Since Darren Smith has been in the restaurant business in Downtown Conway he’s overcome a flood and two fires, but a pandemic is a first for him.
Like other downtown restaurateurs, Smith, owner of Rivertown Bistro and Bonfire, is taking the new restrictions on restaurants and businesses stoically while keeping his hopes up.
Several restaurants, including the Third Avenue Grill, have closed and Joey’s Riverwalk Grill took a terrible hit Tuesday night when a fire charred the building. Jo Hibachi is closed this week, but officials say it will be back starting Monday for take-out only. But the others are offering carry-out service to appreciative customers to keep their businesses going.
The City of Conway has placed cones near the restaurants’ doors where customers are pulling in, and wait staff is running out with their food.
“We’re just kind of opening the doors and rolling the dice, and it’s kind of hard to do,” Smith said.
He estimates that they are doing about one-sixth of the business they usually do, just trying to pay his light bill, mortgage, crew and, of course, his food supply.
Smith said if he knew the duration of the restaurant closures, things might be easier. If he was looking at only two weeks, he’d put his food in the freezer and go home.
But the possibility of a longer closure made him decide to stay and do the best they can. Beginning Wednesday they were looking at a modified menu.
“I’m not complaining. We have to do it,” Smith said.
He says as has been the case in the past, his customers are “showing up” for them, adding that he understands their fears, too.
He points to the Bonfire as the perfect place for people these days because there’s a picnic table beside it. They’re not allowed to serve people there, but customers can pick up a sandwich, take it there and drink in the beauty of the river.
Still, he said, “We’re taking the Bonfire especially, day by day. It’s been extremely slow there today (Tuesday) and maybe one or two more days, we may cut our losses or power there. It’s a day-to-day thing,” he said.
Over at the Crooked Oak, server Nick Turner said about the carry-out service, “For us, I’d say it’s going pretty well. We’re getting a lot of orders in. That’s all pretty much we can do right now is take orders and wait for them to come to us. I’d say we’re fine.”
One drawback of the system is regular customers can’t come in with friends on a Friday or Saturday night and just hang out like they used to do, he said.
Still, he said, “I’d say we’ve got a good system going over here. Plus, people can order online, too, which makes it easier because they can see all the options they have themselves. That goes straight back to the chefs, plus they can put a time they want to pick it up and that makes it even easier,” he said.
Turner, too, says his customers are taking the new system in stride, telling them how much they want to support them.
“I don’t know, they just don’t want to see all these restaurants going away because of something like this…Ordering is all they can do and they are doing that. That’s all we can ask for is for them to keep doing that.”
Nadya Batson, one of the owners of The Pickled Cucumber, says take-out has always been strong in the Conway restaurant, but things just aren’t the same now.
They are open to pay their bills and to be able to give work to some of their staff that they see as essential.
She, too, worries about the unpredictability of this situation and the length of the shutdown.
A three-month shutdown could possibly destroy any business, including the restaurant she owns with her husband Eddie, Batson said.
They are doing about 15 to 20 percent of the business they typically do, she said.
“We’re not getting to the breaking point yet. Let’s put it like that. I’m sure everyone is doing just as poorly as we are,” she said.
She describes their customers as “appreciative”.
She points out that her servers, although the restaurant pays them, are dependent on their tips, and customers are helping out there.
“We pay them a little bit, but the customers are the ones that support them. They are very, very generous,” she said.
Although, she says, people sometimes tell her they are tired of fast food restaurants, those are the eateries that she believes are probably doing the best right now.
Batson pointed out that people who are willing to wait just about five minutes at her restaurant are rewarded with a homemade meal.
“Most people are super nice…People are very, very generous right now,” she said.
Over at the Trestle Restaurant and Patisserie, staff is working to keep the restaurant open six days a week from 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m., serving both breakfast and lunch.
Manager Terry Bedell says the restaurant’s breakfast has been hit harder than lunch. She thinks that’s because a lot of the breakfast business comes from seniors who are afraid to come out during the virus scare.
But the restaurant is still catering and will now deliver orders of five or more.
So far, they have been offering a full menu, including a lunch special and will until they can’t get the food and supplies they need.
The Trestle has long used Norman Alley as its pickup location. In the past customers had to come inside to a back counter to get their food and pay, and as of Tuesday they could still do that, but now they can also have their food delivered to their cars.
“The first couple of days, it was a struggle. We have gotten it smoothed out and I think it’s working good. I wish we were busier,” Bedell said.
The Trestle owners Greg and Letty Smith are helping their wait staff by putting some of them on temporary unemployment, and putting some on a rotating schedule to get them as much work as is feasible at this point.
They aren’t complaining.
“They want to work. They don’t want to stay home,” she said.
Server Reagan Hansford says she’s been enjoying heading outside to cars to take food to appreciative people, always remembering to stay clean and safe.
“It’s pretty positive,” she said, of customers’ responses. “They’ve been kind with us.”
Customers can check the restaurant’s Facebook page to see the daily special, to learn when they have sour dough bread or if the bakery has a special. She says they’re operating on the assumption now that the restaurants might be allowed to reopen in about three weeks, but said they’re there for as long as the government allows.
At lunchtime yesterday as Smith talked with people driving up for carry-out service, the restaurant owner said Wednesday’s business had been good.
When times are tough, people in Conway really come together, he said.