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Armed with vaccines and masks, Kansas City diners brave cold and COVID for Restaurant Week

Well known for their steaks and barbeque, Charleston's is nestled beside several other restaurants in Ward Parkway Center.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Well known for their steaks and barbeque, Charleston's is nestled beside several other restaurants in Ward Parkway Center.

Restaurant goers are eager to support their local eateries, even as COVID-19 cases surge in Kansas City. Restaurants have been hit particularly hard throughout the pandemic, and many are still dealing with staffing shortages.

Diners around Kansas City braved snow, freezing temperatures and an ongoing COVID surge to take part in the first weekend of Restaurant Week. It’s the second year in a row the annual nine-day event has taken place during the pandemic, and many restaurant-goers were equipped this year with vaccines, boosters and masks.

“We feel very safe. We’re triple vaxxed, so we don’t worry too much about it,” said Karen Edridge, who was eating at Charleston's Restaurant in Ward Parkway Center Saturday evening with her husband, Bob. “You know we wear our masks, luckily they have hand sanitizer as you leave. So I feel like if we take those precautions, we need to get on with life.”

The couple has taken part in Restaurant Week for years now, they see it as a good way to get out and experience new restaurants or visit old favorites (Karen said Priopos in the Northland is always on their Restaurant Week list.)

Karen added that this year especially, she and her husband are participating to support local restaurants and restaurant staff.

“I know they’ve had a rough go of it, and I just feel for them and we’re just really proud that they can stay open,” said Karen. “Anything we can do to support them. Eating good food, that’s the least we could do, right?”

Restaurant Week started January 14th and runs until the 23rd. The event helps promote local eateries, which create a special Restaurant Week menu with items priced at $15, $35, and $45. 175 restaurants are participating this year, and a portion of proceeds go to Visit KC, the Greater KC Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, and Guadalupe Centers.

Carlton Logan is an administrator for the Facebook page, Kansas City Eats: A forum for KC restaurants and food, which has nearly 50,000 members. He used to work as a professional chef, and he said he’s either worked or patronized a lot of Restaurant Weeks in the past.

Logan said he has conflicting views on Restaurant Week — especially this year. The celebration has a reputation for making restaurants very busy and also bringing in the ‘bargain hunters.’

“It's a great opportunity for restaurants to get their name out there or to kind of bring in some new diners. I also know that for a lot of restaurants, it's also a very crazy time because of the lower prices,” said Logan. “A lot of people take advantage and say, ‘Hey, I don't eat out a lot, but I'm gonna go to lunch at this place, or we're gonna go out to dinner at this place.’ And I think sometimes it just makes for a very crazy time where the servers are busy, the cooking staff is very busy.”

Logan said this year needs to be approached differently than a normal Restaurant Week because of the pandemic.

“I think the important issue is we have to be mindful of this virus. I think the restaurant industry has responded very well in terms of they have tried their best to get staffing levels up. They've tried their best to protect their staff in terms of staff members wearing masks, being protected, sanitizing, doing all that stuff.”

But Logan said although restaurants are taking extra measures to keep their staff safe, some patrons aren’t being cautious of COVID.

“We also have the sector of the population that's like, ‘I wanna know my status. I wanna be protected.’ So they're taking the test, they're wearing the mask, they're getting the vaccine,” said Logan. “We have another sector of our society that is like, ‘Nope. I think this is all a hoax. I'm not wearing my mask. I'm not getting the vaccine. I'm not doing anything.’”

Logan said an infected person who isn’t vaccinated or wearing a mask could easily enter a restaurant and spread the virus to staff and the next thing you know, the restaurant will have to close due to a lack of employees — something many area eateries are already dealing with.

Bill Teel, Executive Director of the Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association, said staffing issues are a real concern for local restaurants, especially going into Restaurant Week.

“Consumer demand remains strong, but starting around New Year's Eve some restaurants were experiencing outbreaks. So we had a couple restaurants that had to close because of staffing shortages,” said Teel. “And that seems to be happening still as we enter Restaurant Week. So we're a little bit worried about some restaurants’ cases, whether they can stay open during Restaurant Week.”

This year, many participating locations are offering their Restaurant Week menus to-go as an alternative to indoor dining.

That’s what Clarence Felder opted for Saturday night. Felder said he and his wife usually patronize a lot of restaurants during the week, but he said his wife wasn’t feeling well. When she’s better, he said she has a whole list of places to visit during Restaurant Week, and he said they will go in person but wear masks.

Still, Logan said takeout and delivery have some major drawbacks for restaurants. Takeout can easily overwhelm kitchens during busy times like Restaurant Week because it’s harder for the restaurant to gauge how busy they will be at a given time. Plus, people tend to tip less on to-go food.

And many restaurants who offer delivery use a third-party delivery service like DoorDash or Grubhub, which charge restaurants a fee to deliver and are also a little more costly for the customer.

Back at Charleston’s, Ben and Bridget Harper said they are excited for Restaurant Week, but they are stepping into it with an air of caution because of the rising number of coronavirus cases.

“We’re not as excited going out, we try to go when it’s not as busy,” said Ben. “But most of the restaurants are doing a good job keeping everyone distanced.”

Ben added that he and Bridget wear a mask wherever they go, regardless of whether or not they are in a county with a mask mandate. Bridget added that most restaurants are also taking precautions to keep their staff and patrons safe.

“I will say, all of the staff are masked and I appreciate that,” said Bridget. “I feel like all the restaurants I’ve been in recently are masked and that makes me feel better.”

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga reports on health disparities in access and health outcomes in both rural and urban areas.
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