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As we approach one year of living in a pandemic, we are interested to see how COVID impacts Camden businesses. Like restaurants across the nation, restaurants close to home feel the impact of COVID and take precautions to avoid the spread inside their businesses. In Camden, two well-known restaurants, Woods Place and Postmasters Grill, are still making the best with modifications and are continuing to operate and make a living.

James Woods and his team
James Woods and his team

Woods Place, which serves a mixture of seafood, hamburgers, steaks, fried chicken, and more, has had to look elsewhere from what they used to make on catering, said James Woods, owner. “First off, when we had to shut down, and that was a shock,” he said. “We wondered if we were going to come back and what we would come back like. We’ve moved to more to-go orders, and we’ve done really well with that.” Restaurants that were established with to-go ordering have been able to keep going, he said. “I’m thinking restaurants that didn’t have a good to-go business before the pandemic are having a hard time,” Woods said. “The ones that have drive-thru businesses like your Sonics and your McDonald’s are places that have to-go business anyways. And Woods Place has really done well. A lot of people get the food and take it home.”

The National Restaurant Association reported more than $120 billion of lost revenue in the restaurant industry during the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Woods said his workforce has only changed by ten people because of the lack of catering events. When those people come back, he will have the 40 workers he is used to having. “We are still doing some catering, but not nearly what we used to,” Woods said. ‘When it is all over, people will have parties like they used to. People are still getting married, but they are putting them off and not having a reception.” Woods Place caters to company picnics that are no longer happening for large corporations such as Albemarle and Lockheed Martin. Other caterings that have been impacted are the parties and gatherings at the Woods Place event venue called River Woods. Luckily, Woods said his business, which is 37 years old, is doing fine without the catering, but it will be nice to hire his additional employees back and do more business when it comes back.

The inside of his restaurant has seen changes because of COVID. Tables have been moved to follow state guidelines for not having people sitting next to each other. Everyone at Woods Place wears a mask, including customers. “Customer wear their mask, and that hasn’t been a problem,” he said. Another thing Woods cites as keeping the restaurant virus-free is the ventilation there. “It seems like with our ventilation in our restaurant, the vent hoods pull everything up through the ceiling, and we have not had a problem with COVID-19 spreading through the restaurant, and I think it’s due to the ventilation system.”

About to celebrate its ninth year of operation, The Postmasters Grill is in the heart of downtown Camden, AR. Originally built as a post office in the 1880s and opened in 1896, the building was added to the National Register in 1977. The unique business has had to deal with COVID issues in its own way.
According to owner Emily Jordan-Robertson, a decline in special events was noticeable in the pandemic, especially in mid to early March 2020. “Everyone in the world started canceling rehearsal dinners, catering, baby showers, anything extra,” she said.

Just like restaurants across the state, Postmasters was closed for eight weeks, but when it reopened, it had the benefit of having a beautiful patio to sit people outside where they felt safer. “Folks felt pretty comfortable on the pretty days, but when it got cooler in the fall, the business all tanked. We felt it much worse as it got into the fall.”

Postmasters Grill employee serves up draft beer
Postmasters Grill employee serves up draft beer

During the state-mandated restaurant closure, we laid off about 85 percent of the employees, she said.
With her staff working hard to serve and keep the business flowing, much care is taken to seat everyone spread out in Postmasters’ different capacities. The new seating arrangement includes a downstairs basement area, the dining room on the main floor, and the patio open when weather permits. Because the restaurant is such a large one, it has been easy to spread out people inside. At full capacity, Postmasters can seat 230 people.

Jordan-Robertson said she is happy to hear any news about the vaccine and plans to get it herself. “It gives me hope for restaurants,” she said. “I know I can’t require employees to take it, but I’ll encourage them to get it, and I’ll be the first in line. The jury is still out on the vaccine, but the gain is better than not.”

Because the pandemic is still underway and people are likely not to go on vacations to the beach, Postmasters Grill hosted special days like Island Day thru the summer on the patio. They offered Italian, German, and English specials throughout the winter. This March, they are providing Irish specials. The restaurant creates unique specials to make customers feel happy with a chance for something different without leaving town. “We like to mix it up because maybe they aren’t getting to go to Little Rock or Hot Springs,” she said. “We are not trying to be competition, but we are just trying to do something special for our guests and give them something their taste buds may be missing.”

Farmers Bank & Trust stands ready to help you or your business with impacts from COVID-19. View COVID-19 resources online, here.

