Residents, businesses struggle  to find their way during crisis

Michelle Cox, owner of Subway in Maquoketa, transfers freshly baked bread while prepping for a hopeful lunch line. She is the sole employee at her restaurant right now as officials continue to track the spread of the coronavirus in surrounding counties and states. Cox says she stays informed on the latest industry announcements receiving an email about every 15 minutes on the changing guidelines.

A customer walked into the Maquoketa Subway Friday morning.

“Tuna?” restaurant owner Michelle Cox asked the man.

That’s not the man’s name. He’s a regular, and as such Cox remembers his “usual” order just like many of her other regular customers.

However, Gov. Kim Reynolds’ March 17 COVID-19 public health disaster emergency declaration effectively prevented people from dining in eating establishments. They could, however, carry out or have food delivered.

That’s prevented many of Cox’s regulars

and customers of other area restaurants from dining out and is hurting the dining industry, Cox said.

The state mandate completely shifted the business model for many restaurants that typically rely on dine-in customers. And for many, that paradigm shift hasn’t initially been a good one.

“We’re not closed,” Cox said Friday morning as she slid loaves of freshly baked bread out of the oven at Subway. “So many people think we’re closed — that all restaurants are closed — but we’re not. And I don’t know what to do to get people here to realize that.

“It’s really killing the (restaurant) industry right now,” she continued.

Making adjustments

Cox and other area restaurant owners said they didn’t think the COVID-19 pandemic would affect them so much and so quickly.

“I’m literally getting emails every 15 minutes from the (Iowa) Department of Public Health and Subway corporate,” Cox said. 

“I’m scared,” she continued. “When you just buy a business you worked at for 20 years and owned it for six months, you don’t know which way to turn.”

With greatly reduced revenues, many restaurants had to, at least temporarily, lay off staff.

That’s the case at Obie’s on the west side of Maquoketa, a restaurant and bar that relied most heavily on dine-in customers with a smattering of take-out, according to owner Megan Franzen.

Instead of one or two cooks in the kitchen, a couple wait staff and someone tending bar and accepting payments, it’s now Franzen and a cook cooking and boxing up to-go orders, she said.

“We’re adapting to all to-go,” Franzen said. “Keeping all the orders straight is a task. It’s just a learning curve right now.”

Franzen also adjusted Obie’s business hours, serving from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4-7:30 p.m. daily. Obie’s will “try to pull through all day” on Saturday and Sunday, she said.

The unknown scares Franzen most. 

“It’s hard for me to just get here and not know if we’re going to be busy,” she said. “I just hope this is going to work.”

Franzen is using the downtime to strip and wax Obie’s floor.

Cox has one full-time employee at Subway and 12 part-time workers, many of whom are high-school or college-age. After the governor’s mandated dine-in closure Tuesday, she reduced everyone’s hours but made sure everyone had hours. The next night she called everyone to say they would be temporarily laid off for at least one week. Cox will make sandwiches and subs on her own this week.

Cox also reduced her hours, opening Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and remaining closed on Sunday. She can have nine customers in the building at a time to place orders, they just cannot eat there.

Main Street Café is another example of a Maquoketa restaurant where people dined to partake of the Sunday morning breakfast buffet, a lunch special, or just to grab a cup of coffee and socialize. Dine-in business was its bread-and-butter. 

But since last week’s state mandate, Main Street reduced its hours to Sunday-Tuesday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., and Wednesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-8 p.m.

As a gesture of goodwill, owner Mega Ajroja said he would provide free carry-out meals to anyone struggling or in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite an already-established drive-through and delivery program, Happy Joe’s Place also saw decreased patrons as last week progressed, according to marketing director Kristel Whitty-Ersan. Happy Joe’s has been in business 48 years.

Her company even donated already-prepped food to the Maquoketa Community Cupboard so it would not go to waste. Subway donated its excess food to local emergency service and medical personnel.

The food-and-beverage business slowed at Timber Lanes Y-Go-By Bar & Grill as well.

“We are doing OK with to-go orders and appreciate any business we are allowed to do, but socializing is our main business,” said owner-operators Sam Clasen-McLaughlin and her father, Louie Clasen.

“We will stay positive and get through this with everyone,” they said.

Return the favor — shop local

As they get accustomed to the carry-out and delivery mandates, many people are making a point of patronizing local restaurants, and that’s what the businesses need to survive the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurant owners said.

Information about Maquoketa’s local restaurants, including temporary business hours, menus, and information on their drive-through/pick-up services can be found on the Maquoketa Chamber Facebook page. Select “Photos,” “Albums,” and “See All” to view photo albums for each restaurant.

The chamber office is working with the city to provide easy access to these businesses as customers are picking up their carry-out food. The city worked with A and P Graphics and Signs and various downtown businesses to post “Drive Thru or Pick Up Only” signs on two parking spots on the west side of South Main Street.

Some restaurants have an app or website where people can place their order and pick it up or have it delivered. Otherwise, just pick up the phone and place an order.

Franzen thanked Obie’s customers.

“The community has been really, really good now,” she said.

“I’ve lived here my whole life and patronized local businesses and shop local my whole life,” Cox said. “We’ve donated to the community, to benefits and events, every time we can. If everybody would just support us — and all the restaurants in town — we’ll be here when this is over.”

Menus online

Information on Maquoketa’s local restaurants — including temporary business hours, menus, and information on their drive-through/pick-up services — can be found on the Maquoketa Chamber Facebook page. Select “Photos,” “Albums,” and “See All” to view photo albums for each restaurant.

The chamber office is working with the city to provide easy access to these businesses as customers are picking up their carry-out food.