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DeSantis says he’s looking at bar re-openings

Margie Manning

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Sonder Social Club in Dunedin (Photo credit: Facebook)

The Feinstein Group, a Dunedin-based restaurant company, was on track to have its best year ever in 2020 before the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The peak of our season is March 15,” Zachary Feinstein, co-owner, told Gov. Ron DeSantis during a business roundtable in Tampa Thursday. “We closed down March 16.”

Feinstein and other local business owners told DeSantis how they have adapted and pivoted during the pandemic during the hour-long discussion at Port Tampa Bay.

While there have been challenges, DeSantis was generally upbeat on the area’s business climate.

“If we were here at the end of February we would all be very happy about the economic engine of the Tampa Bay area, and I think there was a lot of great stuff on the horizon. There still is, but this has been a challenge for everyone. I think that the region has responded well and is primed to help lead Florida’s comeback,” DeSantis said.

The Feinstein Group’s restaurants are somewhat representative of that response.

The group had to permanently close one of its properties, Iron Oak BBQ in Palm Harbor, but it’s been able to keep open three others — The Black Pearl, The Living Room and Sonder Social Club, all in Dunedin.

After closing its properties on March 16, the group laid off all of its 120 employees. After it secured funding from the Payroll Protection Program, the group was able to bring back almost 100 percent of the staff, Feinstein said.

“Now we’re seeing that business is following the infection rate and what’s happening on a daily basis. Over the last few weeks as [infection rates] have come back down we’ve seen business start to increase again,” he said.

Sonder Social Club is a high-end craft cocktail bar. It was able to remain open, despite a state order closing bars and nightclubs, because it has a food license.

“In Dunedin, there are seven or eight breweries that have applied for food licenses just to be able to be open. Those not able to do that are just waiting to open up,” Feinstein said. “We’re looking forward to that portion of the reopening plan and I know others are as well.”

“We’re definitely looking into that,” DeSantis said.

Reduced capacity is another issue. Restaurants are limited to 50 percent capacity under the state’s Phase Two reopening plan.

The company’s fine dining property, The Black Pearl, is 100 percent reservation-based. Its business is actually up this year over last year, Feinstein said.

It’s a different story at another Feinstein property.

“At our largest location, Living Room in downtown Dunedin, we rented a pod and moved half our furniture out of the restaurant. During weekdays we don’t have an issue. On weekends, when we get busy Friday, Saturday nights, there’s a huge capacity issue. In order to deal with that we try to optimize other times for our guests, offering specials to get people in the door when we’re not as busy,” Feinstein said.

“If we are able to expand safely and make sure customers are as safe as they are now, and be able to get more occupancy it would definitely help everyone for sure.”

He said he didn’t see a difference between walking around Walmart and dining in a restaurant. “If we are able to safely open for our customers, there would be thousands of mom and pop restauranteurs around the state that would be grateful for that.”

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