Facing seismic shifts in the food service industry, restaurant staff, owners and customers are beginning to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with something unexpected: gratitude.

"We’re grateful for each other," said Crystal Arnett, head manager at Luigi’s. "Customers are happy that we are reopening, and we’re appreciative to have them back with us. There’s been an outpouring of love for each other, and that relationship is stronger and deeper now."

Luigi’s is one of many establishments comprising the restaurant landscape of Franklin County. Arnett spoke of ways the community has contributed to the survival of the local restaurant scene.

"The outpouring of the community has been incredible," she said. "This community has really rallied together in support of local businesses like ours."

Luigi’s and other restaurants are grateful for the coordinated efforts by area churches and other organizations to systematically patronize local businesses.

"The First Baptist Church community helped us out a couple of times," Arnett said. "They even said they chose to visit our restaurant (en masse) twice during that time, because of how grateful and appreciative we were. We shared that with some other churches as well, and they did the same thing. Those two church-visit days were among our top days during those six weeks of dine-in closure."

KOFO Radio Station’s "Out-To-Lunch-Bunch" hour was also instrumental, Arnett said.

"What KOFO was doing, with the Out-To-Lunch-Bunch hour from 11 a.m. to noon — allowing restaurants to call in for free and talk about our specials — that free advertising was very generous and helped keep our doors open," Arnett said. "We had a lot of customers say, ‘I just heard you on the radio.’ Without them doing that for us, I’m not sure where we would be."

Despite the outpouring of support, the fear of closure was real for Luigi’s.

"Before we closed our dine-in, the initial scare kept our numbers down," Arnett said. "We just weren’t seeing people. And then the first week of shutting down dining in — that week was a little touchy. We had to reduce our staff, which is always sad. But since we’ve reopened, our staff has been able to come back — we didn’t lose them.

"We were worried at first, but with all the community support, we’ve done OK."

New methods

In addition to changed customer patterns, restaurants face countless small changes to their operating protocols, mainly in the realm of customer and staff hygiene.

"We’ve put plexiglass between each booth, so each booth is its own cubical now," said Angie Hooper. "Also moved tables 10 feet apart, laminated menus and bleach them between usings. There’s additional sanitation measures at our register now. It’s a lot of little things, really."

Hooper, an owner of Roasted Cafe, which opened in February, sees the added safety measures as an investment in the future of her industry.

"We’ve heard of some restaurants ignoring guidelines," Hooper said. "And I get it — everyone is scared, and everyone is looking to save money. But it’s for everyone’s safety, and that’s what’s best. And hopefully, if everyone follows the rules, we won’t be set back and have to close again."

For Arnett and Luigi’s, some changes wrought by the pandemic will be sticking around.

"Our delivery service has been so successful that we’re going to keep it," Arnett said. "We have a full-time delivery driver in the evenings now. I see that as a positive to come out of this. It brings us closer to some of the larger cities that have Uber Eats and other delivery services. For the longest time here it was just pizza and Chinese food that could be delivered. Now we’ve got Italian, Mexican and even barbecue. I feel like our little city is following that bigger-city trend."

Hooper believes rebuilding will take time.

"It’s going to be a long road to resuming normal business," she said. "When you change people’s routines and scare everyone as bad as this has scared people, I see it being six months before a normal pattern comes back."

Arnett sees gratitude pervading the return to normal.

"We just want to thank everyone," Arnett said. "We celebrated our seventh year this month, and even through the darkest times of the pandemic, we’re still here and not going anywhere."