Ecco Midtown is one of three Fifth Group restaurants that recently reopened its doors.
BY ELLIE HENSLEY
Editors note: After we published this story on July 2, Empire State South temporarily closed when one of its employees testing positive for COVID-19. According to Empire State's South's Instagram, the restaurant has since tested its entire staff and will reopen Thursday, July 16.
The restaurant and hospitality industry has been among the hardest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Every restaurant owner in the city was forced to temporarily shutter their dine-in service and rethink their business model, and many were forced to lay off staff.
Since receiving the green light from Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, about 100 restaurants in Midtown have since reopened for modified dine in service, instituting a variety of safety regulations like mask policies and guest limits to enforce social distancing. Kemp recently announced that the additional safety guidelines put in place through a series of executive orders originally scheduled to sunset at the end of June would be extended through the middle of July.
We spoke with the owners of three Midtown restaurants — Steve Simon of Fifth Group Restaurants, including South City Kitchen, Ecco and Lure; Craig Richards of Lyla Lila; and Hugh Acheson of Empire State South— about these past few challenging months and their next chapters.
Setting a Reopening Date: Lots of Factors to Consider
Although most restaurants had been taking in little to no revenue since mid-March, owners took lots of factors into consideration before setting reopening dates. Governor Kemp allowed restaurants to resume dine in service on April 27, but the overwhelming majority waited a bit longer before opening their doors.
“Originally we had decided to reopen in the beginning of June,” said Steve Simon, co-founder of Fifth Group Restaurants, which operates restaurants in Buckhead and Downtown as well as Midtown. “We felt like May was too early, that we didn’t know enough about consumer sentiment, our own revised safety policies in place and when other businesses might open, to possibly have traffic on the streets.”
The current situation is unprecedented, leaving a lot of questions in the air, Simon said. Without reopening, he can’t know whether his businesses will operate at a revenue level of 40 percent or 70 percent.
“No one has been through this, there’s no one to ask about what to do,” said Richards, who opened Lyla Lila at Peachtree and 3rd Streets with fellow seasoned restaurateur Billy Streck in December 2019. “When we had to close in March, we had our feet under us, and then within six days, we were closed and had to lay everyone off.”
Richards’ initial reopening plans for Lyla Lila were also affected by the City of Atlanta curfew put in place for the early weeks of civil protests against police brutality. The restaurant had stocked a full cooler of food in anticipation for a mid-week reopening, but wound up regrouping for a limited weekend-only schedule.
Ultimately, the decision was made to reopen Fifth Group restaurants across the city in phases and with many precautions in place. All Midtown locations (Lure and South City Kitchen on Crescent Avenue, and Ecco on 7th Street) are now open for modified dine-in. Lyla Lila and Empire State South at Peachtree and 10th Streets also reopened in June.
“We’re not economically viable for the long term if we’re completely shut down, but we think we can monetize the situation safely if we provide to-go food, contactless options and we have protocols in place,” Acheson said.
Reinventing the Dining Experience
All three restaurant owners interviewed typically specialize in a dine-in experience — Fifth Group’s concepts vary by restaurant but include modern Southern, tapas and seafood; Lyla Lila is Southern European fare and Empire State South also specializes in seasonal and Southern. But when welcoming guests indoors wasn’t an option, the establishments tried their hands at take-out.
“None of our restaurants are built for takeout,” said Simon. “The menus aren’t designed for it. Some of them did it, and a big part of the reason was to remain current in people’s minds.”
Lyla Lila had a similar issue with its menu.
“We did takeout for seven weeks, and we offered a different type of menu,” Richards said. “We pivoted toward more Italian comfort food and stuff that traveled well, like Caesar salads and bolognese.”
When it was time to reopen, all three owners took advantage of their ample patio spaces to welcome guests back who weren’t ready to venture back inside restaurants or simply prefer to enjoy a meal al fresco.
“We’ve been so fortunate that the spring has been mild,” Simon said. “The patio has definitely been the most popular place, because the climate has been amazing.”
For Lyla Lila, the patio created out front on the sidewalk is an all-new amenity. Richards’ team has planned to have one all along, but it was too cold for outdoor dining when the restaurant originally opened its doors. Now, with restaurants only allowed to be seated at a 50 percent capacity, the patio gives Lyla Lila 25 more seats.
“Once we saw the restrictions, we knew people would be more comfortable outside,” Richards said.
Empire State South’s mask policy requires customers to wear masks at all times unless eating or drinking, including when giving food orders to servers or when visiting the restrooms.
“It seemed a little heavy handed, but our job is to ensure customers have a safe environment to enjoy dinner,” Acheson said. “A lot of people have been cooped up, but we can’t open the faucet full-bore when we’ve seen an uptick in [case] numbers.”
Diners can expect a slightly different, slower paced experience when they visit a restaurant these days due to safety protocols like frequent sanitation of surfaces and swapping out gloves and masks. Restaurant owners relied on information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, Georgia Restaurant Association and other restaurants when developing their policies.
“We talked to chefs across the country and saw what other restaurants were doing, listened to guests and to the public, and did lots of probing and thinking,” Richards said. “We wanted to do first and foremost what was right for our staff and decide whether that was right for guests, too.”
An Outpouring of Community Support
Richards said most visitors to Lyla Lila so far live in the Midtown area, but business is starting to pick up.
“It’s been a rollercoaster, but it feels good to reopen again,” he said.
Fifth Group’s loyal customer base helped raise about $130,000 on GoFundMe and through an online auction for its out-of-work staff over the past few months, and now that its restaurants are reopening, Simon said he is “grateful” to see they are also showing support in person.
“The people coming into Empire State South are extremely thankful for the steps we’ve taken, and it makes us feel energized when people notice the amount of work it takes,” said Acheson. ”Having gone through the pandemic, I hope people are creating lists of who has empathy, compassion and smarts, and supporting those who are doing what they can to help the situation for the greater community.”
See our updated list of restaurants offering take-out, delivery and modified dine-in in Midtown here.