The journey through the first two phases of Rock County’s three-phased COVID-19 reopening plan has been challenging, but four Milton family-style restaurant owners say more customers have been returning to enjoy the dine-in experience.

Restaurants — Deb’s Squeeze Inn, Cafe 26, Natalie’s Parkview Cafe and the Milton Family Restaurant — closed on March 17 and modified their business plans to encourage takeout business.

When the county moved into Phase 2 of its reopening plan in June, all four owners said they reopened their dining rooms at 50% capacity while continuing to provide takeout options.

With the new statewide mask mandate, which went into effect on Saturday, Aug. 1, they said they and their employees are wearing masks and encouraging their customers to do the same.

‘Our doors were never locked’

Deb Hantke, owner of Deb’s Squeeze Inn, 100 Front St., has been operating her small diner for 10 years and has owned a restaurant in Milton for 22 years.

The day after she closed her dining room, she said, she began offering takeout meals.

“Our doors were never locked,” she said. With fewer customers, she downsized her staff from 10 to four.

COVID was not the restaurant’s first financial hit, she said.

Last spring, her campgrounds customers were affected by area flooding, which, she said, impacted her customer traffic, and then, in July of last year, the city began a sewer and water main project.

“They tore up the road and that put us down again,” Hantke said. The project finished just as COVID arrived, she said.

During that time, her business shrank by 25%.

“To-go meals helped, it kept me afloat,” Hantke said.

Deb’s has a seating capacity of 52. In early June, with Phase 2 restrictions, the dining room could offer 27 seats. Staff donned masks and gloves, Hantke said.

Staff removed furniture and blocked off sections using “caution” tape. Tables were cleared of condiment holders and menus.

“Everything is sanitized after anybody has touched it, tables are six feet apart and we allow six at a table max,” Hantke said.

On Saturday, Aug. 1, the first day of the statewide mask mandate, Hantke said: “We have put a sign on the door asking our customers to please be courteous and wear a mask until you sit down and get a drink. We hope people will abide by the state rules.”

Rachel Checkalski, a server at Deb’s for 16 months, said customers have been “pretty compliant” about masks. The sign is meant as a friendly reminder.

While the menu has remained the same, hours have changed slightly, Hantke said.

“Our specials changed a little and we started to offer our in-house special as a to-go meal,” she said.

“We do have a lot more to-gos now than before COVID, but it is still not enough to replace the income we had before,” Hantke said. With fewer customers, she worries for the restaurant’s future, she said, adding that she will feel more relaxed when Deb’s can once again operate at 100% capacity.

“Today, we filled up. They (customers) know Deb’s is clean and word of mouth helps us that way,” Checkalski said.

The restaurant is open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. everyday, with the exception of Friday, when the hours are 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

‘It’s a very clean operation’

Kiki Ademi is the manager at Café 26. Her husband, Benny Spahijoski, owns the restaurant which opened in the former Burger King and Tasty Bites location, 740 E. St. Mary St., last November.

The restaurant closed in March and opened in May after the statewide safer-at-home order ended, Ademi said.

Staff began wearing masks about three weeks after the May reopening, Ademi said. The goal was to help customers feel safe.

When the county moved to Phase 2, like other restaurants, Cafe 26 opened its dining room at half capacity, seating customers at tables that were at least six feet apart. An empty tray on a table signaled it was among those that could not be used. No more than 10 people could be seated at a single table, and the restaurant placed tables around the outside of the building, offering seating for 30, Ademi said.

“We always cleaned so that was not a change for us,” she said.

The restaurant has opened the former Burger King drive-through window for easy meal pickups, and it offers online ordering through a phone app called “Eat Street” for carry-outs.

For Ademi, opening a new restaurant just before a pandemic brought unforeseen challenges. She described the financial impacts brought by a decline in customers as “disheartening.”

“I feel that I’m doing everything in my power to remain safe,” she said. The business model of Cafe 26 is to offer “top of the line service and quality food,” she said.

On Saturday, people were wearing masks and visiting the restaurant. Four tables were filled with diners at lunchtime.

While she enjoyed seeing her customers, she said, traffic was not what it needed to be to return financial security to the restaurant.

