Facing change, OBX restaurants prepare to re-open

By on May 1, 2020

More outdoor seating and staffers with face masks may well be part of the new normal for restaurants. (Shutterstock)

As the curve of COVID-19 infection in North Carolina flattens, restaurants on the Outer Banks are starting to look forward to a time, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, when they will be able to reopen to the public.

There will be changes that are obvious. Social distancing guidelines requiring tables to be six feet apart will, in many cases, cut the number of seats in restaurants in half. Gloves, face masks and face shield may be part of the daily uniform of personnel.

Other changes may not be as apparent, but the people who know the Outer Banks restaurant business feel the changes will be key factor in which businesses survive and which ones do not.

“There’s going to be people who aren’t going to make it through this,” Dan Lewis, the President of the Outer Banks Restaurant Association said.

“The restaurant business by nature is flexible and evolving and always finding out how to make things work. At the same time, the industry works on relatively [small] margins that most business models say cannot withstand a fifty percent reduction in sales,” he explained.

“When change comes down the pike, we’ve got to embrace it,” Wes Stepp, chef and owner of Red Sky Cafe and NC Coastal Cuisine in Duck said.

In interviews with a number of Outer Banks restauranteurs there were some constants in what the owners felt the summer was going to hold.

“You’re going to probably see more outside seating. You’re removing seats inside, you have to find seats,” said Kenny Hyman of Trio in Kitty Hawk.

Mike Kelly, who has owned restaurants on the Outer Banks for over 30 years agreed, but he added some cautionary notes.

“I think if you’ve got a yard out there, build it. One thing about it in the summertime, you’ve got insects, heat, you’ve got wind.  You’re putting a pretty large investment to put a brick patio in, but are you going to be using it years down the road to get your money back out of it,” he said.

What is happening now, Kelly points out, is not the first time that restaurants have had a reason to create an outdoor space for customers.

“We had to do it with smoking areas and people have learned to use them.,” he said.

Other changes will occur as well, and they may change how people think about fine dining.

For the past six weeks, restaurants on the Outer Banks have not been allowed to have customers in their dining rooms, so many of them began offering dining to go — and that’s not going to go away.

“I think the takeout and delivery is going to continue to be a larger portion of our business. Right now, it’s one hundred percent,” Lewis said. “It’s going to certainly continue and be a larger portion of their business than it was before.”

For the restaurants that already had a strong takeout business, the new reality helped keep the doors open and personnel employed.

“We’re really grateful for our to-go program and our delivery program. The business isn’t really making any money, but we’re able to pay our utilities and keep some employees working,” said Grant Sharp, who with his wife Natalya, own Max’s Real Italian Restaurant in Kill Devil Hills.

For Stepp, embracing takeout and delivery service at his Duck restaurants led him to what he feels is a new opportunity.

“I told my staff, ‘We’re not here to make money. We’re here to invest back into the community and through that we’re going to find a business model that works,’” he said. “We started doing the takeout and delivery and then I created a virtual market. I’m like, ‘We’ve got all this food. Let’s put it online.’”

Although local restaurant owners are seeing innovation as necessary, there are worries about some of the changes that social distancing will create.

Certainly, losing half the seats in a restaurant is concerning, but for restaurants with their razor thin profit margins on food, the loss of bar seating could be devastating. Alcohol sales are often the most profitable part of a restaurant’s business.

“With the dining room being closed to us and not being able to serve any alcohol, that’s cut off so much of the business that we would have,” Natalya Sharp said.

For many Outer Banks restaurants, live music at the bar has been an important draw. And that too, may be a casualty of social distancing.

Donny King’s Ocean Boulevard has been a regular place to catch live music for years, but he doesn’t see how that could continue with social distancing guidelines.

“Live music promotes people milling around. I don’t know how that would work,” he said.

It is possible, he added, that a larger outdoor venue might be able to meet the criteria of social distancing, but for Ocean Boulevard, with its small outdoor seating area, it doesn’t seem practical.

“You can’t pay a musician $200 or whatever and have somebody hanging out and having a small plate and a drink for two hours,” he said. King added that he is thinking of partitioning the bar with plexiglass, but he isn’t sure that would meet state requirements.

“There are some guideline coming from the state, but nothing is defined,” he said.

And that is a significant part of the problem that restaurants are facing.

“Nothing is set. We have a good indication of what reopening looks like. But until the governor signs that executive order saying okay …we can reopen restaurants at fifty percent or whatever that marker is, we won’t know,” Lewis said.

Lewis makes the point that, although there may be some uncertainty about the specifics of what restaurants will look like when they reopen, there is an effort to make that transition as smooth as possible.

“The good thing about what’s going on in North Carolina. is that there’s good communication and good working groups, not only on the state level working with the governor’s office. [The] same thing is happening on the local level with a local group working with the [Dare County] Control Group,” Lewis said.

And, as Mike Kelly observes, the degree of uncertainty this year may be larger, but uncertainty is part of life in the restaurant business.

“You’ve got to go into it with the thought that the opportunity is there,” he said. “On October 10, I can tell you about the summer. On April 26, I don’t know.”





  • Dan

    Why are people assuming that this virus will even exist in a month or two? Many of the “experts” have been wrong in their models and predictions from the beginning. Restaurants will only survive if we return to normal and allow free people to make decisions. If you feel uncomfortable stay home, but don’t expect all of society to conform to some new insane norm.

    Friday, May 1 @ 3:18 pm
  • Steve

    Cannot go out to eat in the summer anyway due to tourists.

