MINT HILL, NC – Vintner’s Hill is open for dine-in! Two weeks into Phase 2, folks are back in restaurants. Aside from servers in masks and tape designating proper social distancing, it could be almost any normal Friday night here at Vintner’s Hill.
Of course, the last eight weeks have brought changes to the restaurant industry that no one could have anticipated. Three months ago, Vintner’s Hill would have been hopping at 5:30 on a Friday night. “We would have had live music, and the place would be packed!” says Howard Hitchcock. “By this time of the night, it would be filling up, be very lively. The music would be set up actually right where we’re standing. People would be ordering bottles of wine, and ordering up some great food and hanging out with us for the evening. It would be a lot of fun.”
In order to reopen in Phase 2, restaurant owners were required to put into place several measures to protect employees and customers and continue to curb the spread of COVID-19. “There was a lot of guidance that was published both by the CDC and the North Carolina group of restaurants,” says Howard. “What we tried to do is we asked our staff to sign on and take food handling and safety courses. Our check-in clock actually asks questions around health for the staff. You will be greeted by folks that work here wearing masks. We do currently handle all of the food with gloves to make sure we protect everybody’s health.”
“We really want people to feel very comfortable and safe,” continues Howard. “We actually worked a couple of evenings to scatter out, space out, the seating to be compliant with the governor’s requirements, and we’re running at half capacity. Most of the people actually want to go to the patio, but there are the folks that do come in and want to sit inside, and they’re spaced out according to the regulations. We really looked for the leadership of the governor, the health officials in the state of NC as well as the restaurant association to guide our efforts and to try to be as compliant as we could within the parameters of the business.”
On this particular Friday night, Vintner’s Hill regulars Tony and Gina are enjoying a bottle of Corvina and a charcuterie board on the patio, their third visit to Vintner’s Hill since it opened only two weeks ago. Their first visit on the night of Vintner’s reopening may have been marred by storms and an unexpected power outage, but Tony and Gina still enjoyed a delicious bottle of wine and the fantastic service they’ve come to expect from Vintner’s Hill.
Although they were a little nervous to venture out after eight weeks in quarantine, Tony and Gina were confident that Howard and Michelle Hitchcock would take every measure possible to ensure their safety. “We know these people,” says Tony. “We know their food safety is top-notch, and we knew they’d take care of us. We were excited to get out, we could hardly wait, but we almost didn’t come because we were a little dubious about it, but we were so glad we did.”
The requirements and recommendations from the state are extensive, but Howard and Michelle have gone above and beyond to ensure their employees’ and customers’ safety. “After every menu usage, we make sure we clean the menus,” says Michelle. “We keep a section of things that are dirty – pens, menus, anything that customers have touched – we keep them on the side and reclean them all the time. We used to serve glasses of water; now we typically just hand a cup of ice with a bottle so they can serve themselves. Instead of refilling coffee cups, we’re giving brand new coffee cups so we minimize the ack and forth with our customers.”
“We’ve actually added an extra staff person to each shift in the evening primarily responsible for sanitizing tables and seats,” adds Howard. “We wipe down every seat, every table surface, every pen that’s been used, every check tray that’s gone out to customers, every page of every menu. It adds a lot of work just to the routine. It sort of slows service down a little bit, but you know, the customers again feel really comfortable; they feel like this is a safe place to be.”
Currently, restaurants are allowed to hold dine-in service at 50% capacity, which poses financial challenges for businesses that depend on packing the house on weekends. “On the Thursdays, Fridays, Saturday nights, that’s where the restaurant business really kind of makes its money,” says Howard. “So to be cut in half or throttled to half of the revenue possible is challenging. As a restaurant owner, you do want to see yourself reach your full capacity when you have the opportunity to realize that revenue.”
Despite the challenges and modifications, Howard and Michelle welcome being open to customers once again. “I personally love being open again,” says Michelle. “I really missed all of our customers. People were coming in and doing takeout, but it’s not the same as checking in with everyone, just making sure everyone’s OK, seeing what’s going on in their lives right now. We’ve always been kind of a family getting to know our customers, what their kids were doing, what they’re doing in their lives, and it’s something you miss after a while, so it’s just been really nice to get them enjoying Vintner’s and hanging out with us.
Looking around Vintner’s Hill, there are clearly things that have changed, but the essence of the Vintner’s Hill experience remains the same. “The Vintner’s Hill experience is still our staff,” says Michelle. “Quality service all the time, and interacting with our customers, our staff has always been part of our Vintner’s Hill experience. That is the thing that everyone comes here for, to get to know people and have great service, and that is what we’ve continued to do.”
“Getting to enjoy a great bottle of wine, a glass of wine, some great snacks,” says Howard, attempting to describe the Vintner’s Hill experience. “But really, the camaraderie of the patrons. Getting the band back together has been a lot of fun.”