Dining, hospitality and entertainment businesses adapt to Covid climate
Hot Dog World owner Steve Katsadouros reinvented service with a return to carhops. [MATT MATTESON/Hendersonville Lightning]
A car drove up and a young girl wearing a blue Hot Dog World t-shirt rushed out to take the driver’s order. Customers no longer line up behind the counter at the iconic 34-year-old Hendersonville original.
Always a model of efficient and friendly service, Hot Dog World radically altered its business by returning to a 1950s-style drive-up service.
“We are overwhelmed,” said owner Steve Katsadouros, who B.C. (Before Covid-19) could be found behind the counter stuffing hot dogs into buns and slathering on chili, mustard and slaw. “Business is good but we’re not equipped to serve as fast as before and we refuse to pre-cook our menu items because people like choices.”
Katsadouros has kept his 34 employees and hired three more servers. He says that if you drive up and put on your flashers a “car hop” will find you. Like a couple of other restaurants locally, Hot Dog World suffered a setback, thanks to the coronavirus. When an employee tested positive for Covid-19, Katsadouros and business partner Thanasi Tsakalos made the tough call to close. “The employee was asymptomatic but the daughter tested positive,” Katsadouros said. “All our other employees tested negative.”
Not wanting to take chances, Hot Dog World furloughed its entire staff for 14 days. “I did some maintenance and caught up on some rest,” he said. “It has been a stressful time for us.”
So, when it reopened last week, Hot Dog World stood as one more monument to the precarious life of business in the age of the coronavirus: a crushing blow by the shutdown in mid-March, recovery with innovation, a setback, perseverance.
Fourteen restaurants and three breweries downtown kept their doors open for takeout dining in the early days of the pandemic, said Lew Holloway, who coordinates business development for downtown. Mike’s on Main was one of them.
“We never shut down,” said owner Patty Adamic. “Hey, I had bills to pay. If I closed I knew that I would never reopen.” She said the impact of Covid-19 has been devastating for the restaurant industry and knows of dozens that have closed altogether. One reason is the lack of staff where servers can make more sitting at home drawing unemployment than working reduced hours at a restaurant. “If the Rolling Stones cut a new song they should call it ‘My Coronavirus 19th Nervous Breakdown,’” she quipped. “But still, there is really no better place to be during the pandemic than Hendersonville.”
Kosta Vlahakis echoed the employment dilemma.
“We can’t get anybody who wants to work.” He and his wife, Denise, have owned Kosta’s Kitchen, a popular diner on Hendersonville Road in Fletcher, for 39 years. Covid-19 accelerated their plans to expand outdoor dining. Now, $22,000 later, the diner sports a new front deck with eight outdoor tables, each under a bright red umbrella. “I would not be here today if we didn’t expand,” he said. “We are usually busy and we still have to turn away customers. We’re just trying our best to make it.”
“Open,” reads the sign in the window of Daddy D’s Suber Soulfood.
Restaurant owners David Suber and Doris Young have tried to brave the coronavirus and keep the restaurant operating despite having to furlough employees who are also family members. “At first, people assumed we were closed but Facebook helped get the word out so we could stay afloat,” said restaurant manager Michael Darity. The restaurant now offers both indoor dining and takeout and uses Grub Hub for delivery. “Daddy D’s typically has a buffet counter,” he said. “But out of necessity we changed to a traditional menu that we call mix and match.” Dairty was upbeat about the pandemic. “We just have to kind of live through it.”
Booze sales skyrocket
Despite reduced store hours and a plunge in liquor sales to restaurants and bars in the early stages of the pandemic, the sale of alcohol by each of the county’s three local alcohol beverage control boards skyrocketed. The demand for alcoholic beverages began in March and has held steady. Comparing June 2020 with the same month last year, alcohol sales rose by 17.8 percent at Hendersonville’s three retail stores rose 17.8 percent, 23.4 percent in Laurel Park and a staggering 28.5 percent in Fletcher. The combined increase in ABC sales across the county for June was over $1.2 million.
ABC stores supply alcohol wholesale to bars and restaurants but during the early months of the pandemic, bars were shut down completely (as most still are) and restaurants were limited to takeout and delivery sales only. Evidently, plenty of people opted for drinking at home. In June of 2019 the Hendersonville ABC Board reported that liquor for restaurants accounted for 16 percent of total sales. This June, the percentage was cut in half.
