-As told by Clare Caramanica of the Oakhurst Diner in Millerton, NY.
I had just gotten back from a 17-day vacation in Brazil. Passed through JFK, pooled with people in a long line at customs coming in from various countries . Some with masks – a sight to behold. It was the beginning of COVID-19 in the U.S. Three customs agents were available, the crowds were restless, some started yelling, but we stood in line for over an hour together.
Two weeks had passed from that date, I wasn’t sick. I wasn’t taking the warnings seriously either. Paul Harney must have told me about 5 times this is going to be big – I shrugged it off. March 12th I had an appointment with my Rheumatologist. When I walked in, the nurse and doctor sat across the room, seemingly far away from me . They explained to me that they couldn’t touch me, “Clare, I know you’ve heard in the news to wash your hands and not touch your face,” the doctor said, “but we want you to make sure that you know not to use glasses when you go out to eat, and try not to be out too much. It’s too late and the news isn’t giving everyone the whole story.” Working in a restaurant, I was becoming alarmed. Rumors and speculation of a stay at home order began circulating. I had finally accepted it – this was serious. I called Paul and told him what my doctor said, Paul had already been keeping an eye on California, and he made the decision March 13th, “Close the restaurant for seating. We’ll take out” he told me. This was days before it was even being mandated in the State. The diner is small and we fill up on weekends with people from many places, this was the only way to make sure both staff and customers were safe. The people who showed up that weekend for food seemed displeased. Some ordered take out, others moved on to find a place to sit and eat. The initial financial insecurity began to plague me. The idea of being completely closed crossed my mind. Then the day came that the State deemed restaurants “essential” . Was this a blessing, or a curse?
Can I do this?
I had started sitting in front of the computer and crunching numbers, considering my options. I was already fully staffed and functioning on takeout business. I felt pretty confident that we were in a good position, as we have had a number of good years. Still, I called linen companies and slowed the number of supplies and Welsh Sanitation asking for pick up requests only and stopped placing food orders, with the idea that we may be shut down living in the back of my mind. I told the employees not to grocery shop and that we would send them home with food. No one knew what was really going to happen.
So I kept working.
I figured out how many months we could sustain with the amount of orders we were receiving. I called insurance companies and lowered those costs. After discussions with Paul and the staff we decided to forge ahead. But for the sake of the long term, there had to be more changes. It was going to be impossible to pay a staff of 12, there wasn’t even enough work for 12 people. My heart ached as I considered all of my coworkers’ families. Everyone adds something to this environment. Paul and I knew that if we were going to survive, I had to lay off staff. One by one I called them. I explained my intentions, “If I do this now, there will be a place to come back to in the future – I promise.” Everyone was understanding. I cried for days. I heard the stories, watched the news, saw our industry collapsing. I had conversations with other managers and owners locally. How was this going to work?
I created the hashtag #newnormal on our social media.
-But that was for me! I had to believe it would become normal, and that we would be OK.
Next came putting a plan in place for operations. The fear of getting sick had arrived in our area. How do we protect ourselves, our staff and our customers? Paul made the decision that we would function like hospitals are now. Everyone was to have their temperature taken before work. If anyone got sick – with anything – they would be required to stay home for two weeks. We already had hand washing down to a science – we are a restaurant after all.
Hand sanitizer was installed outside of the front door, we were bleaching the doors after each person came in. We started offering curbside pickup to make folks feel comfy and our online ordering started to become very busy. The experience of the first few weeks was indescribable. Some people were coming to get food with absolute distress and fear in their eyes. We were delivering to people who were quarantining, with directions to drop outside of their homes. People were opening the trunks of their cars for us to place food in. Still others continued coming in unfazed and unbothered by the new world. Some new customers began stopping in cautiously, sharing stories of leaving family members behind who work in hospitals in the city, while they are staying here for the long haul as well as regulars who needed a quick break from the walls of their homes and 5 minutes of conversation. We were there to listen if nothing else and felt it best to allow everyone choices. The last thing we wanted to do was make anyone feel worse, or that we didn’t want them in the restaurant.
It continues to give us some sense of purpose.
About that sense of purpose! The biggest question people have asked us is how and why did we decide to start selling market items, family style meals, non-food items, and where did this phrase, “Feeding Families”, come from. Truthfully, it has always been based on our collective human needs, along with a few gestures and words of kindness from our neighbors. The first idea was born out of not wanting to waste all of the food we had at the diner. We had stocked up on 120 dozen eggs, and three cases of oranges for the weekend. When we had to cut hours, I told the staff with a considerable amount of exasperation to just sell the eggs and oranges.
Heather Savage, one of our servers had come to work one day, after not being able to get food at Stop and Shop, with tears in her eyes. There was no toilet paper either, which seemed like a joke to most, but we had cases. I couldn’t imagine charging people for such a thing, so we gave it away (we still have cases, and it’s still free). So it began, Paul showed up with grocery items and beverages from Harney and Sons Teas. People were elated, no one wanted to make unnecessary trips to the grocery stores. Then Serge, from Servan in Amenia, NY, had selflessly promoted us on his social media. It felt good to be helped. I wanted to do the same. If we wanted to come back to a town that was still full of business, if we wanted our friends to survive, we had to promote them too.
Adapting to Serve
Justin Panzer suggested we start selling roast chickens. People were home all day, not wanting to cook meals every day. So a few times a week we began offering family style meals, along with our regular menu. Non-grocery items came out of sheer frustration. I couldn’t find paper towels, bleach or soap in CVS or Fresh Town.
Even Amazon was out!
