ENGLEWOOD — It wasn’t like preparing for a hurricane, a big remodeling job or even an extended red tide bloom.
Even longtime business owners began struggling in March after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis abruptly ordered restaurants shut down to combat the spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus responsible for a worldwide pandemic.
Diners at Farlow’s on the Water, Ricaltini’s Bar and Grille, SandBar Tiki & Grille and Lock ‘N Key may not have understood what “last call” meant when it was yelled out at 3:15 p.m. March 20.
“We were given one hour by the governor to shut down our restaurants,” said Sue Atamanchuk, who owns Lock ‘N Key and SandBar along Englewood Beach with her husband Rocket. “People were still eating when a Charlotte County deputy came to make sure we were shutting down. He was kind, but people still wanted to order drinks. We told them they had to go we had to close at 5.”
The governor’s ordered allowed restaurants to deliver food and offer curbside pickup. They could serve alcohol, but no customers were allowed inside or at the bar.
Many local restaurants didn’t have instant plans to execute the new mandates.
“You couldn’t get personal protective equipment anywhere,” said Keith Farlow, who along with his wife Laurie own Farlow’s on the Water. “Everyone was donating masks to hospitals. We had an employee who was quarantined and she made all of our staff’s masks. It was amazing. We had to change our whole business model overnight.”
This week, the Farlows and the Adamachuks were guests on the final of four Englewood online town hall meetings sponsored by Kristen Conti. The Coldwell Banker Sunstar Realty broker wanted to keep the community informed on local issues after the pandemic hit. The weekly series featured Conti interviewing Charlotte County Commissioner Bill Truex, his wife Andrea, assistant chief nursing officer at Englewood Community Hospital on one edition. Other guests included Mark Timchula, known as The Beach Guy, Wiseguys barbershop owner Louie “The Boss” Guinta, and Kim Parks from the Englewood Chamber of Commerce.
During the recent town hall, Conti explored how restaurants adapted to the pandemic and executed safety plans.
“After the shutdown, it was impossible to get some of the supplies we needed like the to go containers,” Farlow said. “I called Rocket and he had some. We would return the favor. This is how we survived.”
The Farlows and Atamanchuks called each other daily. They shared challenges, questions and brainstormed how to operate during a pandemic. Rocket was concerned the food temperature would be compromised by delivering it 10 miles away. The Farlows learned employees were invited into homes of older customers who were lonely and wanted to talk.
“I called it my therapy meeting,” Sue said, adding she regularly called Kathy Castellano, the senior commercial loan officer at Centennial Bank, for help with small loans. “Cathy worked diligently to help us. We were so busy trying to figure out what to do, it was absolutely breath taking. Our house was like a Cheney Brothers warehouse.”
The owners said customers were extremely generous with tips, with some giving $100 to servers, bar tenders, busers and other employees doing deliveries.
Farlow said his business plan changes and now includes best practices from the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. Employees wear masks, gloves, have their temperature taken and answer five questions before each shift. Then they wash their hands and practice 6-feet social distancing. Only about 30 employees of the restaurant’s 130 haven’t returned. The Atamanchucks have most of their 300-plus employees back at their two restaurants.
Mike Ray Jr., manager of Ricaltini’s, told Conti the restaurant stayed open for curbside and delivery service to help its employees.
“When you have employees living from pay check to pay check, you can’t close, we said we would do it for them,” he said. “We are back to operating at 50% with some dine-in service. We are lucky because we have a large outdoor seating area and maintain six-foot spacing. We are looking forward to seeing more customers.”
Farlow, a member of the Charlotte County Tourist Development Council, said while many restaurant owners survived red tide, oil spills, the recession and hurricanes, some may not reopen. However, others will make it through the pandemic.
“We appreciate everything our customers have done for us,” he said. “If we continue to see the flattening of the curve, we are going to see a return of our customers as they feel comfortable to come out and eat with the take out options and outdoor dining.”
Kim Parks, with the Englewood Chamber, said the Let’s Eat Englewood website was relaunched and Englewoodtakeout.com was created to help local restaurants provide updates on hours and delivery, curbside and entertainment.
Conti asked if anyone designed a mask outfitted to drink with a straw. Rocket quickly said he would make a prototype and sell them and give Conti the credit for her good idea.
“I’ll have my people call your people,” he joked with Conti. “I’ve got people.”