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Ormond Beach Observer Tuesday, May 5, 2020 3 months ago

Ormond Beach restaurant sets up outdoor seating to stay afloat during COVID-19

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Cinco de Mayo is one of the busiest days for Mexican restaurants. Don Pepper's worked to make sure tables were available.
by: Jarleene Almenas Associate Editor

Don Pepper's Mexican Grill and Cantina has over 60 tables and a total indoor occupancy of 282. Like many Mexican restaurants across the U.S., Cinco de Mayo is typically one of their busiest days.

This year is a little different.

Don Pepper's owner Hugo Lopez has put caution tape on tables and the bar to make sure they abide by the governor's 25% indoor capacity limit (which includes all restaurant staff), per his executive order that allowed restaurants to reopen dining rooms on Monday, May 4. The order also allowed restaurants to have outdoor seating, with tables spaced six-feet apart.

But Don Pepper's, located at 794 S. Atlantic Ave., didn't have outdoor seating before the COVID-19 pandemic. Lopez worked quickly to change that.

"Right now I know a lot of people are going to want to sit outside," he said. "Plus, that outside seating is going to take care of the tables we have closed here.”

The governor announced restaurants would be part of the first phase of the state's reopening on Wednesday, April 29. By the next day, the city of Ormond Beach established a review process to verify that restaurants' outdoor seating was not impacting safety by the way of blocking fire hydrants or placing tables in main parking lot travel lanes, as well as making sure handicapped access was retained.

A few tables are already set up outside Don Pepper's, located at 794 S. Atlantic Ave. Photo by Jarleene Almenas

“We just want to try to separate where people are sitting and where individuals are coming into a restaurant to park," Ormond Beach Planning Director Steven Spraker said. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a restaurant typically incorporated outdoor seating while in the development or redevelopment process, and the city evaluated it to make sure it passes the required ration for seats to parking, Spraker said. So far, the city has received two formal applications for evaluation of new outdoor seating (including Don Pepper's) and the city has verified two other restaurants with existing outdoor tables. 

Lopez sent the city an email on Thursday April 30, that included a sketch of where he planned to place tables. He eventually got an OK from the city, and moved forward. Currently, he has only a handful of tables outside, but is working on getting more tents to increase his outdoor seating capacity.

It's been a trying almost 50-day period for local restaurants. In Lopez's case, his establishment went from being very busy during Bike Week to almost no business in less than a week. Gov. DeSantis issued the executive order to close restaurant dining rooms on March 20, and needing time to figure out what to do next, Don Pepper's closed that day. They reopened on Saturday, March 21, but Lopez said it was "dead." 

A look inside what Don Pepper's bar area looks like. Photo by Jarleene Almenas

That first week of transitioning into only delivery and take-out was bringing in $150-$200 a day. That wasn't enough to pay his staff, Lopez said. 

They had a meeting and Lopez broke the news to his staff. But, it didn't go the way he expected. 

“They said, ‘Well, we want to work. It doesn’t matter if you pay us or not, as long as we can eat here, as long as we have something to do here, or take food for our family, we want to work,'” Lopez recalled. 

So they pushed through. Lopez has since applied for the Small Business Administration loan and the Paycheck Protection Program, the latter of which Lopez said it looks like they are on track to receive. He will use the funds to pay his crew who have stuck by him. 

Owning a restaurant was Hugo Lopez's dream. He started as a dishwasher in 1994. Photo by Jarleene Almenas

He also wanted to thank those in the community who supported them While their dining room closed, several customers would order drinks to-go and leave a nice tip. That helped to keep them going, Lopez said.

After all, he's been in his staff's shoes before. Lopez got his start in the restaurant industry as a dishwasher in a North Carolina restaurant in 1994. He worked his way up to the kitchen, and later became a server. That's how Lopez, originally from Jalisco, Mexico, learned to speak English.

Don Pepper's is the product of hard work.

“That was my dream — to own a restaurant," Lopez said. 

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