Considering the pandemic, Omaha had a surprising number of restaurant and bar openings in 2020 — more than 30 in an unofficial count.
Omahan Philip Schaffart and his partners were responsible for three of them: the second location of The Blackstone Meatball near 181st and Chicago Streets, plus Cheeseburgers: A Takeout Joint and Little Ricky’s Rooftop Bar in the Blackstone District.
Schaffart said his group took the leap primarily because they had signed leases before the pandemic started.
“To be honest, we tried to stop (the projects) because it was so scary,” he said. “We had no choice but to move forward.”
That’s not the case with the four projects his group is working on for 2021. Like several other Omaha restaurant entrepreneurs, he has been busy during the pandemic and is optimistic that he will be even busier once COVID is contained.
This year, he plans to open a bar and grill near 108th and Pacific Streets in the former Shaker Place. It will have a large outdoor patio, pickleball courts and, inside, spaces for two independent food stalls that will house a second Cheeseburgers and a pizza place.
He’s also close to signing a lease for another Cheeseburgers in southwest Omaha and is scouting a fourth location in Papillion or La Vista. And he plans to open a bar near 39th and Farnam Streets next to Blackstone Social.
Nebraska restaurant revenues still are down about 30% from last year, said Zoe Olson, executive director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association.
But, like Schaffart and his counterparts, she is bullish about the future.
Omahan Nick Bartholomew, who owns Over Easy restaurant and has several other projects going, is especially buoyant.
“Right after the Spanish flu came the Roaring ’20s,” he said. “The reason it happened is because people were tired of being locked up. It will be a thing of beauty.”
Olson says recovery won’t happen right away.
A November survey by the National Restaurant Association indicates that about 85% of state restaurant operators surveyed said they expected their sales to drop over the next three months, and no respondents thought sales would improve.
Part of that is due to what happens every year, pandemic or not.
“Things still aren’t good, but we didn’t expect it to pick up until spring,” Olson said. “Winter is not a good time for restaurants, historically.”
But Olson said she is encouraged by a recent uptick of calls from people who are seeking space or have other questions about opening eateries.
“I know of one owner in central Nebraska who is opening two new restaurants,” she said.
She also said vaccine distribution is improving the industry outlook. The shots will protect staff and customers and give consumers the confidence to return to restaurants.
“I haven’t talked to a restaurant owner yet who said, ‘I’m not going to get that vaccine,’” she said. “All say, ‘When can I get the vaccine?’”
Renewal of the Paycheck Protection Program also is a positive development, especially since the National Restaurant Association convinced the government to remove the provision that prevented businesses who got the loans from deducting expenses on tax returns.
For Schaffart, the new PPP is a bright spot amid a long and challenging journey.
The first loan, he said, was a huge lifeline.
“Another one will help us get to the finish line. Our restaurants will make it,” he added.
And, he said, there have been other bright spots: understanding and helpful landlords, particularly at the west location of The Blackstone Meatball, which had its opening delayed because the pandemic hurt the supply chain for building materials; and unexpectedly robust crowds at that restaurant once it opened in November.
“We are feeling grateful,” he said.
Colin Duggan of Kitchen Table reports that, so far, January sales have been bleak.
The restaurant he operates with his wife, Jessica, is still open for takeout only, but people aren’t venturing out because of cold weather and the lunch crowd still is sparse because workers aren’t in nearby offices downtown.
Despite that, he has a positive outlook. He continues to offer products through an online general store and is coming up with new family offerings such as Aksarbens (similar to Runzas), vegetarian curry and cassoulet with ham and chicken confit. He also is considering opening the dining room next month.
“At this point, we’ve hung on so long that it seems silly not to push through, now that there’s some light at the end of the tunnel,” Duggan said.
Other entrepreneurs also have been powering through the pandemic, and their stories will be featured in The World-Herald through Tuesday.