Jeff Nance, who manages Hendersonville’s ABC stores, shared a unique trend — half gallon bottle sales are up sharply. He was uncertain if it had more to do with customers cautiously making fewer trips to the store or that customers were just consuming more alcohol. Nance did not think this was the “new normal” because overall sales were slightly trending down. One benefit of the boost in alcohol sales is that the Hendersonville ABC Board can make a larger contribution for local education programs. Last year more than $50,000 went to the schools.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Company never reopened its taproom and restaurant and may not until October. Brewery officials said that the chance of a customer or employee testing positive was not worth the risk given the close proximity of the restaurant to the brewery. Curbside pick-up business however has been better than expected.
Dry Falls Brewing Company never closed.
“We’re at fifty percent capacity and closely following the Governor’s guidelines,” said Evan Golliher who, along with his dad, turned the former Oates auto body shop on Busy Bend into a brewery and taproom. Golliher said business was good even last spring when they were doing takeout sales only. Evan’s father, Jeff, said they added outdoor seating to their four-year-old brewery to accommodate 50 to 60 more patrons.
‘Second wave of virus could be disaster’
Every day at noon Mike Burnette checks the numbers on his smartphone looking for signs of a downturn in Covid-19 cases. He and his wife, Tracy, purchased the 15-room Waverly Inn four years ago. They closed for the month of April but reopened in May and business is picking up. “We sold out all our July weekends,” said an elated Burnette. “But it’s the mid-weeks that are slow.” Bed and breakfasts tend to attract more cautious travelers who often call before they book to gauge the safety of the inn. “We used to let guests pour their own complimentary wine from bottles,” he said. “Now we pour it for them.” October is typically a good month for B&Bs in Hendersonville but Burnette has some fears. “If we get a second wave of the virus, it could be a disaster.”
Fletcher’s Rutledge Lake RV Resort lies less than a mile from congested New Airport Road. Here you can park your recreational vehicle, drop a line in the pond and relax. But there was little fishing in April when business plunged by 85 percent. Park manager Susan Miller said by the end of June occupancy for their 108 sites and cabins was almost back to normal. “It’s easy to social distance in a RV park,” she said. “Many of our guests drive in from New York and Florida and one thing we heard over and over was that they just wanted to get out of their houses.”
“It’s amazing how abruptly things changed,” said Chris Smith, general manager of Mountain Inn & Suites. “We heard about the virus on the West Coast and almost overnight they started canceling NBA basketball games. That’s when we knew things were serious.”
Smith started to prepare his staff for the news that the Upward Road hotel might have to close. “We never did,” he said. “When occupancy was down to 10 percent in March we found them jobs like deep cleaning or painting, anything to keep our hotel family employed.” Things picked up in May and by mid-July the hotel was half full. The management dropped the buffet breakfast and now offer a scaled-down version. For added safety, they do not book the same room back-to-back. Smith is optimistic that business will pick up in 2021 and that most of the 66 guest rooms will be occupied.
Some camps soldier on
When Gov. Cooper declared a state of emergency on March 10 due to the rapid spread of Covid-19, Henderson County’s overnight summer camps were already registering campers, hiring staff, and developing programs and activities. State Rep. Chuck McGrady pushed the governor’s office to allow camps to open if they could prevent the spread of the virus but for some camps the state’s guidance came too late. Nine of the county’s camps skipped the 2020 season entirely and another nine chose to open with varying degrees of fewer sessions and reduced numbers: Ton-A-Wanda, Blue Star, Tekoa, Arrowhead, Highlander, Falling Creek, Kanuga, Bonclarken and Pinnacle.
“The decision was made after many sleepless nights trying to figure which option was the best — out of no perfect options,” said Camp Pinnacle owner John Dockendorf. “We dropped our first summer session and are at 60 percent capacity. Overhead went up by more than a third due to required cleaning, buying masks, face shields and other personal protective equipment and hiring medical staff. Pinnacle also lost its spring and fall wedding business which can amount to 25 percent of annual revenue. But Dockendorf was not disillusioned. “We are giving kids something amazing this year,” referring to the alternative of them being locked down at home during the summer and denied school time and sports. “They are not bothered by the small sacrifice of wearing a mask here in camp.”
“Before we decided in May to open Falling Creek Camp at reduced capacity, we looked at guidelines from the American Camp Association, the CDC, and the North Carolina Department of Health,” said Paige Hafner, a director at Camp Falling Creek in Tuxedo.
Camp Tekoa, a Methodist affiliated camp, opened an abbreviated season on July 12. “We’re gosh darn glad to have somebody in camp,” said interim camp director Phyllis Murray. “We follow the prescribed regulations. Kids and staff wear masks when indoors unless eating and outdoors when required.”
Camp Kanuga has lost a substantial amount of revenue, marketing director Jane Childress said. “There has been some limited reopening such as families booking small cabins,” she said. “This way a family can still shelter in place in the safety of their group while enjoying some of the most fun things about camp, such as swimming, canoeing, and s’mores by the campfire.”
