The COVID-19 pandemic poses a variety of challenges for Madison bars and restaurants, forcing them to reimagine the experience of dining out in respect to ever-changing restrictions and public health recommendations. 

Gov. Tony Evers issued a statewide order March 17 which limited bars and restaurants to take-out and delivery service in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. While many businesses decided to remain completely shut down, others, like The Nitty Gritty, chose to open in the authorized capacity, The Nitty Gritty-Madison General Manager Michael Leto said.

“We really didn’t want to skip a beat,” Leto said. “We wanted to not only provide people with food as best as we possibly could, but also, being the birthday bar, there’s some kind of tradition and brand that we all agreed needed to be upheld. We still wanted to be able to provide people with their birthday mugs and figure out … how we could still make something special for people and give people something to look forward to.” 

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Realizing bars and restaurants would likely be limited in operation for the foreseeable future, management at The Nitty Gritty sought to quickly gain a new understanding as to how best to operate during a pandemic, Leto said.

The Nitty Gritty immediately started pushing take-out and delivery services — emailing members of their rewards program, providing coupons to customers for subsequent visits and advertising available online delivery platforms like Grubhub, Uber Eats and EatStreet.

Madison’s Sconniebar similarly looked to take-out and delivery options upon receiving news of the initial COVID-19 business restrictions, Sconniebar General Manager Lucas Simon-Wambach said. 

“It has been a lot of scrambling,” Simon-Wambach said. “It reminded me a bit of when we first opened back in 2016 where there were just a lot of unknowns. Even for us managers who have been in the industry for five to ten years … this is something completely new for all of us. So it’s kind of been a learning process through the whole thing.” 

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Simon-Wambach said collaborative efforts within his team helped the bar begin its adjustment to a new reality. For instance, Sconniebar staff members who held degrees in design or marketing offered their expertise to help drive sales even when dine-in services were restricted. 

Dane County businesses could first reopen at 25% capacity May 26, with certain public health requirements and physical distancing, according to the Public Health Madison and Dane County’s Forward Dane. The Nitty Gritty immediately began collaboration with health officials to determine how best to reopen dine-in services. 

“Prior to reopening, we called our [health consultant Cheri Schweitzer from Credible Consulting] and asked, ‘Hey, what are your thoughts on this? Between a and b, what’s the more safe practice? Is there anything that we’re overlooking?’” Leto said. “We were trying to glean as much information as we possibly could, and we were always going to err on the side of caution 100 percent of the time.” 

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The Nitty Gritty also consulted Centers for Disease Control and Dane County Public Health guidelines, as well as information and resources provided by the National Restaurant Association, Leto said. 

Some of the safety protocols implemented by both the Nitty Gritty and Sconniebar in response to the COVID-19 pandemic include frequent sanitization of surfaces and menus, fewer people allowed in, distanced seating and required masks for employees and customers, though customers can remove their masks when seated to eat and drink. 

“It is tough at times when someone comes in that you haven’t seen in a few weeks or months, and you aren’t able to go in for a handshake or hug,” Simon-Wambach said. “But it’s been nice being able to see familiar faces again … and being able to see what people have been up to, whether they have been working from home or staying busy in other ways, that’s definitely been huge for our staff.” 

Former Porta Bella waitress and bartender, Katherine Bekasova, noticed a large volume of customers voiced their thanks for her service and for the precautions she followed for their safety. 

At the Nitty Gritty, employees who chose to return for the reopening expressed excitement to come back to work given the difficulty that many have had with maintaining social connections during the pandemic, Leto said. They enjoyed being able to interact with guests and co-workers again, even if from a safe distance. 

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“I look forward to coming to work because it’s my opportunity to interact a lot socially with people, and … it gives me purpose to be like, ‘I made this person’s day,’” Leto said. “To be able to bring some joy, happiness, normalcy, whatever you want to qualify it as … it’s what we’ve always strived to do, and to be able to continue to do that is really great.”  

Given the financial hardships brought on by the pandemic, Bekasova said she was especially thankful for Madisonians who continued to support local businesses and workers, and that many customers were generous with their tips. 

Social distancing and other COVID-19 health precautions are new to everyone, but Leto said patrons now seem to be more accustomed to them. Most customers who come in have masks on and are already familiar with the restaurant’s new health safety rules, Leto said. Simon-Wambach said he was touched by the strong community support for businesses such as his.

“People have been awesome so far in supporting local businesses,” Simon-Wambach said. “Not just specifically Sconniebar, but all restaurants and bars are hurting right now in their own different ways. Continuing that support for restaurants and bars is huge in keeping as many places in the Madison area open.”