Jennifer Erchul and two fellow owners of The Yellowstone restaurant in Old Town Pocatello now wait tables, bar tend and do every other non-cooking task at their establishment.
In what Erchul called a “devastating” decision, The Yellowstone announced Thursday that around 30 of its employees were being furloughed and only its chef was retained.
The Yellowstone and East Idaho’s other restaurants are fighting to survive the harsh economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s been heartbreaking,” said Erchul, whose restaurant opened in September 2018. “We have a very close, tight-knit group of employees. We all consider each other family. Most of us have been working together since we opened or shortly after we opened.”
Local restaurants received some good news on Friday when Southeastern Idaho Public Health Director Maggie Mann said she knows the importance of the region’s eateries and wants them to stay open for now, though the situation is being evaluated daily.
States experiencing vast spread of the coronavirus, including California, are banning restaurants from allowing customers to dine-in, which limits options to takeout and delivery.
“We want to maintain as much normalcy as we possibly can,” Mann said. “Many people like to eat out. Sometimes it’s a convenience factor. If people are working long hours, sometimes they don’t have the time to cook at home.”
On Thursday, Southeastern Idaho Public Health issued a list of guidelines for local restaurants that included front-door signage asking customers to go home if they’re sick, having six feet of space between tables, increasing cleaning frequency and requiring employees to frequently wash their hands.
Southeastern Idaho Public Health also stated that local restaurants must ensure the health of their employees by recommending they stay home if they are sick and must provide flexible policies for their employees to stay home if they are sick or someone in their family is sick.
Southeastern Idaho Public Health has the power to close local restaurants for the sake of protecting the public from the coronavirus, but Mann said the preference is to work with establishments to remain open.
“If we find a specific business is not following our guidance and not being a good community member to help limit spread in our community, then we will take formal action with that establishment,” Mann said. “But we’re going to do everything we can to be supportive and to give them guidance, to allow them to continue operating. We don’t want to have to take formal action.”
As of Saturday afternoon, there was one confirmed coronavirus case in Southeastern Idaho Public Health’s jurisdiction, which includes Bingham, Bannock, Caribou, Oneida, Bear Lake, Franklin and Power counties.
Marsha Lamprecht, the owner of 5th Street Bagelry in Pocatello, said she is prepared to provide only curbside service to her customers if that’s all that’s allowed, but she is continuing to offer dine-in for now.
Lamprecht said she is making sure her restaurant is following safety guidelines, such as removing half of the tables from the premises to provide appropriate space between customers.
On Saturday, 5th Street Bagelry introduced curbside pickup for customers who want that option and the restaurant might offer delivery in the future.
Lamprecht said her top priority is the cleanliness and safety of her establishment.
She said, “I worry about cleanliness and disinfecting. But keeping people safe is my biggest concern. Keeping all of us safe.”
Mary Johnson has the advantage of being an owner in the fast-food industry, where takeout service is already a well-known option for customers.
Johnson owns all three McDonald’s eateries in Pocatello and Chubbuck. As a precaution against the coronavirus, Johnson’s McDonald’s restaurants are currently only offering drive-thru service to customers.
“All restaurants that have a drive-thru have a definite advantage right now and I consider that a blessing,” Johnson said. “I know that my friends and peers who own restaurants without drive-thrus are really working hard to come up with creative ways to still serve their customers like curbside delivery and I applaud them.”
The Yellowstone restaurant is no longer serving at lunchtime, but is still allowing people to dine-in or take-out for dinner. The restaurant is also offering delivery through DoorDash and Pocatello Food Express.
The Yellowstone currently has only one employee, chef Daniel Hallman. The restaurant’s three owners — Jennifer and her husband Rory Erchul and Mike McCormick — are handling everything else including cleaning toilets.
“We haven’t been servers or bartenders except for this venture we have going on,” Jennifer said. “We certainly are not as qualified or as wonderful as all the other people on our team that do their job extremely well.”
Jennifer said this is a time of need for local businesses, all of which are hoping to stay above water until the coronavirus pandemic subsides.
“This is such an important time to support local businesses in the industry because I think that the locally-owned businesses are the ones that are really getting hit the hardest on the lack of guests or lack of clients,” Jennifer said. “We believe that local businesses are really the heartbeat of our community.”