Opening During A Pandemic: Restaurant’s Struggle Reflects Industry Crisis

Apr 7, 2020

Alexis and Matthew Sullivan
Credit Juniper restaurant

March was supposed to be a joyous new beginning for Matthew and Alexis Sullivan. 

They had decided to relocate their Rapid City restaurant, called Juniper, more than a year earlier. They found a new space that needed remodeling, and they got to work. 

Alexis said it was a long year. 

“Anything that could go wrong did go wrong.” 

The roof leaked. It took four or five tries to patch it up. And that stalled everything else, like the flooring and drywall. Meanwhile, they took other jobs to provide for their themselves and their two young kids. 

They finally opened the new location in March. For a fleeting few nights, the Sullivans took it all in. 

“We had moments in those nights where people were in the dining room enjoying each other and laughing, having a great time, enjoying their food, their company,” Alexis said. “And all these worries and all these concerns kind of went out the door, and it was really beautiful.” 

Matthew said the couple put “every dime” into the relocation.   

“And our timing couldn’t have been worse, that’s for sure,” he said. 

Their opening night came three days before Rapid City began a shutdown of restaurant dining rooms because of the coronavirus. 

Juniper restaurant's dining room is closed during the coronavirus pandemic, but the restaurant is offering meals for pick-up.
Credit Juniper restaurant

The Sullivans are an extreme case, but restaurant owners everywhere face a crisis. The National Restaurant Association says the industry has lost 3 million jobs and $25 billion since March 1. 

In Rapid City, Tom Johnson is president and CEO of the Elevate Rapid City economic development partnership. He’s worried about local restaurants, so he made a social-media video to show curbside pickup is safe.  

In the video, he drives up to the curb and narrates, “This gentleman’s going to get me my food, you see he’s remaining his proper social distance, got his gloves on, I’m about to sign, pick up this food, and we will go from there. You can do curbside pickup. This is not a problem at all.” 

That’s been a popular refrain all over the country: Support local restaurants by ordering takeout and delivery. But some people wonder if it's safe. 

The CDC says the coronavirus is not transmitted through food. Yet experts say the virus could be transmitted on restaurant packaging, although the chance is low.  

Wendell Hoffman is an infectious disease specialist for Sanford Health. 

“I’m not aware of any evidence as I sit here that getting food from takeout puts one at increased risk,” Hoffman said recently on SDPB Radio’s “In the Moment.” 

Beyond safety, there’s an economic dilemma. Offering takeout and delivery might keep a restaurant partially open, but at what risk? What if orders don’t cover the costs? 

And the Sullivans wondered, what if they invested in a pickup service only to have the government ban takeout and delivery? 

Still, they took the leap. They’re offering takeout options including three-course meals. 

They’re also applying to emergency loan programs, but they’re worried they won’t qualify. The paperwork for one loan asks for their last 12 months of revenue. They didn’t have any, because they were closed. Meanwhile, their bills are piling up. 

“Restaurant profit margins are already pretty much razor thin, and we were never lining our pockets, that’s for sure,” Matthew said. “Now it’s going to be really difficult just to keep the lights on, but we’re going to try.” 

To keep their costs manageable, the Sullivans are ordering enough ingredients to sell 24 two-person meals each day. They sold out the first couple of days, but orders have slowed down lately.