Ademi said customers are telling her that while they are inside the restaurant, they feel safe. “It’s a very clean operation,” she said.

“The hardest part is seeing your restaurant not full, and not seeing people waiting outside to be seated,” Ademi said.

“We miss our customers. Our customers are part of the atmosphere. You get to know them. They come in as customers and leave us as family. It is sort of sad when you don’t see your family, right?”

The restaurant is open daily from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.

‘It’s safety first’

“It’s safety first,” said Natialie Ashiku. She, her husband, Ek, and their children, Kushtrim “Tim” and Lauta, have owned and operated Natalie’s Parkview Cafe, 315 Parkview Drive, for 14 years.

Natalie said after the restaurant closed in March, the family offered the full menu as takeout for two weeks.

“In April,” she said, “we shut down everything for five weeks. During that time, we did some remodeling: we put in new flooring, paneling and we painted. We reopened May 5.

“We were getting really good support,” Natalie said, adding that some customers even paid more than their bill just to help the family.

In Phase 2, Ek said, business is now equally divided between those who order takeout and those who dine in.

Before COVID, takeout orders were about 10% of the cafe’s business, he said.

“We still don’t see some of our customers as often as we did,” Ek said.

Those that do come feel comfortable, Natalie said. “We clean and sanitize,” she said.

When the restaurant reopened, Natalie said, the family wore masks, but allowed customers to make their own choice.

“Since the mandate, we see more customers wearing masks. Only about 5-10% of our customers come without them,” Natalie said.

“When we were in Phase 2, we opened with seven tables,” Natalie said.

At 50% capacity, Ek said, the restaurant has been full, and there have even been waiting lines.

Quality food, distancing between tables and cleaning keeps customers coming in and feeling safe, Natalie said.

Said Tim: “When the customers come in, we greet them immediately so they know what to do. Our customers feel safe because we pay attention to them. We want people guiding us when we aren’t sure, so we guide them.”

Looking ahead, Ek said: “Really, we don’t know. We can’t plan for the future. We are just hoping to stay open.

“We were afraid, but we saw how people just showed up and supported us. The community made us stay safe. It stabilized that fear we had.”

The couple said they are making use of Facebook to post daily specials.

The cafe is open 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays, except Monday when it is closed, and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

‘I’m not going to lose my people’

Abib and Buki Jonuzi have owned the Milton Family Restaurant, 541 Vernal Ave., since 1991, Abib said.

A diner with a seating capacity of 110, when the restaurant reopened in Phase 2, it had reduced its seating capacity to 55, but not its staff: before and after COVID arrived Abib said, they have 12 employees.

“Keeping a full staff during the pandemic has been hard to do,” Abib said.

Customer traffic, he said, “from the start, it was too slow, and it still could be better, but I said: ‘I’m not going to lose my people.’

“I think of them as family.”

In March, the restaurant closed for one week and then began offering takeout on Fridays.

Today, Abib said, things are back on schedule, with the restaurant offering both takeout and dine-in options, but, “we are not back to the way it was before COVID.”

The restaurant is taking measures to keep customers safe, using social distancing marks on the floor, seating customers at every other table, and seating up to eight people at a table.

“Everything the customer touches, we clean,” Abib said.

When the restaurant reopened after the safer-at-home order expired, Abib said, his staff began wearing masks and gloves.

At that time, he said, it was left up to the customers to decide if they wanted to wear a mask.

“Now, with the new statewide mandate, customers must have a mask, and when they sit at the table, they can pull it down and eat. After they eat, they must pull the mask back up before they leave,” Abib said. He keeps extra masks for customers who might need one, he said.

Looking at how his business has changed, he said, before COVID, about 40% of his overall business was takeout. Now it’s about 60%.

Before COVID, Abib said, “people would be waiting in line for a table. Now that we are in Phase 2, and we can have 50% of our capacity available, now we can fill it, and people are waiting again for tables.”

Even with that good fortune, he said, it is not enough business.

“My business is getting better, and I hope it continues to get better. I’ll be comfortable that we will be ok when we can fill 100 % capacity,” he said.

The restaurant is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., and on Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays, from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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