Surviving COVID-19: Texoma staples talk food service in unprecedented time

Michael Hutchins
Herald Democrat
Sherman's Old Iron Post is one of many restaurants across the country that had to adapt to new practices and business models during the COVID-19 pandemic

The past year has been a time of great change across not only across the country, but across as the world as a whole. People have had to change their daily routine, including working from home and staying in, to adjust and adapt to the "new normal" during the age of COVID-19.

The need to adjust and adapt also extended into area businesses, who adopted new practices and ways to do business during a global pandemic. Perhaps this can be seen mostly clearly in the restaurant industry, where many businesses had to change almost exclusively to take-out service for many months.

Now, more than a year later, two Sherman restaurants are talking about their experiences over the pandemic and the steps they needed to take to continue business.

A small was gathered in downtown Sherman for an evening of dining and drinking Monday night. While the inside of the restaurant was fairly slow, several tables outside were filled with diners chatting over a meal. The early-week crowd was small compared to the weekends, but it was good traffic for a Monday, and certainly better than what the restaurant saw a year ago, OIP owners Sherry and Robert Little said.

"As you know, originally we were shut down a period of time and had to focus on takeout and deliveries. It impacted our revenue, which was down nearly 60 percent through the first half of the year," Sherry Little.

Old Iron Post was one of the countless restaurants that were forced to temporarily close their dining rooms to the public during the early days of the pandemic. During this time, the restaurant transitioned into take-out and delivery for the vast majority of its business.

Over time, the dining room was able to reopen, albeit at a reduced capacity. These restrictions have been largely removed over time, however, the restaurant still has reduced the number of tables inside as a precaution, Robert Little said.

Oil Iron Post owner Robert Little poses with children at the 2019 Christmas in July downtown Sherman festival.

Beyond the tables, the business has made other small changes that continue to this day. Condiments are not left on the tables and are only brought out by request. Disposable menus and QR codes that linked to online menus did replace the traditional menus for some time during the pandemic.

"Cleanliness was always important to us before this, but I must admit this all has caused us to double down that and reassess things," Robert Little said.

The public health restrictions restrictions, and not knowing what the future held, created a level of uncertainty that plagued the business throughout 2020. It was impossible to plan as the fear of increasing restrictions was ever present and a constant possibility.

"The biggest thing is one of the things most people don't think about and that was the uncertainty," Robert Little said. "We weren't sure what we were going to be able to do and when we would be able to do it."

While businesses was able to continue through delivery and to-go service, the restaurant did make some difficult decisions during the pandemic, including temporarily letting go of some staff members. Robert Little has a picture of two of his employees standing behind the bar the night that restrictions went into place.

"The next day they were unemployed and I felt really bad about it," he adding that the employees have since been rehired and most of the workers who were let go have stayed with OIP. "We were going to reopen, but they had nowhere to go."

One of the unexpected and unpredictable impacts of the pandemic came in the form of supply shortages as the supply chain worked to adjust to the current economic climate, both Robert and Sherry Little said.

For MG's Restaurant, these shortages came in the form of a short supply of paper goods, which were in short supply. A lack of to-go boxes led the restaurant to close its doors for one Saturday during the pandemic, Manager Chanel Stiggers said.

MG's uses fresh made buds to make their burgers.

"We couldn't borrow any because everybody was having the same issue," Stiggers said.

Still, the hometown hamburger joint weathered the storm of COVID-19 and was able to come out the other side in one piece, partially due to the support the community showed during the pandemic, Stiggers said.

"We've done OK considering we are a local restaurant," she said. "Pretty much the community kept us open. Everybody  was very understanding and ate with us a lot."

Like OIP, MG's also had to make difficult choices with regard to its staffing levels. Full-time employees continued to come in, but high schoolers and part-time employees were asked to stay home, Stiggers said. 

"I knew we would end up opening at some point — I didn't know when," she said. "It was all in the air."

Now that the pandemic has started to subside, Stiggers said the business is seeing the opposite problem: a lack of workers and applications. Stiggers said she thinks this is partially due to increased unemployment benefits.

Both businesses said that take-out orders saw a significant increase throughout the pandemic when compared to previous years. Both said the expect this to be a lasting trend even after the current crisis has subsided.