Bethesda’s Tastee Diner will reopen Saturday at 6 a.m., after shuttering its doors three months ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The return to service will come a day after Montgomery County’s reopening advances to phase 2, which allows limited indoor service for the first time since March.
“We’ve had some really tough times, lost a lot of money,” Tastee Diner owner Gene Wilkes said Wednesday in an interview. “We hope that people come back and support us, so that we can hopefully recover.”
Montgomery County has been in phase 1 of its reopening since June 1. Restaurants can serve customers in person, but only in an outdoor area, with proper social distancing.
Phase 2, with indoor seating, will start Friday at 5 p.m.
In compliance with the county’s phase 2 guidelines, Tastee Diner, which is on Woodmont Avenue, will open at only 50% capacity.
Wilkes said there will be markings on the floor for social distance and extreme sanitation measures. Customers must wear masks except while seated. An employee will be at the door to direct customer flow.
Employees will have their temperatures taken before their shifts.
“At one time, it was considered it wouldn’t even be worth reopening, because we think we’re going to lose a lot of our customer base. So many folks are scared to go out,” said Wilkes, who has owned the diner since 1971. “We’re going to lose money for the next three months just trying to get our customer base back.”
After Tastee Diner closed on March 16, the entire staff was laid off, according to a Facebook post from the diner. Diner Manager Beth Cox started a GoFundMe fundraiser to support the staff, and it had raised nearly $20,000 as of Wednesday.
Wilkes said he turned down a federal Payment Protection Program loan from the Small Business Administration — money a recipient can keep if all employees are kept on the payroll for eight weeks. The money must be used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest, or utilities.
“It sounds good, but the hoops you need to jump through in order to get forgiveness, it’s just not worth it,” he said. “If I was leasing, I would not have survived.”
Wilkes said he anticipates that many staff members will not return immediately, as the federal stimulus program continues through July.
“They get their unemployment, plus the feds give them an extra 600 bucks,” he said. “We suspect that half our staff will not want to come back. Wait staff most likely will, because they did well.
“We’re not going to schedule a full crew. We’ll probably schedule about 30%, because we think we’ll open soft.”
The diner has only faced one other long-term closure since its inception in 1935. That was a fire in 2002 that closed the diner for 100 days, according to its website.
The diner moved to its Woodmont Avenue location in 1958, and has faced recent difficulties due to the ongoing construction of Marriott’s headquarters and a flagship hotel in the adjacent lot.
Despite the extensive mandates and precautionary measures, Wilkes said he’s looking forward to reopening Tastee Diner’s doors and welcoming the community back.
“With all the things that I dislike about what we have to do, I guess it’s become my life,” Wilkes said. “I just look forward to greeting and meeting and seeing my customers. That’s the reason we go in every day.”