How are Wisconsin restaurants surviving the pandemic?

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The pandemic has hit the restaurant industry particularly hard.

About 17 percent of U.S. restaurants have permanently shut down. But some are finding solutions.

Red Lion Pub General Manager George Watson says he sees some restaurant survival mechanisms staying post-COVID.

Some practices he expects to continue are QR codes continuing to replace paper menus, aggressive cleaning and creative “to go” packages.

“We did a tailgating package for the Packer game," Watson said. "So you could come in, get your own barbeque, your own sausages, burgers, like a package, and then have it at home.”

Red Lion is also ramping up their outdoor seating as the weather starts to turn. They are not alone.

It’s a step others like the Wicked Hop in Milwaukee have started.

In the last ten days, they installed a semi-permanent structure they can take down each summer and put back up each winter.

“I believe it will definitely continue, hopefully through the coming years," Wicked Hop Manager Haley Corabik said. "I mean, the more people can sit outside, you can bring your dogs out. People love dogs around here.”

The Wicked Hop is participating in Milwaukee’s "Active Streets program,” which the city extended Tuesday, March 2.

It allows restaurants to seek a free permit and operate their business on the sidewalk or the street.

“What we’ve heard is it really has been a lifeline," Milwaukee DPW Commissioner Jeffrey Polenske said. "There’s a certain amount of capacity that any one restaurant has inside their business.”

The UW Alumni Association hosted restaurant industry leaders Monday to talk about industry solving solutions.

They added to the list of things keeping restaurants afloat: government loans, moving to pre-packaged food and partnering with delivery services.

“We needed to get our food farther," Food Fight Restaurant Group COO Caitlin Suemnicht said. "We partnered with Green Cab, who agreed to carry our food to area suburbs, which is something the third party delivery companies wouldn’t do.

Craig Culver was also on the call, and said Culver’s had challenges, especially with online ordering, but ultimately had a good year.

The company increased sales by 4 percent last year, in large part by shifting 90 percent of their business to drive-thru.

“Where would we have been without the drive-thru?" Culver asked. "We would have been in the same position as everybody else who has spoke today. But fortunately, we had it.”

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