Mule Kick Owner, Christy Ouei
Mule Kick Owner, Christy Ouei

Mule Kick

Although things have certainly improved since many businesses were state-mandated to close last spring, local restaurants and salons in Magnolia, AR still feel the impact of COVID-19. At MuleKick in Magnolia, owner Christy Ouei had the challenge of closing last spring. She closed for two weeks in October due to COVID exposure among her staff.

MuleKick, which offers uncommon pizzas with various crusts, craft beer, a coffee bar, and ice cream, has 26 employees. Live music and other performances are a constant on the patio, known to sell out.

“We have a very strong customer base, and we were proud because we did shut down, and then so many came back when we opened back up,” she said. “Some of the most reliable customers have used the drive-thru to pick up meals, and for some of these customers, they have only gotten drive-thru or deliveries since the first shut down by the state in March.

Because of healthy delivery and drive-thru business, MuleKick could still do 30-percent of its regular business after the spring closings.

“This was compared to other places where it didn’t make sense to stay open,” she said. “COVID training is something MuleKick has implemented, and the staff was required to watch videos about correctly serving food and drinks. One of the training aspects is that each time a customer needs a refill, they bring them a fresh glass of their beverage.”

“MuleKick opened its doors in 2019, and the pandemic has been a big part of that,” she said. “We’ve spent as much time open in a pandemic as we have operating not in a pandemic. It’s easy to accept the new norm because we were new. MuleKick is all about the exceptional atmosphere, and except for having to wear a mask, our interaction with the customer has not changed.”

Spring Fever

Recently, there has been a sense of lightheartedness and sunny days are busy because Ouei thinks people are having an early case of spring fever, especially after being at home so much in 2020.

“People are hungry for normal, so if we present the same friendly face and experience when they come in, that is reassuring and comforting,” she said. MuleKick also sells T-shirts, coffee cups, and other gift items with their logo.

Tomarie’s Hair Fashions

Just minutes away from MuleKick is Tomarie’s Hair Fashions, which has been in business for 64 years, and it’s the longest established salon in Magnolia. There, the owner and two stylists are continuing to face business as the pandemic continues. State order requires the shop to have no more than ten people inside, including three women who work there, said Kristin Hawkins, stylist.

Everyone must also wear a mask to enter, and employees must take their temperature and have them fill out a piece of paper to serve as a tracking sheet should COVID be introduced to the shop somehow.

Tommie Shelts, owner of Tomarie's Hair Fashions
Tommie Shelts, owner of Tomarie’s Hair Fashions

Wearing masks all day while you cut, color, perm, and style hair is a challenge because it can get very hot. Tomarie’s owner, Tommie Shelts, said it is challenging.

“I don’t like wearing masks, but I do it for my customers’ safety,” she said. “I will be thankful when I don’t have to wear it anymore.”

When businesses, including salons, were closed by the state last March, Shelts’ staff were lucky because she had been paying unemployment on them for years, so they did have some income coming in.

“It was absolutely the first time any of us have ever had to draw it,” said Carolyn Yates, stylist. “I’m 72, and this was the first time I had to draw unemployment. The process of getting on unemployment was frustrating. It was not easy, and I did not like it.”

Several customers at Tomarie’s are elderly and have not been able to come back yet as their health is compromised. That has taken its toll on earnings.

“My personal income is probably about half of what it was before COVID. It’s that drastic of a difference,” Yates said. “But I would still rather be here than drawing unemployment.”

The Bright Side

Those customers who do have compromised health and come to the salon anyway are often one of the only places they get to go and visit others. Yates said she kept the Christmas tree up to make customers smile. Instead, she turned it into a colorful Mardi Gras celebration tree. She even brought some of her New Orleans souvenir beads.

“Making the people who come in feel happy is more important now than ever,” said Yates, who recently cooked a peanut butter and chocolate cake for all clients. “I have clients who call me, and they are in tears because they are afraid to leave their house. Others can’t stay away. We try to be very careful and clean everything, and we’ve had to change our habits a lot. I think our attitude is important.”

In addition to safety measures around the shop, the three employees of Tomarie’s attempt to do their best not to go many places.

“This year, I didn’t go to the stores for Christmas, and I didn’t see my sister and children for the holidays. We are limiting how many people we see when we are not here. We shop at times that are not crowded, which is early in the morning and not on the weekend.”

Farmers Bank & Trust stands ready to help you or your business with impacts from COVID-19. View COVID-19 resources online, here.