The television is on in the dining room of Carolina Fried Chicken and House of Pizza in Robbins, but no one is watching it. The chairs that are usually occupied by regulars are on top of tables, and the typical restaurant chatter and laughter is absent. Occasionally, the unusual silence is filled by the ringing of the phone.
N.C. Governor Roy Cooper’s announcement last Tuesday closing all in-restaurant dining due to the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted Yianni Kakouras to offer takeout only.
So while food might still be going out the doors of local eateries, something is very much out.
“The character is gone,” Kakouras said “Normally, this place stays pretty full.”
To locals of Robbins and other communities in the northern end of Moore County, The Chicken Hut is more than a restaurant. It is their family room.
And so places that are filled with back slapping, hugs and laughter have become glorified take-out windows where everyone is cautious to keep back.
At Red Bowl Asian Bistro on U.S. 15-501 in Southern Pines, staff there have devised an almost touch-free curbside method of serving customers from their extensive Asian menu.
“No walk-ins, everything is done by phone,” says Heath Rodgers of the privately owned and operated link in the Red Bowl restaurant family.
Instead, customers must order from the website menu and pay — credit cards only, no cash — by phone. Cars are routed around the parking lot to the front door pick-up table, where a closed bag is handed through the window. Hand sanitizer stands on the table. Bottled beer and wine are available with the order, but no liquor.
“I’m worried about my own kids and my mom,” Rodgers says. “I want to take care of our staff, too. We have to learn to stay away from each other.”
At Thyme and Place Cafe in Southern Pines, Leslie Philip described the closing of all eat-in restaurants in the state as a punch in the gut. Then, “OKaaaay, so how can I do something more for the community?
This reaction overcame a three-fold loss, since the chef-owner’s Thyme & Place Café on the edge of downtown Southern Pines also does catering, rents space for events and services several gyms.
Now, to satisfy lovers of her kale crunch salad, hearts of palm tacos, Tuscan tuna and house-made hummus, Philip has instituted pick-up and delivery for meals or catering through GrubHub and other services. In a pinch she will deliver meals personally for a small fee.
This necessitated some adjustments: “I changed my menu to suit my inventory. I didn’t want to be out shopping every day, buying up what others need.” More changes will be made when stock-on-hand runs out.
Philip furloughed the server but kept her other four employees.
“I can hang on for now but I know some businesses can’t. You have to think creatively.”
That’s no different in Robbins, where Kakouras altered his business plan completely. Switching to takeout only has forced him to lay off almost half of his employees between his family’s three restaurants: The Chicken Hut, Pete’s Family Restaurant in Carthage and Westmoore Family Restaurant in Seagrove. The remaining employees are splitting shifts. He’s also slashed menu prices.
“Higher ups in chain restaurants are closing their doors completely, but I can’t do that. I know these employees. I can’t do that to them,” Kakouras said. “This community is looking at me to keep going.”
The Chicken Hut has always had a heavy takeout business. Despite that, he said he’s seen a tremendous drop in business, which he credits to the initial COVID-19 panic that washed over Americans. Robbins in particular is in a tighter spot. The area is currently one of the most economically distressed communities in the county.
Locals stocked up on groceries for a potential quarantine, leaving minimal funds to spend on a pizza or to-go fried chicken platter. Nonetheless, the community's moral support for Kakouras and The Chicken Hut hasn’t wavered.
“A lot of people are going to do their part till they can’t,” Kakouras said.
Pausing mid-sentence and holding up his phone, Kakouras asked if he could have a minute to respond to a message.
“It’s Ms. Grace,” he smiled. “She wanted to tell me we can count on her support.”
In return, Kakouras said he plans to keep his doors open until he can’t.
“I hope that in a few months we’ll be sitting right here eating ice creams and drinking coffee saying that we conquered this.”