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WATCH NOW: Restaurants owners working to keep customers safe
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DINING OUT DURING COVID

WATCH NOW: Restaurants owners working to keep customers safe

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When Patrick and Alicia Patterson opened Iguana Wana in Pleasant Prairie three years ago, they were hoping to build a business based on fresh, hand-crafted dishes and drinks.

And everything was going well with the Mexican restaurant — until March came and, with it, a shutdown forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Business was going up and up. We were so excited — and then the rug was pulled out from us,” Alicia said.

Mid-March “really shut us down,” Patrick said.

The couple, who owned Casa Bonita for many years in downtown Libertyville, Ill., before selling that restaurant in 2015, are no strangers to the business.

But operating during a global pandemic is something they never anticipated.

When all inside dining was banned earlier this spring, they developed new ways to keep customers coming for take-out meals.

Alicia drew some inspiration from her love for the fast-food chain Portillo’s.

“When we would go there, we’d eat the fries in the car so they wouldn’t get cold,” Alicia said. “We encouraged people to tailgate in our parking lot instead of waiting to eat when they got home. People had a lot of fun with it.”

To streamline the to-go business, Patrick said, they talked with their employees about how to make it work.

“The staff let us know how to run it better,” he said. “We added phone lines and a new numbering system to keep the orders straight. The best way to operate is to get everyone together and work it out.”

Fever detecting

Iguana Wana, 9080 76th St., still does curbside service, but now people are also dining inside the restaurant again.

The No. 1 issue, they say, is making sure the public — and their staff members — all feel safe.

A big part of that effort starts when customers walk through the door.

Patrick purchased a Dermalog fever detection system, which measures body temperature by scanning people’s faces using infrared and thermal sensor technology.

“I researched it for a few weeks, and this one from Germany is the best,” he said. “They use it in airports in Europe.”

The fever detector “grabs” people remotely as they walk inside, and an alarm will sound if a fever is detected.

“I was upset at him for buying it because it cost $7,000,” Alicia said. “But it really does make people feel safe.”

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So far, no customers or staff members have set off the fever detector, but Patrick puts “a warm rag on my forehead once in a while to make sure the alarm is working.”

Masking up, waiting in vehicles

Other ways the Pattersons are working to make people feel comfortable at their restaurant include requiring masks for employees and customers (“We did this right away,” Patrick said. “We even bought 800 face masks and handed them out to people.”); operating four commercial air exchangers 24 hours a day; using disposable menus and butcher paper on tables; placing silverware in disposable bags; and having sanitizer stations throughout the restaurant.

Also, when customers are waiting for a table to open up, they can wait outside in their car or even run errands at a nearby store. That way, it doesn’t get crowded in the foyer.

“We send them a text when a table is ready,” Alicia said. “Sometimes they’re shopping and ask for a few more minutes, so we send another text 20 minutes later.”

All the safety procedures have increased their costs, but it’s necessary, the Pattersons said.

“We want people to feel safe; that’s our priority,” Alicia said.

Because the restaurant is spacious, socially distancing customers from other groups works well.

In July 2018, about eight months after opening, Iguana Wana’s outdoor porch opened. It is enclosed and has heated flooring, enabling it to be open all year.

“Everybody loves it,” said Patrick.

He also runs a construction company and was able to do extensive renovations on the building before opening Iguana Wana.

What hasn’t changed is the restaurant’s interior design, which carries a beach resort theme. The area over the bar and the large dining room have straw roofs supported by bamboo. That vibe carries over to the porch, too.

All these changes haven’t been easy — Patrick admits “I sit up at night sometimes wondering ‘what else can we do?’” — but the couple are determined to make it work.

“My wife and I haven’t taken a check from here since this started,” Patrick said. “We really want to keep it open, to keep our employees working and to keep our customers happy.”

Some of the changes, like increased sanitizing, are probably here to stay, he added.

“My wife is a clean freak anyway,” he said, laughing, “which is very good in the restaurant business.”

As the restaurant’s third anniversary approaches in early December, the Pattersons are looking ahead to better days in 2021.

“It’s gotta be a better year,” Patrick said. We can’t wait until 2020 is over.”

Until then, they are working hard to keep their customers and employees safe and healthy. And, when they get a minute, they develop new offerings like a seasonal pear margarita for the holidays.

It’s served with a side of fever detection, fresh butcher paper on the table and plenty of hand sanitizer.

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