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South side restaurant adapts to COVID-19 restrictions

Posted at 7:22 AM, Mar 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-27 08:22:46-04

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the squeeze on small, independent businesses across the Milwaukee area.

To comply with health officials' request for social distancing, local restaurants and taverns have closed down their dining rooms. Most are now trying to survive solely on take-out or delivery orders.

"We've been here since 1982, so we're in our 38th year," said Tony Ingrilli of his restaurant, Caterina's Ristorante, at 92nd & Oklahoma.

Ingrilli said the business, which was started by his parents, has always relied on the quality of its food to attract customers.

"We've probably got 50 to 60 people in here every turn of the tables" on a busy night, Ingrilli said.

But like other restaurants across Wisconsin, Ingrilli has now been forced to close his dining room.

"We've never dealt with anything, ever, like this," he said. "We were never told we couldn't serve customers."

"I was on the phone with my bank instantly because I didn't know what to expect," Ingrilli said. "You have your fixed cost no matter if you're open or closed."

"But the hardest thing was telling all of my employees I had to lay them off until further notice," he added.

Ingrilli said he and two cooks, who alternate working one-at-a-time, are currently the only people staffing the restaurant.

He hopes to be able to hire all of his employees back when the pandemic passes and the dining room can reopen.

"I would love them all back," Ingrilli said. "I consider all my employees my family."

With the dining room closed, Caterina's is for the first time having to try and enter the world of online delivery ordering.

Ingrilli recently filled out applications to get the restaurant's menu put on Door Dash and Uber Eats.

"Any extra business would help," Ingrilli said of his decision to try and add the delivery services to his restaurant.

He's currently waiting to hear back from the apps on whether Caterina's has been approved for delivery orders. In the meantime, Caterina's is trying to stay in business through carry-out sales.

But Ingrilli noted the 25 to 40 carry-out orders his restaurant has been putting together each day don't include alcohol sales, and often don't include appetizers.

"You subtract all that out, it's just the food now," he said. "So all we're doing right now is trying to protect our fixed costs."

He said he's appreciative of how many regular customers have made it a point to come and support his business during a tough time.

"A lot of people are driving in from Waukesha County, from the East Side, from all over the place," he said. "So I really appreciate them doing that."

"Have you thought about how long this business model can sustain?" asked TMJ4 News.

"I try not to think about that," Ingrilli said. "It's scary not to know."

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