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After A Summer Reprieve, One Morrisville Restaurant Looks Ahead To A Challenging Winter

El Toro restaurant in Morrisville
Jennifer Isabell
Jennifer Isabell, owner of El Toro in Morrisville, says the next four months could be difficult for her business.

For months, restaurants have had to find ways to adapt to serving customers during the coronavirus pandemic, working within health guidelines that have shifted and changed over the past seven months. But the winter could bring new challenges.Many restaurants have added curbside pickup, limited their capacity and put a focus on outdoor dining. But with the inevitable change in the seasons, outdoor options will become much tougher for restaurants, which could make for a difficult season ahead.

For one perspective on how restaurants are looking ahead to the winter, VPR's Henry Epp checked back in with Jennifer Isabell, owner of El Toro, a Mexican restaurant in Morrisville. You can find their conversation from April, here.

Their most recent interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: You and I talk back in April, and at that point, as I recall, you were only doing curbside pickup. No one was allowed inside the restaurant. How have your operations changed over the last few months?

Jennifer Isabell: Shortly after that, the state allowed outdoor seating, so we did that. And a month or so after that, they allowed indoor seating at 50% capacity. So that's how we've been operating since that time.

More from VPR: Community Hub To Curbside: An Overnight Adjustment For Morrisville’s El Toro

When we talked in April, you said you were doing about 25% of the sales that you normally would. Has business picked back up in the last few months?

The summer was actually pretty good. Better than I expected. Our sales were about 80% of what we were doing last year, and they really picked up. Now, in October, our sales are back down to about 60% of what they were last year. So it's been a significant drop over the month of October. I was disappointed to see that. I don't know what the winter will bring.

"It's going to be very, very tight over the next four months... But based on past trends this month, it's not looking very good." - Jennifer Isabell, owner El Toro

Yeah, well, I mean, how are you thinking about that as we head into the winter? Are you shifting how you're going to operate in the next few months?

Well, I'm hoping we can continue to do dine-in seating. It's still at 50% capacity, and I'm hoping that our business that was outside will either switch to more takeout again, curbside service. Last Friday, we were open and it was raining pretty hard all day, so we couldn't seat anyone outside. And we ended up turning a lot of people away because we were already full inside. So there was only so much capacity that we had to do indoor seating.

More from VPR: Buying Takeout Frozen Pizza From A Troy Store Trying To Hold On

Are you concerned at all about making it through to the spring? Just in terms of, you know, being able to have the funds to carry through this this season?

Yes, I am. I'm very concerned. I've been doing some forecasting and projections based on if we continue at 70% of our sales from last year, when most likely that'll probably lower.

How are we going to manage? It's going to be very, very tight over the next four months. And, you know, no one has a crystal ball, so we don't know what's going to happen. But based on past trends this month, it's not looking very good.

More from VPR: Poll: Vermonters ‘Concerned’ As Small Businesses Grapple With Pandemic

So what do you do in the face of that? Are there particular strategies that you're thinking about for how you might you might weather that?

Yeah, I've been thinking about that. You know, the biggest strategy would be to cut our payroll costs. It's a big expense. And that's one way that I can manage it and hopefully weather the storm.

So, when you say cutting payroll costs, that means cutting some of the jobs of the folks that are working for you?

Yeah – it's pretty much my only option. My landlord is very cooperative and she agreed to lower my rent, and that's been helpful. The rest of my costs - they are what they are. So payroll is really the only place that I have room to move.

Obviously, there are a lot of struggles ahead. But it is there something you're looking forward to for the winter or thinking about, that there might be a silver lining on the horizon in terms of keeping the restaurant going and continuing to serve food?

I think there's still help out there from governments. Vermont just instituted a 'Vermont Everyone Eats' program, where they're providing meals for the needy through restaurants and they're paying the restaurant ten dollars per meal. So I think that's a program that is hopeful, that will bring in some additional funds where there wasn't some before.

More from VPR: State Hopes Brattleboro Food Program Can Help Restaurants Across Vermont

Also, the town of Morrisville is offering a grant program to local businesses in Morrisville for about $2,500. So if those programs like that that continue to come up, I think that could help us weather the storm, for sure.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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