Community's restaurants rebounding

Allison Medlock, left, and Grace Johnson enjoy lunch at The Carmichael Inn in Loudon.

As COVID-19 numbers decrease, local restaurants are seeing an uptick in business.

The difficulty now is getting supplies and finding employees.

“We’ve kind of been back to normal now for a little while,” Parker Bartholomew, owner of The Burgers in Lenoir City, said. “The community’s been great supporting us. We’re just looking forward to hopefully a year with no more shutdowns and no more changes, so just trying to get back to normal.”

Tammi Bivens, general manager of the Carmichael Inn in Loudon, said operations have gone well since opening in June.

“We are operating normal like it would’ve been before COVID,” Bivens said. “We weren’t open before COVID, but everything as far as what the state of Tennessee has relaxed in, everything is open. We do still have several customers who are COVID aware, which is fine. We appreciate that, and we try to accommodate them with either outside seating or seating in an area that’s not around too much. Our dining room, for one, is very spaced out that you’re not sitting right on top of someone in there, and then our outside is very spaced out as well.”

Mark Polley, owner of Taste-o-Texas in Loudon, said he’s glad to be back to normal with indoor dining after an unsuccessful period of only preparing to-go orders.

Customers have also been steadily increasing.

“Of course, you have what they call a three-month honeymoon stage where people are just trying you out, coming in, seeing what it’s all about,” Bivens said. “Our sales were good all the way through around November, which restaurant sales do decrease in November, December. People are Christmas shopping, and they’re not spending as much on things like going out to eat. … That’s also the time that COVID cases spiked.

“When that happened, the churches started shutting down again,” she added. “We lost our Sunday base. We’re closed on Sundays and Mondays due to that reason that we lost those Sunday customers. They’re not going to church; they’re not going to come out to eat. Then in January after Christmas was over, New Year’s was over, January picked back up, and we’ve been going strong since.”

Warmer weather has played a large role in increased sales, she said.

With the new year, Polley saw a boost in customer traffic. He estimates Taste-o-Texas is doing 30% more in sales than six months ago.

All three restauranteurs agreed hiring is a big focus right now. Bivens said “everywhere is struggling with it.”

Polley believes unemployment and stimulus money has played a role in people not seeking jobs.

“I personally think that a lot of it has to do that the government over-benefited people,” Polley said. “They got paid off. There was no incentive to get back to work because they were making more money on their unemployment than they were when they were working.”

Food supply has also been an issue, Bivens said.

“Food supplies right now this last week are in jeopardy again,” Bivens said. “Everything is opening back up. There’s a wing shortage in the nation, not just here, so it’s really difficult to get a hold of wings. I do have a little bit of a stockpile, but that will diminish quickly when I can’t refill it.

“Beef prices are going back up,” she added. “We were hoping at this point to be able to lower our cost on food and pass that on to the customers from when we first opened, but that’s not going to be the case I don’t think because everything’s opening up again, and it’s going higher than it was when COVID first hit. We’re really struggling with that. Chicken is going to be difficult to get a hold of, and that’s one of our top sellers. But we’re trying.”