Diners’ Delight

Area restaurants re-open after
COVID-19 lockdown

Some survived with carry-out or drive-through
only service

July Cover

(July 2020) – Special restaurant meals take us back to special memories. Graduations, weddings, birthdays and holidays are just a few of the occasions marked by special meals with family and friends. In your mind, you can still recall that special setting or signature recipe that marked a celebratory meal at your favorite restaurant. Restaurants have always been open for us to choose where and how to celebrate.
However, in spring 2020, there were no graduation gatherings or celebratory meals at restaurants. Birthday meals from restaurants were limited to carry-out. There were no big family gatherings celebrating Easter or Mother’s Day. The shutdown affected everyone.
Restaurant owners were hit in many ways they never expected. Fine dining became carry-out only. Fast food meant a long line in the drive-through lane. Curbside was the new buzzword. For some new restaurants, the loss of onsite dining made it impossible to survive on carry-out only. For restaurants just being built or remodeled, the delays were costly and especially challenging. When the COVID-19 shutdowns hit local restaurants, every restaurant owner was faced with new challenges – many unique to that particular restaurant. 

Photo provided

Emily Kasselmann manages her family’s McDonald’s restaurants in Pendleton and Eminence, Ky. She and her husband, Dave, gave their employees an hourly raise and contributed $1,000 to the Henry County Help Center during the coronavirus pandemic.

Joe Breeck, 44, had been filled with the energy of designing his new restaurant, the Rivertown Eatery. It soon evolved to three new restaurants, all under construction simultaneously. Then the shutdown hit. For Breeck and his wife, Beth, the excitement of renovation and reconstruction came to an abrupt halt when contractors shutdown. While they continued to do as much work personally as possible, it was not a substitute for the construction professionals working simultaneously in three sites. They prioritized their options and focused on two ventures – Rivertown Pizza, located next to L&L Lounge on West State Street and the Rivertown Grill, located downtown at 321 Jefferson St. Recently, when the contractors came back on site, work escalated. “They are all doing their part to get us up and running,” Joe said.
Joe also owns a successful marine equipment business that stayed strong and busy, continuing to provide the funding for the restaurant renovations. At the Rivertown Eatery in Clifty Plaza on Clifty Drive, the former Bello’s Pizza space had to be completely gutted and rebuilt. The Breecks say they have invested more than $100,000 in 33 feet of stainless-steel hoods and walls in the new kitchen.
Joe’s first restaurant was located in Pleasant, Ind., where he had renovated an old general store more than 10 years ago. “Although it was out in the sticks, people came from all over because the food was good.” Joe explained. His goal was to bring a great restaurant to Madison. He said he is looking forward to opening Rivertown Pizza and the Rivertown Grill in July.
The Rivertown Eatery, to feature Certified Angus Beef of Indiana and fresh seafood, will open later, he said. “You won’t have to drive an hour to get a great meal,” he said.
When time is money and there is no revenue coming in at all, delays are especially challenging. Oscar Rubio was candid about the shutdown’s impact on the construction of his new Tapatio Restaurant on Clifty Drive. “COVID-19 really messed me up,“ he said. His progress was also delayed due to contractor shutdowns. The exterior painting stopped. Permits were delayed. Rubio has owned Tapatio in Madison for 28 years. He had closed the old location and was looking forward to opening the new facility. Meanwhile, his other Tapatio restaurant in Columbus, Ind., did stay open for carry-out. It had just re-opened on Jan. 7 in a new location.

Photo by Don Ward

The drive-through at the McDonald’s owned by the Saliba family in La Grange, Ky., stayed busy during the cornavirus lockdown.

