BY DAVID SINGLETON
Co-owner Jack Cooper won’t make any promises, but when indoor dining returns to Cooper’s Seafood House, the clam chowder may join it.
Since the landmark restaurant at 701 N. Washington Ave. in Scranton emerged from a six-week coronavirus-related shutdown for takeout only on May 8, its scaled-down menu has had just one soup: Maryland crab bisque. Other favorites like New England clam chowder, Manhattan clam chowder and alligator soup have been nowhere to be found.
With Lackawanna County now poised to enter the green phase of the state’s color-coded COVID-19 reopening Friday, which will allow Cooper’s and other restaurants to welcome patrons back into their dining rooms, Cooper said the soup options are likely to grow again.
“Soups are always a huge thing, so we will probably bring them back,” he said. “I’m not saying definitely, but people have been asking for more soups.”
Across the county, restaurant owners, managers and employees are busy making last-minute adjustments as they prepare to offer indoor dining for the first time since Gov. Tom Wolf ordered residents to shelter in place in March.
Some of the changes have been weighty and carry public safety implications, like rearranging tables and seating to meet the state’s green-phase requirements for social distancing and a 50% maximum occupancy limit.
Others tend to be less so, like which and how many soups to put on a revamped menu.
“Everything is complicated,” said Frank Cerminaro, owner of Frank’s Place at 57 Jefferson St. in Simpson. “If you deal with any state agency, you just have to know what’s going on. A lot of people don’t know the rules and the laws, but if you know — whatever, you just deal with it.”
Although the dining experience during the green phase will differ from what people were accustomed in the pre-coronavirus days, many aspects of the outdoor dining allowed under the yellow phase since since June 5 will simply carry over.
That means, for example, diners generally will be expected to wear face masks when entering, exiting or moving around inside a restaurant; establishments will be required to provide at least 6 feet between parties at tables, and restaurants will be encouraged to provide single-use disposable menus that can be discarded after each customer orders.
After Cooper’s used the six weeks it was closed from March through early May to tear the facility apart and clean everything, the roughly monthlong takeout-only period and the booming outdoor dining business that has followed it have helped to prepare the restaurant for the return of indoor dining, Cooper said.
“Oh, yeah, we are 100% ready,” he said.
Even at 50% occupancy, Cooper’s can seat about 275 people inside, Cooper said. Plus, it will still be able to accommodate about 100 diners outside.
To help keep diners safe, there will be sanitizers located throughout the restaurant, and all condiments will be served in individual packets, he said. Staff members will wear masks, and the restaurant is training the bus staff how to clean and sanitize tables, chairs and booths.
Although the disposable menus are an added expense, they can be easily updated, giving the restaurant some flexibility, Cooper said.
“Because we print the menu every day, I can bring in different fishes and run them until I run out of them and then move on to something new,” he said.
While The New Cafe in South Abington Twp. will reopen its dining room when the county transitions to green, Manager Dominic Saadi said he will not be surprised if many of his customers still choose to dine outside. The restaurant, which specializes in Mediterranean cuisine, is located at Greystone Gardens, 829 Old State Road.
“I’m fortunate that I have a beautiful outdoors,” Saadi said.”I play music. There are trees and plants and so forth. It’s an ideal setting.”
To achieve the appropriate spacing in the dining room, Saadi figured about half of the 14 tables would have to go. In the bar area, about two-thirds of the stools will be removed, along with one of three bistro tables. That will leave the restaurant with seating for about 25 people inside, plus the tables outside to accommodate about 30 diners.
He and his staff will observe all necessary safety precautions and, if the experience so far with the outdoor dining is an indicator, so will his patrons, he said. Some have told him they feel comfortable coming there because of the emphasis on things like masks and social distancing.
Just because the county is turning green, it’s no time to get sloppy, he said.
“I take it seriously,” Saadi said. “I don’t want to get sick, and I don’t want customers to get sick.”
Cerminaro said he likewise feels fortunate that Frank’s Place had the infrastructure to begin offering outdoor dining last month even as customers continued to swamp the restaurant with takeout orders.
Frank’s can seat about 140 diners outside, he said. With the spacing between parties required in the green phase, the restaurant probably could accommodate another 100 people inside, but it may limit that initially to around 80.
“Because we’re rocking on the outside, we’ll probably concentrate on the outside and fill the gaps on the inside. If takeout stays strong, and if the weather holds up, we don’t care too much about the inside right now,” Cerminaro said.
He suggested he might have some mixed feelings about the transition to green. With the takeouts, the outdoor dining and now an indoor crowd, it will be hard to keep an eye on everything, he said.
“Who am I kidding?” Cerminaro asked. “Let’s just get back to normal.”
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