By Tony Hooker
With COVID-19 continuing to dominate our lives, I thought it would be good to check in with local businesses to see how they’re adapting. This is the first in a series of planned articles. This week, I caught up with Steve Douglas from Tri-City Country Club, and Donn and Karla Westray, from JR’s.
Steve, how long have you been in the service industry?
I was officially on the payroll at the Grocery store when I was 15, but I really started working there when I was 13.
So, forty-four years.
That’s a long time! Does anything in your experience compare to this?
No. Absolutely nothing. Nothing to compare it to, nothing to prepare you for it. There’s no method to any of this madness. Brad Peters, who owns Three Ravens and Bridget’s Blarney Stone, commented that he was basically told he was closed on Sunday afternoon, and he’d already prepped stuff for St. Patrick’s Day on Tuesday. He was given six hours’ notice that he was closed. Everyone was scrambling around trying to figure out if we could do curbside. First we could, then we couldn’t, and it took a little while to clear all of that up. But there’s really been nothing that can compare to this. We’ve had boil orders that changed how you wash things and single service items, but those were a couple of days here and there. My wife’s working from home, and I’m talking to my daughter about my grandson, and the biggest difference between this and anything else is that we had a date. This time, we’re along for the ride. I keep telling people that they should think six months and hope that it’s three. It’s going to be a while before we get back to normal, if we ever do. Who knew that curbside cinnamon rolls and biscuits and gravy would go over so well? It might be something that we offer even after. The “new normal” is going to be interesting.
That kind of leads to my next question. What are some of the positives that you’ve been able to take away from all of this?
It’s been very nice how our members and others from the community have responded. The response has been very good, but not overwhelming. One of our board members said that “no one’s getting rich” during this. If you can pay your bills and keep the kids employed, which has been really important to me, because my employees, the kids who are going to school, the ones who don’t have full time jobs, really need this. They don’t have anything to fall back on. It’s also been nice to think outside the box a little bit. We had just had breakfast before the lock down, so two Sundays later, I thought “Let’s just give that a try. Let’s see if anyone is interested in getting biscuits and gravy and hash browns,” and the response was really good. It’s amazing to me at how much nicer and more patient the people I’ve been around have been. Not me, of course, my staff will tell you that I’ve been the same old grouch that I’ve always been. <laughs> Even at the grocery store, people have been much more polite. It’s been nice to see people checking up on the young and the old folks, the ones who are most vulnerable during all of this. It’s nice to see people acting the way we probably should have been the whole time. <smiles>
How do you think we can continue this air of civility as we move beyond this? Can we?
Sadly enough, as time goes by, I think that we’ll creep back into our old habits. I hope that everyone from the kids to old folks like me can learn to truly appreciate the things that are important. I’m just as bad as everyone, getting caught up in things that aren’t important. I think that this has been a big enough scare to make a permanent impression on everyone. At least I hope it has.
What are your current hours of operation?
We’re doing curbside carry-out Wednesday-Saturday nights. Wednesday and Thursday 5-7:30 and Friday and Saturday from 5-8. Lunches are 11-1 on Friday and Saturday and Breakfast is Sunday from 8-10. Folks can call us at 832-9782.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I appreciate my staff and I appreciate the people from Villa Grove and the surrounding area who are doing everything they can to help us. I’ve gotten a lot of calls and texts from people asking how they can help out in some way. That’s been awfully nice. It’s been great having folks order from us to try to help us out in that way. I see all the other businesses in town doing what they can to keep themselves afloat, and I wish them all the best. It’s nice to see people shopping at Rick’s, and I hope that after this, they realize how important it is that they go to Rick’s or to Bud’s or to Redline. Growing up and having a business in this town for most of my life, I know that sometimes you can save a few dollars somewhere else, but it’s important to remember how vital that business is. I worry for anyone who was on the bubble before, struggling to make it, and this has thrown a big monkey wrench into things. The well wishes and outpouring of good will has been excellent. We’re going to keep chipping away and get through this. I can’t imagine what the first couple of weeks when we are able to re-open. I think that everyone will be going crazy.
Donn and Karla Westray took time out from their hectic schedule to answer a few questions about how they’ve adapted their business, JR’s to the pandemic.
How long have you been in the restaurant industry?
<DW> We opened up for Ag days in August of 1982, so it will soon be 38 years. They (mom Judie and father Ralph) leased the bar next door, and then they built this after they bought it from Rosie.
In your experience, has there ever been anything like this?
No. About the only thing that was close to it would have been 9/11. That had us living in fear for a couple of weeks, but this is a whole different type of fear. From a business standpoint there’s nothing that can come close to this.
What are some positives that you’ve been able to take away from this?
