Rebuilding America: Restaurants change operations to adjust to new ‘normal’

A server brings out plates of food at Bandana's in Osage Beach.

Rubber gloves. Disinfectant wipes. Face masks. These items have become a staple of the restaurant industry over the last few months as COVID-19 has forced every location to reconsider what it means to be clean. 

The Lake area saw its share of changes to dining culture, as many restaurants either switched to pick up and curbside, or closed down entirely. The changes implemented also included constant table and utensil cleaning, staggered seating and more. 

Multi-restaurant owner George Tucker was in a unique position during this pandemic. Owner of lake favorites such as Paradise Tropical Restaurant & Bar, Franky & Louies and Tucker's Shuckers, he was hit by a tidal wave of changes when these health requirements were put in place. However, he says it wasn’t all a surprise. 

Tucker says that he started to pay attention to the news surrounding the virus around January. Once things started to creep into the United States, he started work on making changes immediately to lessen the blow. All of his locations began changing their cleaning habits and he ordered a load of cleaning supplies to keep stock up.  

“I wanted to make sure staff and customers were safe, it was a priority from the beginning,” Tucker said.  

Once restaurants were officially moved to solely pickup orders, Tucker says he looked at ways to keep his locations going strong. Franky and Louie’s kept their dockside dining open to boaters and the now-famous zipline ordering system was installed at Paradise. He says the jobs of all employees became more challenging, but his staff took it in stride and continued to work.  

In Camdenton, RJ’s Family Restaurant took the changes a little harder. Owner Randy Jung says the months of COVID regulations took a toll on the restaurant. RJ’s buffet is one of their key offerings, and Jung says it has become near impossible to keep it in operation. Trying to keep people distanced and keeping the area clean is a massive challenge that has been difficult for RJ’s to overcome.  

Jung says he was steadfast in his desire to keep the restaurant open normally as long as possible, but eventually was forced into the same operation standards as everyone else. Moving to just curbside ordering, the months that followed were trying. And now, with staggered inside seating, he says his capacity has been cut in half.

Bandana’s BBQ co-owner Austin Craddock says that he doesn’t believe any company was truly ready for the changes that would come. Co-owner Adam Craddock says scheduling was a major hurdle at first. There was also a challenge in making sure all the workers felt safe in a public environment. 

Austin says business at Bandana’s was okay over the duration of the pick-up/curbside requirement. The first two weeks were “incredibly difficult”, as the restaurant saw around 60% decrease in sales and had to furlough around 50% of staff. However, things have gradually come back to life as the restaurant has been able to open a staggered dining area.

One of the key factors to keeping Bandana’s afloat for Austin was the benefit of Missouri closing the restaurant industry a little later than other states. By looking at the models that other states had already gone through, he says they were able to anticipate things better and plan ahead.  

“There was certainly a groupthink that was created when we looked at how other businesses had reacted,” Austin said. 

Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) loans were a factor for all three establishments in staying open. Austin Craddock says that they were a lifeline for Bandana’s. The same can be said for both Tucker and Jung, who said the loans were necessary to keep the limited staff they had paid fairly. 

Now that things are slowly reopening in Missouri, the challenge moves to creating a new normal. 

Tucker says that he doesn’t expect the lake area to have a record breaking season, but the area might see an uptick in summer home usage. He says he plans for his restaurants to still be full on the weekends and plans to keep the cleaning schedules and safety procedures running to make the limited seating they do have available feel safe for patrons. 

Jung believes that the feeling of normality at restaurants will return in time. He says that, under any circumstance of change, going out to eat is a constant source of comfort. 

“People will always want to go out to eat,” Jung said. “The public wants to go back to normal.”

Adam Craddock believes that curbside pickup will continue to be a big delivery method for business, as the feeling of taking food home to a safe, controlled environment may not be a feeling that fades fast. Before COVID, he says that around 1% of Bandana’s orders were pickups. Now, it’s in the double digits.  

Both Adam and Austin agreed that, through it all, the employees that stuck around made a massive difference in how the restaurant was able to stay afloat. But more than that, it was the locals that ventured out and supported the restaurants through pickup orders and gift card purchases that meant the most. This was a feeling emphasized by Tucker and Jung as well. 

“We’re thankful for those who went out of their way to support local restaurants,” Austin said. “People came out to keep places afloat and got us through it. It shows the better side of people. It means the world.”

Rebuilding America:What will restaurants be like soon?

A server throws away a menu at Bandana's in Osage Beach.