However, as a new site, the volume trickled to only 7 percent at the lowest point. By mid-June as things were re-opening, the volume had grown back to about 30 percent of normal, he said.
“Thank God for that,” Rubio said. Rubio is looking at a July re-opening in Madison. “The same name, same menu and same prices. We will not change a thing,” Rubio said. In addition to the new Tapatio, Rubio is opening Lupita Grocery and Taqueria, located on Clifty Drive near the intersection of State Road 256. It will also serve Tapatio to-go items, he said.
Sweet and Savory Blessings in Carrollton was another new restaurant hit hard by the shutdown. Rickie and Kathy Pennington had just opened on Dec 17, 2019. They closed on March 17, only three months after opening. They did not try to do carry-out during the closure but did offer catering. They did all the work themselves, earning enough to pay the utility bills but not the rent. Fortunately, they do receive a rent subsidy from the Carrollton Main Street Program for this first year in business.   
“When we re-opened June 1, business was slower than before we closed because older people were still staying home,” Rickie explained. By mid-June, business started picking up because previous customers were coming back.
Reflecting on the last six months, Rickie explained how they got started in the restaurant business. After he had retired in 2017, they did their three-year bucket list, which included possibly opening a restaurant or catering business. “Kathy woke me at 2 a.m. one morning and said she had a dream that the business would be called Sweet and Savory Blessings. The next day, she was headed to a church conference in Louisville with a friend, who told her, ‘I had a dream that you and Rickie will open a restaurant.’ ”
Rickie laughed and explained, “I didn’t think that I wanted to be tied to a job five to six days a week, but now I love it. I love meeting people, seeing old friends and people I used to work with. So far God hasn’t blessed us with riches, but it’s coming.”
At the Off Broadway Taproom in Madison, Ind., manager Ryan Shaw said his first reaction to the COVID-19 restrictions was to just shut everything down. “I didn’t know how it would work out and was a little worried,” he said. He decided to open with just carry-out food. When the liquor laws relaxed after two to three weeks, he was able to sell growlers of beer and a few other products, even though his current liquor license does not allow carry-out sales.
“Still, I lost revenue because of people not sitting there. It was a definite difference,” he said. Madison Chemical provided daily lunches for their employees, rotating between different restaurants, which was helpful and very generous, Shaw noted. Shaw said he is looking forward to July 4 when he can finally hit full capacity and go back to providing live music. The Jimmy Davis Band will kick it off.
“Jimmy has been so helpful over the years. I’m 48 now and have been doing this since age 15. I started by washing dishes at LaRosa in Cincinnati. Madison’s been great through all of this. I knew it would be tough. We are getting back into our routine every day. We have been doing enough business to stay open. The town has been really supportive,” Shaw said.

Photo by Don Ward

Susan Hilbert, general manager and executive chef at One Nineteen West Main in La Grange, Ky., poses outside the restaurant. The eatery stayed open for carry-out. It’s dining room is now open.

The Key West Shrimp House just shut down in the beginning. “At first I thought no one wants cold take-out seafood,” said owner Cathy Morgan. She decided to try opening Tuesday through Sunday, just doing it all alone. She only had a few orders each day, so she cut back to just weekend carry-out. “It was OK but not the greatest. I wasn’t going to let people down. It was just me doing all the prep work and the cooking. One other employee took phone orders, boxed up the food and took it out to customers. It was a lot,” Morgan said.
When restaurants were able to start opening, Mother’s Day was the best day. On May 18, the dining room was at 50 percent capacity, and they were able to stay full. There was even a waiting list on weekends.
“It was fantastic; very busy. We were very blessed, even with face masks and all that. It was just such a blessing to see all those folks again,” Morgan said. They have had to make a few menu changes because the open salad bar was not permitted. Instead, a side salad was served with meals. Customers continue to call about the re-opening of the famous salad bar.
Morgan said she is hopeful the salad bar will be permitted with the full opening in July.
Susan Hilbert, general manager and executive chef at One Nineteen West Main in La Grange Ky., explained that after the shutdown, they just opened the very next day for carry-out. It was a big change. “We’re not a takeout restaurant, so we had to adjust to quickly become a takeout restaurant. Our owner, Jason Kinser, wanted to stay open for the community. We supported them as much as they supported us,” she said.
Fortunately, most of staff stayed. Some opted to take leave, but they all worked together to cover shifts that needed to be covered and to give hours to those who needed hours.
When they could begin to open on June 22, the dining room looked funny because clear plastic curtains were hung between tables. Tables were re-arranged six feet apart, as required. Staff members wore gloves and masks. “We wanted the community to know we were waiting for them to return. We wanted to re-assure them so they would feel safe to sit down and eat. The masks get a little crazy sometimes. They’re hot, but we’re willing to do it to have customers return,” Hilbert said. The curtains are sprayed with Lysol every night. Everything on the menu is homemade, including desserts. Their signature dessert, Kentucky Bacon Pie, was nominated for “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” TV show, which aired in January 2020.

