Anna Maria's The Waterfront Restaurant has experience with challenges endangering its existence, with a 2004 fire that closed the business for more than a year. Now, like restaurants around the world, it's dealing with the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered Florida restaurants shut down except for to-go in March to help contain COVID-19, The Waterfront temporarily closed. It reopened in April with a new curbside pickup menu.
Now the restaurant is open for dining both inside its cottage and outdoors, providing views of Tampa Bay, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and Anna Maria City Pier, while still offering curbside takeout. Along with current state dine-in guidelines, The Waterfront also falls under a city of Anna Maria ordinance requiring masks indoors with certain exemptions including while eating or drinking.
In a July 28 phone interview, owner Jason Suzor discussed how the restaurant is responding to the pandemic.
What does your dine-in setup look like, and how has the customer response been?
About a third of our seating is inside, and the other two-thirds is outside, so we do kind of benefit from the situation now. The outside seating is covered with awnings. In regard to the customers, everyone I think appreciates us putting our best foot forward as much as we can. Before we reopened the inside, we installed on all our air conditioning units UV lighting, which kills any sort of viruses, bacteria, etc. So all the inside dining, the recirculation of the air is going through that system.
What are you offering in terms of takeout, delivery or other options for those who aren't comfortable doing dine-in yet?
We still do curbside pickup lunch and dinner. It's actually about 25% of our business at the moment, and we're happy to do it. We have two extra servers each shift that that's supporting — if you think about it, if we didn't have that, those two servers wouldn't be working. So it's actually been good for everyone, the customers and the servers. It hasn't slowed down from between 20-25% since we opened dining inside and fully opening, basically.
Was that something you had in place before the pandemic, or was that something completely new?
No, that was completely engineered from scratch and we had a little bit of a learning curve in what type of vessels it can go in, because we're pretty strong on using all compostable or recycle items. So finding exactly what bags we wanted to use and flatware, to-go plates and bowls, we kind of worked through that. But we've pretty much got it nailed down now and it's not a big stress on us like it was in the beginning.
Besides the social distancing measures, what are you doing in terms of safety and sanitation?
We have the air conditioning. Obviously, everyone wears gloves, masks. After every seating, we take the time before we turn the table to make sure it's sanitized, cleaning the backs of the seats and tabletop. We don't have any salt and pepper and stuff like that out still, we're bringing in packets of condiments. We have disposable menus.
What does your staff look like now compared to the start of the pandemic?
When we were closed for six weeks, I kept my management staff on full-time and then I still paid my whole staff's health insurance while we were closed, and they basically were furloughed and/or collecting unemployment. Then we came back with, including the management team, probably about 25 percent of our staff. Then as we slowly opened to outdoor, then to outdoor/indoor, and now with the curbside and the outdoor/indoor, we're probably back up to close to 90%, honestly even 100. We had 75 employees before we closed, and I'd have to look at payroll, but we're close to that now. We're luckily doing a volume where everyone can get enough shifts. Everyone's not working their full shifts like they were before, but everyone's understanding that "Hey, another server that was on before, they're maybe cutting back to four shifts," and everyone goes to four to get that one server back on. It's been nice to see that with the (Paycheck Protection Program) money and all that, we're able to do what it was intended to do, which is put people back to work.
So you applied for and received the P.P.P. loan?
We did, we put it to work, and I can honestly say it was very helpful. It did exactly what it was designed to do, in my eyes, and I really appreciate that we had that opportunity. Like I said, I'm back up to about 100% of my staff now. And I hope it stays that way, but you don't know what's around the corner.
What has staff morale been like?
It's been good. We've got a pretty tight staff and we all respected what we were up against in regards to health, everyone really took it serious. We did have maybe a handful of employees that didn't, but when we did reopen, that was part of the situation where if they didn't quarantine and take it serious, then we weren't going to bring them back on. We had several conversations with all the staff that when you do go home, you have to act the same way you do when you're here, or when you do go out, basically when you're not working. So I think everyone's taking it real serious and it's nice to know that you're working with somebody, when they do leave, they're exercising the same caution out in the public.
How would you compare this pandemic to the restaurant fire and other challenges you may have dealt with over the years like red tide, recessions and hurricanes?
The fire is top of the list. That was a year and half out of business, and I would not wish that upon my worst enemy, honestly. This one really scared me, and still does, because there's really no end in sight. So we're just doing the best we can to stay healthy, put together the best product we can and hang in there as we long as can, and hopefully make it through this. But it's definitely up there on the stress level with the fire.
The Waterfront Restaurant (111 S. Bay Blvd, Anna Maria; 941-778-1515; thewaterfrontrestaurant.net) is open 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Some of the most popular menu items:
• The Frutti di Mare, a linguini dish with diver scallops, mussels, shrimp, clams, garlic, olive oil, basil and tomato.
• The shrimp and grits, which features a pan-fried grit cake topped with chorizo, roasted red pepper, garlic and parmesan.
• The grilled romaine salad, topped with Neuske's bacon, gorgonzola, green apple and red wine vinaigrette, with the option to add proteins such as shrimp or beef tenderloin.
• The grouper tacos, which feature lightly blackened Gulf grouper on grilled flour tortillas with cheddar jack, jicama slaw and pico de gallo.
• Kung Pao Calamari, served flash-fried with onion, feta, banana peppers and Thai sweet chili.
Restaurants are now permitted to operate with 50% indoor capacity and outdoor seating following recommended social distancing of at least six feet. There's no limit on capacity for outdoor seating as long as social distancing guidelines are followed. The governor's executive order does not mandate the use of masks. However, the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association recommends customers, employees and employers consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for employers responding to COVID-19, and certain cities and counties such as Manatee County, the city of Sarasota and Anna Maria have introduced mandatory mask rules.