COVID-19 forever changing the local restaurant scene

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT)- Small businesses are the backbone of many cities and towns. But some statistics show one in 5 won’t be able to survive the pandemic.

The restaurant industry is one of the hardest hit. About 17% of all restaurants in the U.S. have already permanently closed this year, according to a report released this week.

For 34 years, the voice of Larry McMahon traveled the local airwaves helping make his longtime dream a household name. But now, at the corner of 7th and King Streets almost right downtown where his Pizza Doctors business once attracted big crowds, all that’s left is a dark and empty building.

After opening on Sept 1, 1986, Pizza Doctors permanently closed its doors on Oct. 30, 2020.

“It was a difficult decision, it really was,” said McMahon.

“When you have a buffet restaurant that caters to young families, school groups, sports teams, things like that, it’s not built well for a pandemic.”

When COVID first hit, Pizza Doctors like many businesses tried to adapt. At the time, they were doing almost no carryout or delivery anymore whereas in the 1980’s it was 50% of their business.

“Nobody was coming here to pick up a pizza when they could come here for exploratory surgery and try 50 different kinds.”

So when they had to make a quick pivot to sell pizza, it just didn’t cut it.

“It was not sustainable.”

“You can do what you want, you can make things as safe as you want, we had several people say, they felt the safest here, we followed all the guidelines we could, but still people have to be wiling to take the chance to go out.”

McMahon saw the writing on the wall and he didn’t want to go out with any fanfare.

“I just picked a day and said, you know what, let’s get this far and let’s not try to drag this out any more.” “Maybe I’m a pessimist here, but I don’t see or didn’t see at that point, even if there’s a vaccine, no matter what happens, I didn’t see this turning around, even in a year and it was just not worth the struggle for another year of not knowing what was going on.”

Generations of customers and employees came through these doors and they became like family.

“I remember when mom and dad would come in with the little kids, and then it’s bigger kids and now it’s grandkids,” said McMahon.

“It was a long 34 years and I’m glad we did. I’m glad we made a difference, I’m glad people enjoyed it and wish we could’ve been here for another 30 years, but it was time.”

Just down the road from Pizza Doctors, on a normal weekday you’d be hard pressed to find a parking spot outside Piggy’s Restaurant during the lunch rush.

“This has been tough,” said Piggy’s owner and Executive Chef Chris Roderique.

Now the streets and parking lots resemble a ghost town.

“When the offices went to working from home, our lunch business dried up. We were trying to do curbside for the people who were down, but it just didn’t make business sense.”

Roderique says they were actually gearing up for a record year, pre-Covid. They had almost every weekend booked with weddings and December and January were full with holiday parties.

“As the dates would get closer, then the cancellations would start coming in. Unfortunately we have lost every single holiday party in December as well as January and we only did two weddings this whole summer and they were both offsite.”

Roderique had also just opened Uno Venti Pizzeria next door to Piggy’s in October of last year. Between the two restaurants and their catering operation, they had about 70 employees.
Now they’re down to 25, just serving dinner at both restaurants 5 days a week.

“I owe a lot to my staff and it just, when it’s out of my control and there’s nothing I can do for them, that’s tough.”

But as tough as it’s been, Roderique is striking an optimistic tone. They’ve actually doubled down in a sense to come out of this pandemic even better on the other side.

“We invested in our future because again, we are going to come out of this. We made major renovations to the Blue’s Lounge, a little renovation to the lobby, the upstairs restaurant, we’re not going to reopen, we’re in the process of renovating that right now into two small catering rooms.”

Roderique admits, it wasn’t an easy decision, and one he still questions at times.

“I’m not going to lie, I have many sleepless nights and wondering if we’re doing the right thing by doing these renovations and everything else, should we be conserving all the cash to wait it out?”

As Pizza Doctors was for McMahon, Piggy’s and Uno Venti are Roderique’s lifeblood.

“You put so much into this business especially, I don’t care if you’re an owner or you’re an employee, once you get bitten by food service bug, it’s in you and you want to do the best you can it’s tough when you see people struggling.”

And now it’s doing what you can to make sure you can survive the unknown that’s yet to come.

Roderique says if you still don’t feel comfortable dining out, purchasing gift cards is a great way to help out local restaurants.

And on Thursday, Senator Tammy Baldwin urged Congressional leaders to pass the bipartisan Restaurants Act.

The legislation would help provide Wisconsin restaurant owners with funding to rehire workers and deal with the long-term ramifications of COVID-19.