By Nathan Ham
At 5 p.m. on Friday, restaurants in North Carolina are officially able to re-open their dining rooms to the public at a 50 percent capacity. While some restaurants are ready to open the doors and greet their customers, others are being more cautious and waiting to see how things go.
“We had been talking for a while that we were going to let the restaurants that wanted to open right away and let them ‘guinea pig’ the situation to see how it goes. If anything was to come up, we could learn from them instead of having any issues tied back to us,” said Josh Pepper, the manager of Pepper’s Restaurant in Boone.
Pepper’s just celebrated 45 years of business last week, and while being able to only do takeout and delivery may not be what they expected to be doing celebrating this special occasion, they have been able to stay above water and keep feeding their favorite customers.
“The past two months have been a total 180 from what we’re used to. Everyone has pretty much grasped the concept really well,” Pepper said. “We had to reduce our hourly pay, especially for the back of the house people so everybody is making the exact same and splitting the tips between everyone, which has actually worked really well. People have been really generous with their tipping.”
Josh said that some customers have tipped 50 percent and even 100 percent of their bill to help out the employees. “We’ve sold a lot of gift cards online and the outreach from the community has been really nice.”
If you ask most anybody that loves to eat at Pepper’s, they’ll tell you that the Jean Lawson Special is one of the most popular items on the menu. Pepper’s even offers stickers that folks around Boone have put on their cars, laptops, and bags that pay tribute to the Jean Lawson Special.
“The Jean Lawson is our top seller as it is, but it has outsold everything else by such a large margin. We have someone almost daily call from Hickory or Lenoir to say they’re coming up the mountain to get a Jean Lawson,” said Josh.
The famous sandwich features turkey, marinated mushrooms, onions, green peppers, and pepper cheese on a kaiser roll.
Even with the great customers that have kept the doors open at Pepper’s Restaurant with their takeout orders, getting back open for dine-in service is the ultimate goal. Much like every other restaurant that will soon reopen, Pepper’s has its own set of unique challenges.
“Our dining room is a triangle and fitting tables six feet apart isn’t the easiest thing to do. We’re going to be super limited. Our fire code is 160 people between the bar and the dining room and I think with our tables set up at six feet apart, we’re probably looking at being able to seat 30 to 40 people,” Josh said.
Along with distancing the tables comes additional sanitizing measures, mask requirements for staff members, and many other regulations that Josh says they received in an email yesterday.
“It’s pretty intense what all you have to do. We’re going to have a meeting next week to try and get everybody on board with proper protocols with hand washing, sanitizing, and how to communicate with tables. It’s really about how to be safe, keep employees safe, and keep the customers safe. We’re all in this together; we all have to keep one another safe,” said Josh.
Pepper’s famous salad bar is a hot topic for debate among the staff. No one is sure what the future holds for self-service areas such as a salad bar or a buffet.
“It was pretty much rip out the salad bar and put in more seating or have a salad bar attendant making salads. You can order a salad and write down what you want and we’ll make it for you. We’re going to try that and see how it goes. It will cut down on multiple people touching utensils,” Josh explained.
Pepper’s will most likely shift to all disposable plates, forks, and silverware as well as using paper menus that are easily disposable.
“It leads to a lot of waste and cost, but it’s worth it right now to be open and run it as safe as possible,” Josh said. “When you run a restaurant the same way for 45 years and then totally have to change everything you are doing, it can be hard.”
Josh acknowledged that right now it won’t be possible to have the number of employees they had in the past. During this take-out-only period for restaurants, Josh says they went from 55 employees down to 14.
“We’ll probably have between 30 and 35 employees going when we get back. Hopefully business is good enough and we can get people working,” he said.
So far, nobody has been complaining about the extra safety precautions because it means a lot to keep people around the restaurant as healthy as possible. Josh’s dad and restaurant owner, Jack Pepper, is 72 years old and he still comes to the restaurant every morning doing paperwork. Josh’s girlfriend has immune system issues and the kitchen manager, Claude, is 62 years old.
“We’re just trying to do the right thing and be open, make a little money and pay a few bills,” Josh said.