Cori Mowder wipes down each menu before handing them out to customers at the Plaza Inn Restaurant in Ontario (The Enterprise/Kezia Setyawan).

ONTARIO – A line of people stands behind the “Please wait to be seated” sign at the Plaza Inn Restaurant during the Wednesday lunch rush hour.

Although the restaurant has reduced seating in half to adhere to social distancing guidelines, business volume has returned to level before state restrictions in March ended seated dining.

“Dining in is important because after being cooped up at home, people enjoy just being able to eat out, have a hot plate instead of it cooling in a bag, and just trying to feel normal again,” said owner Jason Jungling.

Across Malheur County, restaurant owners and managers are rebuilding businesses crippled by the impact of the coronavirus. Gov. Kate Brown ordered restaurants and bars to end in-house service in March to slow the spread of the disease. Some restaurants continued with takeout or delivery service while others closed entirely.

Jungling appreciates the community support, and how understanding customers have been as the restaurant has navigated through obstacles. For example, prices for bacon have fluctuated jumping from $32 to $52 for a 15 pound case. This has led to shrinking profit margins for items that have a fixed cost at the restaurant.  

The Thunderegg Coffee Company in Nyssa rehired all employees laid off and provides them the hours they want to work. Manager Denine Tucker has started making soups again that weren’t being ordered during carry-out. 

“During the time we weren’t open for dine in, we had an elderly gentlemen come in regularly, get his order and then sit in his car on the curb,” said Tucker. “Then I would go outside, standing six feet apart and stand on the side of the building to have a conversation with him.” 

To her, the café is a place that customers depend on for social interaction, and opening back up provides that important outlet. 

For Sagebrush Saloon & BBQ in Vale, the lottery machines are up and running again, with a woman playing as the restaurant opened Thursday morning. A table sits next to it with supplies for self-cleaning.

Owner Kat Hill has hired two new employees in the past two weeks. Hill said that business is back to 60% of what it was before state regulations took hold, and that she still has a sizable customer base resorting to carry-out orders.  

“I know it’s going to sound crazy but we had many new faces come to the restaurant simply because there isn’t other options right now to eat out elsewhere,” said Hill. 

 At the Shanghai Restaurant in Ontario, employee Brenda Wong told a group finishing lunch to “feel free to talk as long as you want.”

“That’s the whole point of dining in, right?” Wong said.

 Owner Wayne Chew said the Shanghai Restaurant is the only Chinese restaurant in the area that has opened up for dine-in services. They are now back to a full work force. While Chew is happy for the continued regular support, the restaurant has to be a lot more vigilant with cleaning and sanitizing than it could be with just take-out services.

All of the restaurants have consolidated self service items and condiments, from soy sauce to simple syrup into a corner, and wait staff bring them out to each individual party.

“We just want to ensure that touch points are down and reduce the chance of cross contamination,” Jungling said.

Restaurants are still on their guard, with workers wearing masks, seating parties far apart and maintaining options for take-out. Chew hopes there will be a vaccine available soon.

“There’s still a lack of trust because they want to go and sit and relax, but that’s just not available. We’re still in a pandemic,” said Tucker. “There was recently a confirmed case in Nyssa, and it really put us back in perspective. We have to keep diligent with our protocols and keep our community safe.”

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” said Jungling, “and now, with other restaurants, instead of looking at it as a competition instead we are sharing what works for each other, navigating through this.”

News tip? Contact Kezia Setyawan at kezia.valenews@gmail.com or call 541-473-3377.

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