By Stephen Wilkerson, Staff Reporter
The global pandemic is having a significant impact on the way restaurants operate. Choosing whether to offer in person dining or stick to curbside, takeout and delivery is a decision many Amarillo restaurant owners have wrestled with during the past month.
One college student who works at Sharky’s Burrito Company has to deal with huge changes in two very important aspects of his life. A business major and now an online student at West Texas A&M University, Jack Coker has been getting up early, going into work and preparing food for the day before the restaurant opens at 11 a.m. Once they’re open, he coordinates the curbside service system that they have put into place since the beginning of the food service restrictions on dine-in restaurants.
“I am in no way complaining, but I do seem to have a lot of people who still have no idea how to order or where to pick it up. We try our best to let everyone know how the whole thing works, but there’s always going to be questions,” Coker said.
Sharky’s owner, Brent Epps, is also aware of the difficulties caused by the new emphasis on curbside pickup.
“I would say that our biggest challenge throughout all of this is getting information out there. Especially for some folks who don’t always stay up to date on our social media. We’ve actually hired a company to keep our Facebook page updated and make sure we’re attending to any and all concerns shown by our customers. We have even added a second phone line and added staff members to take more orders,” Epps said.
When faced with the decision to open back up, Epps said he realized that if he did open up at 25 percent capacity, then he would only be left with two tables where people could sit. At the end of May, he opened up the restaurant for inside ordering and limited dine-in seating and patio seating with social distancing measures in place.
Another popular restaurant, the Chick-fil-a on Georgia Street has had success with their drive-thru and delivery service.
“We came out with delivery in August, before all of this stuff started. We were trying to push it with all different kinds of marketing since then, and we were getting to a solid place, but once the virus hit, it took off and boomed more than I expected,” Kiersten Newton, the marketing director, said.
Newton said this Chick-fil-a location gets anywhere from 100 to 200 orders a day and, at the beginning of the pandemic, had only four drivers. Needless to say, they had to start hiring.
“To be frank, COVID actually took away most of our obstacles and made it easier to focus on our two main functions – drive-thru and delivery,” Newton said. She added that they hope to resume in-store dining as soon as possible. “We will probably open back up midsummer. That is the best-case scenario right now with the number of cases rising and falling,” she said.
At Texas Roadhouse, the dine-in portion is now open to the public. No more than six people are allowed in a group and they are only seating customers at 23 out of their 60 tables.
“We’ve used red tape to block off areas where people cannot sit. So, when they walk in and see every third table open, they know we’re taking this seriously. We deep cleaned and sanitized every inch of the restaurant before opening,” Scott Crace, the owner of Texas Roadhouse, said.
“Now, we still run the curbside service and offer the dine-in area as an option,” he said.
Despite the changes, Crace said he has been able to keep on 64 out of what was the 66-member staff. Throughout the pandemic, Crace said both he and the Texas Roadhouse company have worked hard to help their employees. When the restaurant first shut down due to COVID, Crace started creating grocery kits for his employees and then selling them (at cost) to customers. Shortly after all Texas Roadhouse restaurants were closed, the CEO of the company gave up his salary and diverted it to employees in the form of two stimulus checks.
“We have been very blessed, but very challenged at the same time. It’s been amazing to see the community rise up and show they care the way they have,” Crace said.