Businesses working with reduced staff to meet needs of public
For a while, Vicki Barbour and her parents — representing the third and second generations, respectively, of the family involved in operating Ches's Famous Fish and Chips — were back in the original Freshwater Road location in St. John's handling orders. Otherwise, it could not open.
"In those first few weeks when everyone was scared, our staff was scared as well, and so we had a lot of people who didn't want to come into work," she told The Telegram. "Then what started happening is the family — myself and my father, my mother, my aunt, my cousin, my sister — we started operating Freshwater Road ourselves. And our partners in Carbonear and on Highland Drive and Kenmount Road, they did the same thing. It was just basically the owners running the restaurants."
Over time, some employees were willing to come back and work amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Barbour said Ches's is lucky to have staff available at all its locations to handle customer orders, which are now dealt with strictly through curbside pickups and deliveries.
In the earliest stages of the pandemic in mid-March, Ches's restricted dining room access and implemented physical distancing measures, but realized after one day it would not work. On March 17, the St. John's and Mount Pearl locations switched to delivery and takeout only, and further changes were introduced over time. On March 24, Ches's stopped accepting cash payments and a few days later required customers to pay over the phone before picking up orders.
"We call it curbside pickup, but I think every business does curbside a little differently," Barbour told The Telegram. "Some people are bringing it out and putting it in your cars. Some people are laying it on a table just by the door. I think the general idea behind this notion of curbside pickup is basically you're not getting much further than the curb from your car to get there.
"Our locations, it depends on the location of the restaurant and how many staff we have on, and it depends on the weather. Sometimes we're laying the food on a table outside the door. Sometimes it's raining and we're laying it on a table just inside the door. Our biggest challenge all along has been to balance safety and customer service, and safety has to win out in this case moreso than anything else.”
In Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, Kitchen Sink uses curbside pickup to serve its customers, along with deliveries. A business that grew out of the former St. John's business Living Rooms, it is distinctly different from Ches's in that it does not have a dining room. In addition to frozen meals, the store sells cooking ware, home decor items and accessories.
Owner Alex Storey-Texmo told The Telegram the store has relied heavily on social media during the pandemic. There, the store posts lists of items available and photos of goods for sale.
For curbside pickup, customers can make payments over the phone using a credit card or through an email money transfer.
"We're really lucky in a couple of ways," Storey-Texmo said. "Our main thing here is the food. The second thing is that it's a freezer, so we didn't have an obscene amount of wastage. … We're not a sit-in place, so it's all kind of our shtick anyway. We just simply needed to not let them in to pick it out and pick it up."
Kitchen Sink had to reduce staff, keeping on the manager and one part-time cook in addition to Storey-Texmo, who cooks and does a bit of everything else as well.
"We try to keep it neat and tidy and lean here anyway, but this forced us to really tighten it up," she said, noting there are extra steps involved in taking orders and preparing them.
Storey-Texmo said the response from customers has been great, and they're grateful to be able to remain open.
"I think for people who are home, they need that interaction. They need to connect or contact. They want to have a little chat. People will stand outside the door to pick up their order six, eight or 10 feet away, just saying, 'Hi. How are you guys?' Which is really lovely, because they're our people. They're our customers."
Despite the fact Ches's has to work with irregular store hours due to staffing and a reduced availability of product from suppliers, Barbour said, things are working out well. She added it makes her heart feel good to see customers taking this situation seriously.
"If someone had told me a year ago that we would reach a point where this would be the normal, I would have said, 'There's no way that will happen. People won't listen.' But people have listened, and people understand, and people are respectful, and it's really good to see."
Ches's recently launched an online ordering system to address the limitations of doing all business over the phone. Thinking ahead to a time when it can reopen dining rooms to the public, Ches's has already installed plexiglass at counters.
"Different locations, we're looking at the layout of the location. Is there any way we can reconfigure the seating area for when the day comes that we can let people back in? We know once people can come back in, it's not going to be business as usual."
Storey-Texmo and her store's manager, Sarah Flynn, are also continuing to look at ways to adapt their service during a challenging time.
"We know we can tweak and improve — we're still trying to figure out how," Storey-Texmo said. "We constantly strive to find a tighter way to post something or answer something. We're trying to eliminate a bit of the to and fro."