    Saturday, May 2 @ 6:46 am
  • Ellen Harter

    These tourists won’t be back. Been ripped off to many times. Then there’s the bad attitude of the locals…like our money, but hate us. Enjoy your restaurants

    Saturday, May 2 @ 12:11 pm
  • outis

    I have to question the opening statement of this article – “As the curve of the COVID-19 infection in North Carolina flattens, restaurants on the Outer Banks are starting to look forward to a time, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, when they will be able to reopen to the public”. Where did Kip Tabb get the information on the curve flattening? In the daily postings of the COVID-19 numbers for the state of North Carolina, in this online newspaper, the numbers would indicate otherwise.
    On 4/26 with 8,830 cases, up 207 from the day before. On 4/27 – 9,142 cases, up 312 from the day before. On 4/29 – 9,948 cases, up 380 from the day before. On 4/30 – 10,509 cases, up 561 from the day before. On 5/1 – 10,923 cases, up 414 from the day before. On 5/2 – 11,509 cases, up 586 from the day before. Does this look like the curve is flattening?
    Who are you trying to fool? Yourselves? Is this a case of wanting something so bad you are ignoring the actual facts? Or is this “Fake News”. And this is on top of three new cases of the virus in Dare County.
    I understand the need to get the economy going again, and the need to get back in business for all these restaurants, and other businesses. For many it is going to be a matter of survival, and some will probably not make it through this. But a lot more will not make it if we fool ourselves into ignoring common sense and letting our guard down too much, and too fast. If the virus breaks out again in Dare County (or Currituck C.) and really starts to spread, I think you will see the end of this tourist season.
    If you don’t do this just right, it may not work. If people still feel afraid of going to restaurants, or other types of retail businesses, they won’t go. If you open, will they come?
    If you have customers that just won’t cooperate, or abide by the rules (like all the idiots I still see it the grocery stores that refuse to wear a face mask, or stay 6 feet away from other people) then I am not going to want to go into a restaurant, or a store. In fact I don’t understand why people are being allowed to enter the stores without a face mask. How is this any different than smoking in a store, except it is more dangerous to people’s health than smoking in a store is. So why is it being allowed?

    Saturday, May 2 @ 3:53 pm
  • KHer

    Dan, I agree. This thing is the most overblown mess I’ve ever seen. There are some medical experts coming out and saying we need “herd immunity” and this intense quarantine is keeping that from happening. Waiting forever for a vaccine is a non-starter. I really fear the economic fallout that will come from this, and it wasn’t necessary.

    Sunday, May 3 @ 8:23 am
  • Lil Johnny

    Good Luck!! Let us know when your ready to sell if you own the property if you are a commercial renter see ya!! Your Dare county public officials bankrupted your business by not being able to handle a crisis it took them 6 weeks to figure out distancing , temperature monitoring and masks . WOW!! Stop the secret county official commission meetings allow public and property owner input . #Votethemout

    Sunday, May 3 @ 9:58 am
  • Jenneen

    Just wondering how Restaurants that serve mainly as a buffet will be maintained? How do you social distance ? Even is social distancing is possible, what are the odds people want to go to a buffet where so much interaction w food and handles to scoop the food could be an issue w possible spreading ….? I know people will eventually ease back into this…but how about as this all begins to unfold. I see Buffet being last pick on people’s dinner choice. What are your thoughts?

    Sunday, May 3 @ 10:17 pm
  • Mark A Williamson

    People just aren’t going to let it go, are they? On BOTH sides of the argument. Tourists that sit in traffic for 8 hour traffic jams in Currituck, and they come back every year. All those people who say they are never coming back, get real. All these people who say they are going to sell, get real. You are going to hold out for top dollar, just like always. You aren’t going to sell for a loss, and just dump your house. So, just calm down, big bunch of cry babies.

    Monday, May 4 @ 8:29 pm
  • Lulu

    Folks, it is too soon. Plain and simple. Please be patient. The beach will still be here. Love thy neighbor, friend, and of course family which is # 1. Stay safe and God bless.

    Monday, May 4 @ 8:36 pm
  • surf123

    @Mark A Williamson – You nailed it…the threats of not returning or selling a rental home will never transpire. It is no different than the celebrities who said if Trump was elected they were leaving the country. He won, yet we are still stuck with them. The same will happen here as we will have to listen to crybabies complain all summer how they were not allowed to go to the second or third home.

    I for one cannot imagine wasting my money on a vacation to sit in the hot sun, booze it up, and go to marginal restaurants serving overpriced food all while living in a house with 12+ other people. Add in the torturous traffic and you have one big colossal waste of a vacation. There are so many other great places in the world to go. Please tourists, open your mind, and try out some other destinations as you do not know what you are missing.

    *To be fair there a few very good restaurants, but most are not.

    Thursday, May 7 @ 11:17 am
  • surf123

    We all know revenues from lodging and food will be down significantly for the rest of this year at a minimum. The towns and counties need to be tightening their purse strings to prepare for the this. A tax increase is untenable and the towns and county have plenty of fat to trim. They have enjoyed an uncontrolled spending spree and it is time to wrap it up. Scaling back programs and eliminating positions is a lot easier when revenue is the issue.

    Thursday, May 7 @ 11:48 am
  • Bud

    To Ellen Harter, do not blame us, you did it to yourselves by bringing your
    I, Me, My mentality.

    Saturday, May 9 @ 7:30 am
  • Lady Di Watson

    Let us not forget our local musicians. Many only have income from entertaining the public. What can we do for them during this “phasing ” processs? Will they ever be able to share their music live with us again?

    Sunday, May 10 @ 4:24 pm