Socially distanced on the French Broad
“The river is a safe place to social distance,” said Matt Evans, owner of Lazy Otter Outfitters. “We’re such a small operation the coronavirus impact has been minimal.” Evans said they do kayak put-ins directly on the French Broad River at their shop in Horse Shoe and pick up at Westfeldt Park dock, about seven miles downstream. He said they must be particularly careful with protocols during return road trips.
“We’re down by 50 percent,” said Tim Connelly, general manager of the Etowah Valley Golf & Resort. “We usually sell out our rooms, but the only sellout was the July Fourth weekend.” Connelly said the resort still has limited dining hours but golf is doing fine. What was lost from out-of-state golfers was gained back with local players. Plus, he said, the 27-hole course is in its best shape in years. The reason is that out-of-towners can tear up the course trying to squeeze in as much golf as possible. “Younger golfers are finding that playing Etowah is as good a time as bar hopping in Asheville,” he said. He added that business was affected by the closing of so many summer camps where parents would stay a few days after dropping off their kids.
The Carl Sandburg Home reopened June first but only for park trails, most of the grounds, and parking lots. The Sandburg house, barn and barnyard, restrooms, and other structures remain closed. The National Park Service reports that the Sandburg Home attracts 78,000 visitors a year.
‘We made lemonades out of lemons’
Garden Jubilee on Memorial Day is Henderson County Tourism Development Authority’s signature outdoor event and marks the unofficial kickoff of downtown Hendersonville’s usually robust festival season. When the pandemic hit the state, it quickly became evident that the Main Street venue was out. “But we didn’t cancel,” said TDA director Beth Carden. “We reformatted the event and printed a glitzy brochure to cater to both locals and out-of-towners.” For three days, visitors were “shopped out” to 15 nurseries and orchards across the county. “We made lemonade out of lemons and we had the hotels full,” Carden said.
Henderson County’s hospitality effort took a different turn. “While other tourist agencies cut back marketing, we kept it up,” said Carden, who believes it has already paid off with a steady upturn in occupancy tax revenue since the numbers crashed in April (down 80 percent from April 2019). The TDA also salvaged the Fourth of July fireworks show — one of the few held in Western North Carolina. “Many people think of tourism — dining, lodging, retail, and recreation — as a luxury but it is anything but,” she said. “It’s an economic driver.”
Flat Rock Playhouse’s 2020 season was canceled and moved to 2021. Lisa K. Bryant, creative artistic director for the Playhouse, said the plan to reopen in mid-July was nixed. Actors and stage managers belong to Actors Equity, which is concerned with the health and safety of their members. Without the union’s blessing, there would be no shows in Flat Rock — or for that matter — on Broadway. “We got hit from both sides,” she said. “The state guidelines limited large gatherings and the union said no.”
With the entire season canceled the Playhouse is trying to find ways to bring back patrons such as holding concerts. “If a window of opportunity presents itself we’ll try to get it up on stage,” said Bryant, who had to furlough 27 employees and is making do with a skeleton crew. “It’s going to be a joyous day when we get our season back.” Bryant lamented that this is the first time the Playhouse has gone dark in its 68-year season. “We had some great shows lined up such as ‘A Chorus Line,’ ‘Steel Magnolias,’ and ‘Million Dollar Quartet,’” said Bryant. “We tried for a long time to get ‘West Side Story’ and we finally did.” Now, theater patrons will have to wait a year to learn what happens “When you’re a Jet all the way.”
One of the biggest impacts of Covid-19 was reconfiguring the Apple Festival slated for Labor Day weekend. Although festival officials insit that “we are not cancelling the festival,” they made the decision to drop the street fair, entertainment, kids events, Main Street apple stands and the King Apple Parade. To keep the tradition alive, the 75th Festival will be “farmed out” to smaller venues such as merchants, nonprofits and local apple growers who can safely accommodate visitors. It was estimated last year’s attendees reached 275,000 with as much as 80 percent visiting from out of county. Festival goers might have spent some $12 million here over four days. Plans to enhance weekend activities for visitors are still being developed. The city of Hendersonville plans to hold an “Open Streets” weekend over Labor Day.
The coronavirus hit Downtown Hendersonville hard. One gauge of activity was the drop in the city parking revenue. For the months of April, May and June in 2019, revenue totaled $32,656 but for those same months this past spring, revenue was only $7,279, about 22 percent of last year’s take. In April, a month before the phase 1 restrictions were lifted, downtown becme a virtual ghost town. City parking meters yielded a paltry $92.