RESTAURANTS

Cedar Rapids area restaurants rely on loyal customers, new ideas to survive pandemic

Patrons dine over the lunch hour Jan. 30 at The Quarter Barrel Arcade & Brewery in downtown Cedar Rapids. (Cliff Jette/F
Patrons dine over the lunch hour Jan. 30 at The Quarter Barrel Arcade & Brewery in downtown Cedar Rapids. (Cliff Jette/Freelance for The Gazette)
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Jennifer Goodlove’s business got a boost from an unexpected source during the pandemic — gnomes.

“The gnomes and takeout are what saved me last year and this year,” Goodlove said. “We’re talking thousands of gnomes.”

She stocks decorative gnomes for every season and occasion at Farmer’s Daughter’s Market, a restaurant, market and gift shop at 495 Miller Rd., Hiawatha.

“We have a lot of repeat customers. What we saw this year, last year was people picking and choosing who they want to support,” Goodlove said. “They go out of their way.”

2020 was challenging for restaurants and bars that had to start thinking outside the box once the pandemic hit and restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were put in place.

For Goodlove, new ideas increased sales, but not everyone was as lucky. January was a record-breaking month for the Farmer’s Daughter’s Market, the best in 13 years — and up 23 percent over 2020.

Goodlove, who spent years in human resources before returning to Iowa from Chicago, thinks that because she had no preconceived notions about what’s not possible, she’s been more willing to try new ideas.

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Goodlove has a loyal customer base. Inside dining was way down last year, but to-go orders went up. She made grab-n-go easier — and more visible — with a tabletop refrigerator near the cash register. She keeps it stocked with chicken salad and homemade soup.

People want to get out during the pandemic, but they want to be safe, she said. Her kitchen is open to the dining room, so customers can see staff always wear masks and gloves. She’s a stickler for customers wearing masks and offers curbside pickup for those who can’t come inside.

With other farmers markets closed or limited to drive-thru sales, Goodlove offered a Wednesday and Saturday farmers market last summer.

“We’ll definitely continue that. It was so successful,” Goodlove said.

Private parties and shopping either before or after regular hours also drew customers. She’d serve regional wines as customers browsed the shop.

Goodlove shared daily specials, sales promotions, and on-site classes on her business and Rally C.A.P. Challenge Facebook pages to keep customers informed.

“I love cooking every day. I think my customers know that,” Goodlove said. “It’s a happy place to come to. When times are this tough right now, they feel comfortable coming in.”

Shifting to online ordering

Navigating the pandemic has made Ana McClain feel like she’s in a new video game world with constantly changing challenges, she said. Like most restaurants in-person dining shifted largely to takeout at Lion Bridge Brewing Co., 59 16th Ave. SW, Cedar Rapids, owned by Ana and her husband, Quinton McClain.

When the pandemic shut it down in March, the McClains knew they had to make changes. And fast. One phone line meant accepting additional takeout orders would be difficult, so they changed their point-of-sale system to one that enabled online ordering.

“It was a very quick transition and a steep learning curve for the team,” Ana McClain said. “It happened within a week.”

But the challenges kept coming in 2020.

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Meat pricing shot up about 70 percent for a while. That forced the McClains to rethink their menu. They switched to recipes that allowed proteins to go further and added more seafood and meatless dishes for their large vegetarian following. They’d gotten used to ordering inventory and prepping food based on the number of seats in the taproom, but when customers switched to ordering takeout, they had to set new bench marks.

“When you offer online orders or takeout, you could have five times the amount of people,” Ana McClain said.

Heavy takeout orders also led to simplifying the menu. Pulled pork and brisket, braised in beer then held at temperature, were eliminated. They tried take-n-bake holiday sides and special casseroles that feed four to six.

The brewery’s keg beer sales dropped by 80 percent when bars and restaurants were shut down, so the McClain’s shifted their sales strategy to packaged beers. A variety of six-pack and four-packs of craft beers are available and can be ordered online.

“Hopefully, the packaged beer sales stay and the keg beer goes up as well,” Ana McClain said.

As COVID-19 numbers rode a wave of peaks and valleys, restaurants went through a cycle of forced shutdowns and reopenings. Then the Aug. 10 derecho led to more shut downs for area businesses.

Lion Bridge was only shut down for a couple of days until they got a generator.

Through it all, the McClains said they have been able to keep most of their team on the payroll. Sometimes that meant bartenders helping with deliveries or staff helping out washing dishes on unusually busy days.

“We have an amazing team. They are very committed. We pride ourselves on the relationship we have with our team,” Ana McClain said.

Restaurant industry seeing changes

The constant changes in 2020 proved challenging to restaurants and bars.

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Every time Chris Ellis, owner of The Quarter Barrel, 616 Second Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids, thought he had figured out a plan to deal with the pandemic, something else would change. He kept the taproom, restaurant and arcade he owns with his wife, Lorelle Lindo, closed much of 2020.

He reopened with reduced hours on Jan. 7. By then, he’d lost most of his kitchen staff, but that allowed him to rethink the menu. He’s cut back on sandwiches and added pasta dishes to complement Italian pizzas. Dessert pizzas include Smells like C.R., with Captain Crunch Berries cereal.

Previously, most of The Quarter Barrel’s beer sales were in-house pints rather than keg beer. A liquor license change allows Ellis to package beer for retail. The new license also means he won’t be selling hard liquor. Instead, Ellis, who has a brewing background, plans to develop handcrafted sodas.

“I feel like it’s going to be a different world for restaurants when everything gets back to normal,” he said. “There is going to be some industry changes to be seen. And what they will be, I’m not particularly nervous, but I don’t know what to expect.”

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