PETERSTOWN — After the COVID-19 pandemic began and Gov. Jim Justice issued an executive order to close restaurants to indoor dining, Linda Fox thought her business may have to close for good.
Fox, owner of the iconic Hometown Restaurant in Peterstown for 33 years, saw her life and the lives of her employees and customers change literally overnight.
When the news finally sank in, she decided initially not to try to offer takeout, knowing that it would not be enough to survive. But when word got around she may not be open at all, people in the community called and asked her to reconsider.
“We did that, and it helped,” she said, adding it also kept a few of the employees working. “We did everything (to afford to stay open). We did pies, we did cakes. We just kept cooking things we could put up front that people could buy.”
But she knew it would be difficult to survive with the overhead associated with running a privately owned small restaurant with takeout only. “We were not going to make it on just to-go orders.” The volume of business was not enough.
“We were closed down completely (to inside dining) for two months,” she said, and that was a time she worried about whether her restaurant, which has seen customers such as Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito and the late artist Pete Ballard who was a fixture there, could survive,
Although another business in the community offered her financial help to stay open, as did some residents, Fox said she would not accept anything like that.
She did apply for and received a $25,000 PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) from the pandemic money made available through the federal Small Business Administration to try to keep people employed.
That made a huge difference, she said, but she is not sure how much of it will have to be repaid. However, since most of the money was used to pay salaries and other crucial expenses any money that must be repaid should be small.
Fox said one thing that “saved us” was when food was delivered to students’ homes by the school system.
We made the food for those bags (that were distributed to families) and the (Monroe County) board of education paid us,” she said. “That really brought me out of the woods.”
Hometown also provided food for nursing home residents. Donations were raised in the community and then Fox was asked to provide the meals.
“That was not a money-maker,” she said of the food provided at cost. “But it kept us busy.”
When the news came she could reopen, she then had to adjust to allowing only 50 percent capacity.
“We took out half the tables,” she said. “We went from 24 tables to 12. But we were happy to be at half capacity.”
But even with that, she said, it’s hard to survive when “our clientele is half of what it was.”
When the restaurant reopened, one of the immediate problems was the buffet, which has been a popular mainstay at the restaurant for many years, but because of the pandemic safety protocol was difficult to offer.
Fox made it work, though, by waitresses filling customers’ plates for them.
“Some didn’t like that,” she said. “They like to fill their own plates. But they are okay now.”
A buffet is a lot of work, she added, but the demand was there because “everybody loves the buffet.”
Fox said she does not know of any other restaurant in the area that still offers a buffet.
Being open at half capacity also helped bring employees back.
“We have them all back,” she said, but fewer hours because three traditions at the restaurant cannot be offered yet due to the limited capacity.
Fox said the restaurant had to close on Sundays.
“It was our biggest day,” she said. “But since most people cannot attend church now, we did not have the customers.”
Hometown always drew a crowd on Sunday afternoon after church services ended, so she has to be at 100 percent capacity anyway.
Other popular traditions had to be postponed as well.
“We also can’t have hot dog or our senior citizen night,” she said.
The restaurant had offered its famous hot dogs (even the bun in homemade) on the last Friday of each month for 99 cents each, and that meant making about 1,500 hot dogs with a crowded restaurant.
The holidays will be impacted as well because of the limited capacity. Inside-dining Thanksgiving meals will not be offered and only takeout family meals will be available.
But the restaurant is about more than everything-made-from-scratch food.
To many customers as well as employees, it is like a home.
Betty Tippett is one of those employees and she has been the dishwasher for more than 26 years.
When she learned the restaurant had to close, it scared her.
“It was very scary,” she said. “We were out of work. We couldn’t work. They closed us down.”
But when she was called to come back to work, she said she was happy.
“I just love working at hometown,” she said. “I love my boss (Fox) very much, and she knows that. When she gets sick, I get sad.”
Tippett said she loves working with all of the people at the restaurant and is glad to be back to work.
Shirley Perry of Bluefield has been a regular at the restaurant for two years and she, her sister and a friend all made the drive to Peterstown to eat three times every week.
“We were known as the Golden Girls,” she said last week, eating there without her two usual companions.
Health problems that coincided with the pandemic have meant the “demise of the Golden Girls,” she said, adding that one of her fiends does still accompany her when she can.
The pandemic has been difficult for her to deal with.
“Once a routine is broken at a certain age, you sit there and become more sedentary,” Perry said. “It’s harder to then pick up the routine.”
Eating at the restaurant three times a week with her friends was a routine she cherished, and it helped her cope with the death of her husband of more than 63 years who died two years ago.
“After he died, I could not stand the loneliness,” she said. “But I knew my sister and others were coming here all the time. I had not been here at all.”
When she came, she found a home at Hometown.
“I found friends here,” she said. “They started as acquaintances and friendly staff, but later I felt I was a room with friends. They never fail to smile, to make you feel welcome. When you left, you took a feeling home that you weren’t completely alone.”
The pandemic brought the loneliness again, she said, emphasizing how important it is to find a friend, a “quarantine buddy,” to survive.
When restaurants reopened, she was ready to return to Hometown.
“Finding a place like this, where you feel perfectly at home,” she said. “There is no pressure, no hustle or bustle that drives you crazy. Everybody still loves you here.”
Perry said the worst thing people can do during this pandemic is give up contacts.
“You’ve got to stay connected to somebody, somewhere,” she said.
Staying connected is one thing Hoppy Weatherly from Rick Creek, Va. has always done at Hometown.
“I have been coming here for 14 years,” he said, adding he eats there almost every day.
Weatherly is a fixture, as everyone who comes in greets him as a friend.
It’s a second home to him, he says, adding that he loves all the food as well, especially the coffee.
“They have the best coffee around,” he said, and he often eats breakfast there.
Fox said breakfast is the most popular meal.
“it’s just like grandma’s breakfast, though,” she said, as it gives customers the type of food they had growing up in the area.
“I have a lot of spoiled customers. People I have had for years,” Fox said, with a smile, of the family atmosphere. “Regular customers are spoiled rotten. If we mess up, we have had it. But they all love me. I can call them anytime.”
Fox said her employees are like that as well.
“They might get mad at me and fuss,” she said. “But they would help me do anything. They are there at my beckoning call.”
Right now, though, she said she is thankful her business is surviving, as are her employees, and thankful her customers are back in a place where they feel at home.
And she remains hopeful the end of the pandemic is near so she, her employees and customers can return to a normalcy that is priceless and will never again be taken for granted.
— Contact Charles Boothe at firstname.lastname@example.org