GREAT FALLS — On November 17, Governor Steve Bullock announced adjustments to several COVID-19 restrictions in Montana, including lowering the bar and restaurant capacity limit to 50%, and a mandatory 10 p.m. closing time for those same establishments.
Those updated restrictions went into place on November 20. One month later, restaurant and bar owners in Great Falls say they’re doing OK, but only after a series of continuous adjustments stretching back to March.
“We’ve had to minimize staffing which is really hard,” said Michael Hallahan, who manages Enbar and The Block in downtown Great Falls. “It affects our team, it affects the economy. Really reducing staff, really monitoring hours our cost of goods, things like that. We really got into our take and bake items, takeout...really pressing our takeout, both of our locations pushing out a lot of that.”
John Williams owns several establishments in Great Falls, including The Burger Bunker, which is about 200 feet from The Block. While the two restaurants may be competing for the same pool of customers, which has certainly dwindled during the pandemic, the owners agree that staying in business can sometimes be a team effort.
“In the restaurant industry, they’ve done some really cool things to try and adapt,” said Williams. “The take out dinners and stuff that a lot of places are doing are kind of a different way to get their product out there. Definitely, there’s a kind of fraternity, and we talk to people amongst the industry.”
Michael says he talks with other restaurants around Great Falls on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. They talk about what they’re doing, what’s working, and what’s not. He says it’s a lot of the same thing: staying positive, being creative and innovative, and trying to find creative ways to reach out to the public and bring in customers in new, safe ways.
He added that the best way to describe 2020 is that it’s been a “rollercoaster.”
“We definitely felt a pinch,” said Hallahan. “Being forced to close at 10, 50% capacity definitely limits all kinds of businesses, but restaurants and bars especially take a big hit.”
In somewhat of an anomaly, The Burger Bunker has actually had a great year. John says that, once the demand for takeout and delivery boomed during the early days of the pandemic, they were able to ride that elevator to the top. But Williams also owns JJ’s Bakery on Central Ave. The success that The Burger Bunker has seen hasn’t exactly carried over.
“We’ve had a good year in some areas and a bad year in others,” he said. “The bakery closed downtown for a couple of months there, and that was tough to deal with, but the Bunker has had a great year. As soon as everyone kind of focused on doing takeout, we got a big bump in order through the courier services, so that’s been good.”
It came down to being able to adapt, especially on the fly. The Burger Bunker lends itself to delivery, and John is hoping that trend continues, especially as we get deeper into the winter months.
“Through the end of the winter, unfortunately another big problem is going into January, after Christmas,” said John. “People tend to spend less money eating out and saving money that they spent over the holidays, so just people still getting out and getting going. A big factor is the weather. We tend to have an older community, and when there’s six inches of snow on the ground, people would rather just stay home.”
The Bunker benefits from having a large seating area, so John says they only had to move some tables around to comply with distancing and capacity requirements. At The Block and Enbar, limiting large groups was easier when the outdoor tables were a better option for customers in the summer, before the temperatures began to drop.
In some of the country’s larger cities, including New York City and Washington, D.C., indoor dining bans are now in place or are on their way. While Montana officials are not currently considering similar restrictions for the Treasure State, both Williams and Hallahan agree that surviving that would possibly be their toughest challenge yet.
“Surviving that would wholly be predicated on our customer base and how they support and things like that,” said Hallahan. “They’re doing what they can to survive, they’re doing what they can to make it through all this.”
“The cards are really stacked against you, and it gets tougher with every restriction that they add,” Williams explained. “If we went to a purely takeout model, it would definitely have a huge impact, and it would hurt. People still want to get out, people want to spend time out of their houses, and now it’s getting even worse.”
As for what needs to happen in 2021 for restaurants like his to keep the lights on and survive this pandemic, Hallahan says a lot of it will depend on decisions made by incoming politicians like Montana Governor-elect Greg Gianforte and U.S. President-elect Joe Biden. Aside from that, it’s all about staying positive.
“I would say, (if) we’re able to keep the lights on and survive to fight another day,” he said. “So, yeah anything that we can do to keep moving forward and really looking forward and staying positive and looking towards 2021 makes us successful.”