<DW> I can’t speak for Karla, but the positives for me are how it really is amazing that during the worst of times, you really do see the best of people. It’s amazing that people can’t be this compassionate all the time, but I understand it. I don’t think anyone in this town wants to see a local business suffer. We’ve had really good support up to this point, but we also understand that these are times where people can’t afford to eat out every night. I’m certain that there are people who would love to support these area restaurants, but just can’t do it. One positive I’ve seen is that people remain fairly upbeat. We’ve had several people come in who are paying it forward, buying meals for others here in town. You try to find the good in it, and there really is a lot of good in town. There’s so much uncertainty and it’s probably going to get worse than it gets better, but it’s really good to be living in a small town during this time.
<KW> From a business perspective, one positive is that I’ve met people that I never knew before, that are supporting us. One of the proud moments for JR’s, as a longtime community business, is that when you are in here and you look at the walls and you see the sports teams that we’ve supported, it’s something that we want to continue to do, but we can’t right now, so we had to ask ourselves what we could do to continue supporting the community. So if they want meals, they don’t have to travel out of town. We’ve gotten calls and texts and comments on Facebook and you see those positive comments about your food, and it feels good. I think that when we do get to open, we’ll have new people who will want to come in and try it out.
That leads to my next question. How can we continue this sense of community as we move back toward normal?
<KW> When you asked earlier if we had experienced anything near this, I thought of back when the fire was next door and we had to be closed from August 10 to December 26, and our concern was for our customers who came in day in and day out. We didn’t want to lose them, so we tried to stay in touch. I think we’ll have to continue to do some of that, but when the time came to re-open the door, people were so kind and welcoming and I think that’s something we have to be careful of. I think people miss their places, but I don’t know how comfortable they’ll be at first, and we have to be aware of that.
<DW> There will probably be a honeymoon period. That first night we reopened, December 26, happened to be a fish night, and we couldn’t keep up, which was a good problem to have. I anticipate the same thing happening when this thing all breaks loose. I think people are going to want to get out and see people that they maybe haven’t seen.
<KW> In our situation, we had to really look at “What can we do?” We started out in the evenings, doing what we could and then we went to breakfast on Saturday and Sunday. We’ve done lunch now for a couple of weeks, so we’re finding out what foods people are enjoying, and we’ve tried to make some special things so that people won’t travel out of town. Our specialty burgers on Mondays have been a big hit, but JR’s is known for its steaks and its shrimp and we’ve continued to make those available on Fridays and Saturdays. We’ve had people come from out of town and pick up food.
What are your hours of operation, currently?
<KW> Monday through Thursday carryout is 4-8. Friday and Saturday it’s 5-8. Breakfast is on Saturday and Sunday from 8-11. Lunches are 11-1, but it’s something that we have to decide what we’re going to do, lunch wise. We’ll continue with the dinners and the breakfasts, for certain.
<DW> We’re going to have to rethink lunch, because we originally started out just making a sandwich, chips and a bottle of water for five bucks. We’re providing an affordable lunch, and we want to be available. We’ve had to change the way we’ve done everything. We’ve sent out a fish dinner to go, or something, but this is completely different. Again, it’s about being available. Being in a small town, knowing that we’re there makes people feel more solid.
<KW> All the hard work and years that Ralph and Judie put into this place makes us want to keep it going. They miss all the people, but like Donn said, we had a couple of people who contacted us and said, “Can you find us families who maybe can’t afford to eat out,” and we did. The joy for me was that because the people who were buying the meals preferred to remain anonymous, I was able to call them and tell them that someone wanted to buy a meal for their entire family, and they were just in awe. This led to that family’s family saying that they wanted to buy them another meal the next week. Someone else bought a family’s meals on a steak night. It makes everyone who’s able to buy the meals feel blessed that they can do so, and I got to break the news, and that’s pretty neat, and it makes Ralph and Judie happy to know that it’s happening.
You have always done everything you can to support the community?
<DW> We try. It always comes back around. There are a lot of good people in this town. There are a lot of good people everywhere, really. In this day and age, you don’t always see it. Sometimes you see the worst of people first. Things like the bank buying gift certificates to give out. We are not in a place to be building fences. This town needs everything that we have, and we can’t afford to lose anything.
<KW> I think it’s hard too, because people are getting anxious. People are wondering if “today” will be the day that they release us, and that’s not the way it’s going to happen. Then the disappointment comes.
<DW> For the first couple of weeks of this, we were just waiting for them to shut us down completely, but this town has resolve. There are some good people in this town that are going to keep things as normal as possible if they can. I’m really happy for Rick at the grocery store. He’s always busy, and that’s a good thing.