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Still serving: Restaurant owners work to stay afloat during COVID-19 restrictions

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COOKIN' — Staff at Martino's Italian Villa man the drive-thru window. Following Gov. Eric Holcomb's orders last week, Indiana restaurants and bars only are allowed to serve carry-out and drive-thru customers.

Restaurants and bars looked markedly different last week after Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb ordered the establishments to close dine-in services due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While some restaurants decided to close entirely while the regulations were in place, like Grindstone Charley’s and Hawg Heaven, the majority of restaurant owners in Howard County immediately began revamping how they’ll serve the community during this time solely through carry-out and drive-thru options.

Filling Station

Ken Broniak, owner of the Filling Station, was trying to make it as easy and convenient as possible for his customers to get his bar’s food – and unopened alcohol for those age 21 and older – during this time. In addition to offering carry-out, where customers can pick up orders inside the bar, he’s also offering free delivery so people don’t have to get out if they don’t want to.

“There’s no rule book for this. I’ve been in this business for 20 years now, and if you told me 15 years ago I’d be going through something like this, I would have called you a liar,” Broniak said. “None of us saw this coming, and at the same time we have to adapt and figure things out. Right now we’re just throwing darts at a board, hoping one of them sticks and figure something out at least to keep employees busy.”

While trying to stay positive and fine-tune what’s become a new business model for now, Broniak also lamented the fact that his bar no longer can be a place where people can go to socialize and escape their troubles temporarily.

“This goes back years to times of troubles, wartime, through different plagues and epidemics and so on and so forth, and bars were always places where people were able to get away and congregate to get away from reality for a little while and to ease the troubles and fears. Now that’s been taken away,” he said.

“You can’t gather with friends or regular customers or people that you’ve grown to know over the years. So basically it goes against everything we’ve ever known to get away from reality for a little while, and that’s what makes it difficult. It’s more the psychology with people because, at the end of the day, you can’t have that social interaction. We need that. We’re an outlet for it, and now they’ve taken that away.”

Currently, the bar owner is operating at his regular business hours, from 11 a.m. to 3 a.m., though he noted that could change depending on demand.

Texas Roadhouse

Texas Roadhouse manager Brandi Carrico also is working to entice customers to carry-out during this time. Instead of customers having to go inside to pick up orders as usual, employees now will bring them to customers’ cars.

In addition, “family packs” have been added to the menu, which serve a family of four. The packs come with a choice of chicken critters, barbecue chicken, pulled pork, beef tips, or sirloin steaks, along with salad, four sides, and 12 rolls for $60.

While Carrico said the number of carry-out orders has increased, it hasn’t offset the drastic loss of sales from not being able to serve customers in-house.

“We’re still drastically down in sales, as expected, but I’m hoping with starting to do the family packs and advertising with all of our email and Fishbowl Club about us being open will help,” she said. “We’re here. Please still keep coming.”

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Texas Roadhouse will be offering curbside daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Korner Kitchen

While the timing of the regulations has been inopportune for all involved, it has been especially challenging for Dan Parks, owner of Korner Kitchen and Korner Kitchen 2. After seeing success with Korner Kitchen on Kokomo’s north side, Parks opened Korner Kitchen 2 last month on the city’s south side. He was working to build up that business when the new regulations hit, barring customers from dining in at both locations. Dine-in customers, he said, were 95 percent of his business.

“It’s crazy. We can’t stay open long like this,” Parks said. “But we’re still here. We’re not going nowhere. We’re going to weather the storm one way or the other, so we’re open.”

Parks reduced his hours slightly and is now serving customers from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. instead of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The restaurant owner still is offering his full menu for carry-out at both locations, and Korner Kitchen 2 also has a drive-thru.

Parks said he hopes the regulations are lifted soon and said his heart goes out to the servers as they struggle to make a living during these times.

“We’re trying to keep as many employees as we can. We split the hours, but nobody gets 40. We try to make it where everybody gets a little, divide it up among them, but it ain’t enough to live off of. Your waitresses, with no inside service, waitresses take a harder hit than anybody in the whole industries. Waitresses get hit the hardest,” Parks said.

Servers for Kokomo

John Bronson, owner of Kokomo Lock and Key, also recognized how seriously servers will be – and already have been – impacted. To help, Bronson created a Go Fund Me account in partnership with Solidarity Community Federal Credit Union to fund raise for servers during this time. People can donate to the Go Fund Me account or donate at a Solidarity Community FCU branch via the drive-thru.

Servers who have been impacted can email Bronson at john@kokomolockandkey.com their name, address, and where they work, and Bronson will verify the information and add the server’s name to a list that will be given to Solidarity Community FCU at the close of the fund raiser on April 11. Solidarity then will write checks to the servers (or deposit the money into a server’s Solidarity account if they have one) and give them to Bronson to distribute.

To kick off the fund raiser, Bronson donated $100 to the Go Fund Me and deposited another $500 into the Solidarity account directly.

“Servers are the ones that are going to be hurt the most because they don’t make a lot of money to start with. Most of them are single women or women with kids, and they don’t have a savings account,” he said. “I know several of them, and I do know they’re going to have a hard time.”

So far, Bronson has vetted 14 servers.

“They are all appreciative that someone is trying to help them, so it’ll be a little bit of extra cash,” Bronson said.