Restaurant owners share unique glimpse into reopening process after 13 months of being closed

For restaurants lucky enough to reopen after a tumultuous 15 months dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the process of hiring back staff and preparing to once again safely welcome back diners has been an uncertain journey with a finish line that feels more like a starting line.

But in spite of the challenges, the ability to once again interact with seated guests and serve them a delicious multicourse meal on real plates, rather than delivered in a plastic carton, has been a silver lining to restaurant proprietors.

While many eateries across the country quickly pivoted their models to feed customers takeout in order to stay afloat, fine dining quickly fell by the wayside with a cost-benefit that was too high.

PHOTO: A staff member at Salinas in New York City prepares to expedite courses for dinner service.

One such restaurant, Salinas — an award-winning Spanish tapas restaurant that highlights the country’s Mediterranean coast in the heart of New York City — made the difficult, but necessary decision to close on March 12, 2020, out of concern for the health and safety of their staff. Now, after more than a year, the owners have proudly powered on their reservation system, reconfigured their space, enlisted an A-list team in front and back of house — helmed by San Sebastian-native chef Luis Bollo — and opened back up for service five days a week.

“We can’t wait to get back to our regular seven-days-per-week workload,” Salinas’ co-owner Mary Catherine Mikula told “Good Morning America.”

Her husband and partner in the restaurant, Donald Mikula, added, “Thirteen months is a lot of time to think about things and make improvements while we had the time, but as for everybody, it was such an about-face from normal daily life.”

“Reopening we’ve got that energy from the team, everybody feels good about being vaccinated, and it’s a much safer environment than trying to open months after the pandemic [started],” he said.

State and city officials announced late last month that restaurants and bars in New York City may resume normal operating hours without a curfew starting May 17 for outdoor seatings and May 31 for indoor. Plus, patrons were officially allowed to once again saddle up to a bar on Monday.

“We’ll see how things progress — we always want to follow the guidelines and regulations first and foremost,” Mary Catherine Mikula said. “But when we heard the news everyone got so excited, especially because it’s been so sad to see the bar so lonely.”

The survival of restaurants and bars in the U.S. is essential to economic recovery, as highlighted by groups like the New York Hospitality Alliance and Independent Restaurant Coalition, which have tirelessly fought for government aid for the hard-hit industry for more than a year.

While Salinas lost some of its staff within the last year, the owners happily explained that they have nearly all of their original staff, including Bollo, also a co-owner.

PHOTO: An herb-dusted hanger steak from Salinas in New York City.

Bollo has adjusted to a slightly simplified menu, still keeping his traditional and modern take on regional Basque cuisine, while maintaining favorites like pan tumaca, a grilled country bread with shaved tomato, garlic and hojiblanca olive oil; Entraña, an herb-dusted prime hanger steak with Pedro Ximénez reduction — a recipe that has been passed down for generations; and Basque burnt cheesecake.

“We decided to keep it to the fan favorites because we had to lessen the menu due to all of the restrictions in the kitchen,” Mary Catherine Mikula explained. “Chef has gradually started to bring other menu items in as the team gets comfortable figuring out how to do it with less people in the kitchen.”

Her husband added that they are “following the trends” and have leaned into “more plant-based items on the menu — it seems to be going well with the ones we’ve introduced.”

The physical space has also seen improvements on its already inviting and romantic aesthetic during Salinas’ hiatus, like a renovated bar.

The main dining room and the back patio, which has a retractable roof with romantic seating and an oversized slate fireplace, combined with Bollo’s carefully sourced menu, creates a unique dining experience that is meant to feel transportive to Spain and the Mediterranean — a coveted ambiance after a year that restricted travel and social gatherings.

Against all odds, the Mikulas explained that their all-hands-on-deck “commando team” has become a tight workforce.

“The restaurant industry itself is a hybrid of what it was pre-pandemic, everybody has to be more hands on,” Donald Mikula explained, adding that he has stepped back in to help with service on the floor.

“It’s challenging, but at the same time we’ve all come to the conclusion that in a way it brings us closer together and makes us stronger as a team,” Mary Catherine Mikula added. “We’re all participating in the same duties and understand each others’ roles so much better. We always were, but more than ever now, we’re all in this together.”

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