Photo by Sharyn Whitman

Cathy Morgan took on much of the work alone while keeping the doors open at Key West Shrimp House in Madison, Ind.

Kinser’s recipe is trademarked and patented to One Nineteen West Main. “It includes candied pecans, chocolate chips, bacon – so how can you go wrong,” said Hilbert with a smile. The restaurant is located across from the Oldham County Courthouse on Main Street. “Kids love watching the trains go by,” she said.
McDonalds restaurants are known for their efficient drive-through operations. However, “drive-through-only” posed new challenges for these local restaurants, when long lines of cars often snaked out of the parking lots into the road.
Emily Kasselmann, is the owner and operator of two Henry County McDonald’s restaurants with her husband Dave – those in Eminence and Pendleton. She explained that they kept operations running smoothly by focusing on their staff. “At our McDonald’s, the crew is treated like family. We wanted to do the right things to keep our guests and crew safe. Also, we paid all hourly employees an extra $2 per hour for every hour worked as a bonus from the beginning of COVID-19 through mid-June. Most are still with us, and we continue to do really well in the community.”
The Pendleton location provided carry-out because it was located inside the Pilot Truck-Stop on I-71. It had been shut down for 30 days for a major remodel, re-opened in mid-March and then became carry-out only on March 19. Instead of the grand opening originally planned, the Kasselmanns donated $1,000 to the Henry County Help Center, located next to their Eminence McDonald’s location, as a thank-you to the community. 
The Eminence site operated as drive-through-only during the shutdown.
Throughout the year, a percentage of the dinner sales is donated to the Help Center.
Kasselmann noted that their ongoing support for the Help Center had included the donation of a walk-in refrigerator and freezer a few years ago, after a McDonald’s remodel. Her father, George Saliba, owns 10 McDonald’s restaurants in Kentucky and Indiana, including those in Madison and Hanover. Her brother, Richard Saliba, supervises those two locations.
“At McDonald’s, we know that our stores are still ‘normal’ for people in spite of Plexiglas, masks and gloves,” Kasselmann said. “We will continue to do what’s right for our guests and our people. We are very blessed to do what we can do every day.” 
At Harry’s Stone Grill in Madison, carry-out and deliveries continued without any shutdown. With the assistance of the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Plan, everyone was able to be called back to work, said owner Harry Dobbins.
“We count our blessings because PPP really made the difference,” he said. “We paid staff $10 per hour to answer the phones and bag orders. I just tried to make sure they weren’t afraid that they wouldn’t make enough to live on. The public was so generous. Servers made a lot of money in tips.”
Dobbins said he recognized that staff came back to work even though some were making more money on unemployment. The masks have been especially hard for the cooks. They have to take more frequent breaks due to heat of the grill, he said.
Looking back, Dobbins reflected, “People have thanked us for being open. I thank them for ordering. We could have been out of business. They have really come back strong. Our business is up 10 percent over our pre-COVID numbers. We’re thrilled that business is now better than before. We’re hiring additional people. There are advantages to small town life. Basically, everywhere I go people are trying to keep the public safe, wearing masks and gloves. Everyone has done their part. That’s why we’ve come through it very well as a community.”  Dobbins will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Harry’s Stone Grill on Aug. 28.

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