Clarence’s Steak & Seafood House has served the community since 1971, but as of Tuesday the restaurant will be closing its doors until further notice because of the COVID-19 crisis.
That venerable restaurant near the Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway is one of more than 90 restaurants in the area faced with either offering curbside or delivery services or shutting down until the virus subsides.
On Monday, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that all restaurants had to switch to curbside, takeout or delivery services for at least 30 days, that following previous limits on how many people could gather in one place.
“When this thing first came out, we tried it for a few days. We went probably Wednesday through Friday as just carry out, and then on the weekend, we followed the mandate of 10 people in at a time,” said Allen Pickurel, owner of Clarence’s. “The mandate, the 10 people and then the to-go, you know, we kind of knocked along, and at least we could maybe break even.
“With the new mandate, we lost the 10 people inside, and with strictly to-go, I just can’t make it.”
These issues have forced several other eateries to close until further notice, such as The Sirloin House and Hugo’s Restaurant and Sports Bar in Martinsville and, In Patrick County, the bowling alley and sports bar Tin Pen Alley. Others’ plans are clouded in rumors that haven’t been confirmed.
Pickurel said the average traffic at his restaurant dropped 80% in one week. Even though Clarence’s offers takeout, he said most customers come for the combination of the savory food and the family friendly atmosphere.
“People are used to coming to me, you know, sitting down, getting a meal,” Pickurel said. “You know, they’re not in that routine of coming here to-go. It’s not like you’re going to a drive-through where that’s their normal thing and that’s what they do. They’re not really expecting that here.”
Over its 49-year history, Pickurel said, the restaurant never has experienced anything like the events that took place during the past week.
“I never thought I’d see anything like this,” Pickurel said. “That’s what really is mind-boggling, almost, just how fast something can happen. Here you’re rolling, things are going good, and then, boom, in a week’s time, you’re looking at maybe you’re going to have to close, and then eventually you are going to have to close.”
After the COVID-19 threat dies down, Pickurel said, he plans to reopen the restaurant.
“I hope we can come back. I hope I can maintain my staff, number one. That really is a big concern for me. I’ve got a good staff, and I hope to hold on to them. If I can hold on to my staff, I hope we can get back in here and get things back to normal, back rolling,” Pickurel said. “I really want to just thank my customers for being so loyal and supporting us throughout the years. They’ve really been loyal to us.”
Making some bread
Laurence Vanderwoods, manager of Keto-Ring and Catering by Rising Sun Breads, said that, although he was heartbroken for the businesses that closed, he ultimately agreed with enforcing the executive order. He cited the importance of keeping others safe – especially the elderly and immuno-compromised who are at the highest risk.
For the vulnerable population, it’s especially hard to procure necessities, especially when people panic-buy the goods. Items such as toilet paper, hand sanitizer, surgical masks, meat, milk and bread were especially scarce last week. However, for the bakery, the panic buying has meant business.
“We’re doing pretty good, we are,” he said. “Well, one of the things that saves us here is we sell bread. We’re the only place in Martinsville and Henry County that makes bread.”
Instead of raking in the profits, the massive amount of people out looking for groceries struck a chord with Vanderwoods and Rising Sun Breads owner Darla Main-Schneider. The manager pitched an idea to the owner as a way to help the community.
“We didn’t go in and raise our prices,” Vanderwoods said. “We went in and lowered them.”
Rising Sun Breads dropped the price of white and wheat bread from $4.99 to $3.99 and offered several family-sized frozen dinner entrees at a lower cost, dropping the price for select meals from $14.99 and $12.99 to $8.99.
“This isn’t a time to take advantage of people,” Vanderwoods said. “It’s a time to help.”
The taxing effect
Rebecca Adcock, executive director of the Patrick County Chamber of Commerce, said the hit local restaurants took because of the executive orders and could impact the area as a whole in the form of tax payments.
“We are seeing a dip in usage, but will not know the extent of it for a month or two when they have to submit their taxes,” Adcock said. “The town does already collect a meals tax, which most restaurants are within the town limits. That line item in the town budget has allowed the town to work on projects, for example the new fire department and the upcoming wastewater sewer upgrades.
“The county has passed the resolution to start collecting the meals tax beginning April 1. The county meals tax would only be for the restaurants operating in the county. Their tax would not be added to town meals tax.”
Beth Stinnett, assistant director of tourism for Martinsville-Henry County, said that it’s hard to gauge the impact the crisis could have on the industry, especially as restaurant owners navigate the changes. Visit Martinsville creates an updated list of open area restaurants and posts the information daily on its Facebook page.
“We know this is a tough time for all the businesses in our industry, especially restaurants. We know that our small businesses need support now more than ever, and we want to help our industry partners in any way that we can,” Stinnett said. “Providing a single place with all the information on who has modified services makes it easier for our residents to reach out.”
If everyone follows the protocols set in place for safety, the mandates could be lifted after a 30-day period.
“If people would just listen this time, listen, and keep your social distancing, stop thinking it’s okay, that you’re invulnerable, that you’re invincible. Because maybe you are,” Vanderwoods said. “Maybe you won’t have the symptoms, but you don’t know who you came into contact with that will. And you can kill them.”