becoming successful as a part of our great country – the United States of America.

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