Well I thought, we have suppliers, lets see what they have. If we need it, everyone in town does too. The idea that no one could get there even their most basic needs met was upsetting. So now we carry hand wipes and paper towels! Masks came after. The CDC said it would be helpful to wear them. I saw on social media that Catherine Stirling from Millerton Made, had created some pretty awesome masks for someone so I sent her a message asking for masks for the staff. When she came to drop them off I asked her if she wanted to sell them here – knowing her shop was closed – and again thinking that others must need them too. A few weeks had passed by then and masks had become mandatory. Every time she brings a new delivery we sell out in hours. She has worked very hard to supply everyone, and deserves much praise. I have to give Eleanor, from 52 Main, the credit for the beginning to give free food to people.
When she sent me a message saying they were closing, and that she had inventory if we wanted it, my heart sank. Knowing all the effort and energy it takes to be here, there it was, one of our restaurants in town was closing. I was willing to pay for the inventory, and she said, “just pay it forward.” A few days later, I had a conversation with a friend who lost a job, my mind was racing while thinking of ways to help. I mentioned to Paul that we could sell T-shirts and do 50% towards free meals for people in need. Paul said, “Just do free meals every other day – people are hungry.” I said, “Ok. Let’s start promoting it and we can start Monday” that was on a Wednesday. Paul said, “No. Let’s start tomorrow, they are hungry now.” I was beset by a bit of a panic, fearful about promising something we might not deliver.
We took the leap of faith. The net appeared.
All that’s Left is Gratitude
It was our customers, and people from town who heard about what we wanted to do. They called, they showed up, they gave us whatever they could. Within a matter of weeks we were feeding so many people. This was not something I could have ever imagined. I assumed we would feed a few families here and there, but by the second night it was 50 dinners. We now have served 96 on our busiest night.
I cried a lot during the first few days.
Knowing people were not getting food, losing their jobs and had yet to receive unemployment. Meg Musgrove, a local customer and friend of the diner, started a GofundMe for us, in order to help with the program. People call regularly now, asking if they can help. We are grateful and happy to serve this community. We are only the middle-men here. Everyone donating deserves the applause. We are humbled daily by their acts of kindness.
Thank you for letting us be a channel.
Then onto the dreaded change in business.
How much more can we change?
No one likes change!
I saw restaurants turning into everything I have been fighting to preserve for the last few years. I never wanted to be in a place that lost the human connection. I want to hear your voice, I want you to know us and we want to know you. We are working on installing a new system, with all touchless payment. It was already in process before this catastrophe, but we are upgrading and adding an easier online system with payment. I find myself often feeling as though I’m the Wizard of Oz these days, in a warped world behind a screen, feeding social media, along with Marcia McAvoy. The tables have turned. As much as people are now wishing to come out of their homes, to see friends, share a drink or a meal, when we emerge fully, it will look very different.
Although we do not have an opening date, I have received guidelines from the State, and County regarding how we will be able to proceed. I am hopeful I will see customers’ faces smiling. You may be seeing just our eyes – as masks seem like they will be a fixture for the service industry- and that may be strange and alarming, but until this virus has come full circle there are necessary precautions we all must take.
I am writing this just shy of our 10th anniversary.
Yes, I’m crying again.
I had grandiose ideas of a big party this Spring. Thinking of ways to celebrate the staff both past and present, and thanking the Village and Town for making us successful. I have learned through the years success comes in many forms. Restaurants are notorious for opening and folding in a matter of months. It took the owners a lot of digging in their wallets for the first couple years in order for us to be here. So approaching this year was a huge deal for me – for all of us. We have grown steadily for years and I have deep gratitude for the owners for trusting me to run this diner. I also have sincere gratitude for all of the staff we’ve had since day one. Our current staff has all been employed here for five or more years. They have all taught me something, whether it was how to be a better manager, or maybe just be a better person.
So our success now looks like this…
Together, we have been able to hire back some of the staff that were initially laid off. The cooks tolerate me and my demands for new things every day. I need to mention Mario Ramirez and Joe Hertel by name. They have spent the last eight weeks scrambling on less hours to provide for the community. They work so hard to make this happen in a tiny kitchen. I have said many times in the past, they make miracles happen. Six burners, two small flat tops, one tiny fryer, and 250 lunches in an hour and half span sometimes. That number has decreased, but it wont be forever. The servers are now doing retail and answering phones. We all have ideas about ways to make it better and meet the needs of everyone both in Millerton as well as the surrounding communities. We are applying these ideas as best we can. We are a team and we are determined to come out of this on top and are open to evolving.
So it’s not a party.
Instead we are happy to be employed. There are millions of people in the U.S. that will not have a restaurant to go back to. We hope the people who dreamed of having a restaurant don’t quit on that dream. We need to be here for people when they are ready to celebrate a birthday, a new job, for a place to grab a coffee with a friend on a bad day – a pre-wedding brunch! Even the day after a particularly bad hangover or a teenage first date. Maybe for someone who didn’t want to be home alone for dinner, or just for those that have a craving.
Thank you to the customers for hanging in with us.
Every order is getting us closer to having our little Oakhurst Family back to work.
To learn more about how the Oakhurst Diner has adapted during this time follow them on social media @oakhurstdiner and find out how you can help or visit oakhurstdinerny.com for more information. Place your online order today or call them at 518-592-1313!
Special thanks to Robert Alan Wendeborn, author of The Blank Target, for his editorial input. To check out his work click here
Left to right Sienna Finkle, Heather Savage , Clare Caramanica , Marcia Mcavoy