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A Restaurant Owner Reflects On How The Pandemic Has Impacted His Business

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This pandemic may be changing how Americans think about their place in their communities. Gary Ward grew up in the small, working-class community of Gloucester County, Va. It's a peninsula that juts out into the Chesapeake Bay. Life there is fairly peaceful, although they're surrounded by water, and there is a healthy respect for bad weather.

GARY WARD: We felt like a storm was approaching. We heard people talking about it, and then all of a sudden, everyone was talking about it. And then overnight, our world changed completely in the restaurant business.

SIMON: Gary and his wife Karen own two restaurants, Scoot's Barbecue and Olivia's In The Village - the last one is a steak, seafood and pasta place. Facing weeks, possibly months of social distancing because of the coronavirus, the Wards needed to figure out how to keep their restaurants afloat.

WARD: For me, it's extremely important to have employees that are able to keep their jobs. I want to be ready to go when things open back up. Beyond that, from a personal standpoint, my wife and I believe in helping people as much as we can, and the last thing that we would want to have to do is put someone in a position where they would potentially lose their job and not be able to make their mortgage or feed their children.

SIMON: Now, usually, Gary Ward is too busy to post more than a few sentences on Facebook, but on March 17, he wrote a long post to his customers outlining how his restaurants would navigate the pandemic.

WARD: We understood that it was going to be tough to get people in the restaurant, so we felt like coming up with a family pack menu, things like chicken parmesan with pasta or hamburger steaks with mashed potatoes or meat loaf. We kept the prices really low. We discounted them pretty heavily. Typically, if we sold one, it would be $45, so we decided to offer them for $25. With the discount, the hope was that the customer would then feel more comfortable possibly leaving a little extra tip that went towards the server. Beyond that, we certainly were aware and knew that some people may be losing their jobs or being cut back, and we saw it as a way for them to get a meal that could feed four or five, some people say six people, at $25 and $30 and if they'd like to be a little more generous with the staff to give them a larger tip. And it has been incredible. We've had people coming in not leaving an extra $10, but they're leaving an extra $20, an extra $40, an extra $50. We had one customer that has gone to both restaurants and left an extra $500 tip to the staff. So it's been unbelievable to see this process work. We just bet on our community, honestly, and we won the bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELODIUMS' "BIDUAL")

WARD: Mentally, it's a challenge. You know, it is so different than what we're used to. The uncertainty that we all, as Americans, are going through right now, you know, we're in that same challenge that everyone else is in. And, you know, my wife and I talked about, as bad as this is, there's always some silver lining and some good things that come out of it. And we're already seeing some of those good things.

SIMON: Gary Ward of Gloucester County, Va., talking about retooling how his restaurants do business during the coronavirus outbreak.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELODIUMS' "BIDUAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.