Restaurants alter approaches amid outbreak

Kayla Renie/The Herald
Pub 'N' Grub general manager Tracey Price, left, hands Jayde Sturgeon of Jasper her order at the curbside pick-up station outside the restaurant in Jasper last week. Due to growing COVID-19 concerns, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb mandated that restaurants, bars and nightclubs close to in-person patrons but can offer takeout and delivery services.  The restaurant has since closed to ride out the pandemic.

By ALLEN LAMAN
alaman@dcherald.com

Jared Weisheit, co-owner of Jasper Pub ‘N’ Grub, was shocked. Across the street at Brew, leadership noticed an almost-immediate outpouring from customers. John Songer anticipated a drop-off at his place, the Gaslight Pizza & Grill in Huntingburg, but the full effect wasn’t quite as steep as he’d predicted.

Business was unquestionably slower than normal at restaurants across Dubois County after Gov. Eric Holcomb closed dining rooms across the state last week in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The outpouring of community support the local eateries felt, however, was unexpected and undeniable, as customers navigated modified hours, sometimes limited menus and strict carryout policies to fill their stomachs as well as cash registers at some of the businesses that stand to lose the most in a socially-distanced world.

“I wouldn’t say it was our normal business as usual, but people really embraced the new way that we had to operate,” Brew co-owner Josh Premuda said Monday, echoing the comments of many restaurant owners in the county. “So, we saw a great turnout from everybody.”

Owners want you to know they are thankful for your continued patronage.

But now, as the status quo continues to shift, they face a new dilemma.

Holcomb’s latest executive order on Monday urged Hoosiers to remain in their homes, except when they are at work or for permitted activities, such as taking care of others, obtaining necessary supplies, and for health and safety. As part of the new directive, restaurants are considered essential businesses and are permitted to continue providing takeout and delivery.

Not all will. At least two in Dubois County have already paused operations for the immediate future.

“I think everybody’s kind of in the same boat right now,” Weisheit said Monday, hours before Pub ‘N’ Grub officially announced it would cease serving its barbecue through April 7. “It’s, when do we start putting health over wealth? As we said initially, when the first case hit the county, it was gonna shut the whole county down. And I think we should do that.”

Weisheit hopes others will follow his lead.

Brew temporarily shuttered its doors late last week. Premuda and fellow co-owner Barry Dunlap recently engaged in conversations with employees about how the Main Street staple should move forward, and the decision was made to close indefinitely while widespread precautionary measures are encouraged.

“Friday, right after lunch, we, as a staff, decided that we were going to try to, I guess, get ahead of it the best we could for the health of our staff, our customers and the longevity of the business,” Premuda said.

Even before Holcomb’s Monday order was delivered, Songer, owner of Gaslight, had thought about the possibility of shutting down for the time being. He spoke Monday of how 65% of his staff has been laid off, and though he doesn’t have plans of closing up at this time, business is being approached on a day-by-day basis.

“The way I look at things, the week is like a trial period to see what’s going to happen,” Songer said. “And then after the first week, then the second week, you’re going to get a better picture of where this is all gonna level off at.”

He compared his operations to an engine. When the Gaslight’s engine is firing on all cylinders, the expenses that go into revving it can pile up quickly. But when operations are scaled back and the engine slows down, “well, you don’t have to put as much in,” Songer said.

“So, we’re trying to play catch-up now, too, with expenses that we had that are getting taken care of,” he added. “Then, once everything levels back out, then you kind of get a better feel of where you’re gonna end up at.”

Songer wants to take care of his staff as much as he can. But, especially given the stay-at-home directive, one question remains for the Gaslight, as well as every restaurant remaining open: Will sales drop to a point that it no longer makes sense for them to function?

Health concerns also factor into that decision, Songer said. As the owner, he thinks about those, too. With tests in short supply and the possibility of experiencing no detectable symptoms of the coronavirus, at what point does he pull the plug?

“They could be coming in and picking up and ordering, and they don’t even know they’ve got it,” Songer said of his customers. “So, we’re also, just like anybody else, since we deal with the public on a regular basis, we’re right there breathing in and out the same air that they are.”

In Ferdinand, Soup-N-Such Bistro, which is owned by Tammy Bedolla and cooks and sells food out of the Wollenmann Home, is adapting its offerings. Bedolla will continue to offer carryout, curbside pickup and some delivery meals this week.

She has actually expanded her menu to include family-sized pans of enchiladas. Business has changed, she said, and some days are incredibly slow. But she’s staying steady.

She encouraged residents to continue supporting area food spots.

“I think people need to realize that the local economy, they really need to try and utilize [it],” she said. “Because when this thing is over, they can still go to Evansville and Louisville and different, bigger places to eat. But there are times you’re gonna not want to go 50 miles or 40 miles. You’re gonna want to keep your small businesses alive. So, bless them in this time.”

She later added: “I’m hanging in there. My bills will be paid. You’ve got to use what resources you have. And you’ve got to think out of the box.”

Midwest Cafe & Market in Jasper has also modified its business model. The delivery minimum has been slashed from 10 salads to four, and in some cases, “we will just deliver anything to anybody who’s afraid to get out of their house or just doesn’t want to, just to get any sort of money coming in,” said Manager Mike Cassidy.

Curbside and carryout services are also offered, and for the first time, salads can now be purchased on the weekend. The cafe was also open on Sunday, something that hasn’t been done for at least the past five years, if not longer, and may or may not happen again.

The business experienced only a small drop-off in revenue last week. Most of its income does not come from those dining in, and community engagement remained high.

Cassidy did, however, express concerns that the decline could be more pronounced this week.

“If people are tightening up with their money, they’re going to be less likely to go out,” he explained. “And I think that’s going to be the first thing they quit.”

Carryout meals and alcohol also continue to be sold at Hot Spot Bar & Grill in Dubois. Business has slowed down there, too, but the full menu is available and the hours remain the same.

Owner Derek Breitwieser urged readers to support any local restaurant.

“Even though you may not normally eat out, maybe splurge a time or two here to go out and support the local restaurants and places that are struggling in this time,” he said. “Because it’s definitely a change-up for everybody.”




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