Restaurants in flux: ‘A sports bar with no sports’

Restaurateurs are among those most affected by the loss of business stemming from the coronavirus health scare. Proprietors are taking steps to stay afloat and serve an anxious public.

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Local News

March 20, 2020 - 4:47 PM

Like almost everyone in the restaurant business, Carri Sailor of Rookies Sports Bar and Grill has had to adapt to these trying circumstances. Sailor is now offering family-style meals for takeout and curbside pickup. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

The last two weeks were supposed to be Carri Sailor’s Christmas.

With the college basketball season set to culminate with postseason tournaments — the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, and the NCAA tournament — Sailor was geared up to host a packed house on a nightly basis at Rookies Sports Bar and Grill.

Fate intervened, in the form of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus now declared a global pandemic.

While nobody in Iola or Allen County is known to have contracted COVID-19, the health crisis had an immediate punch.

The Big 12 tourney was stopped almost as soon as it started. The NCAA tournament was called off altogether.

And with the NBA, Major League Baseball and other sporting leagues have called off their games indefinitely. 

Sailor’s normally bustling restaurant is now a ghost town.

“It’s hard to be a sports bar without the sports,” Sailor lamented.

She is among the restaurateurs getting hammered in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sailor keeps a cheery smile that belies the struggle she and other food vendors are facing. In addition to the loss of March Madness, Sailor also had to cope with a canceled wedding and separate gala celebration in the coming days, both of which she was set to cater — and for which she’d already ordered food and other supplies.

“Right now, we have the best reruns you can find on TV,” she joked. “We try to be positive.”

In the week since the pandemic declaration, Sailor and husband Mike removed several tables from the Rookie’s dining area, to allow those who do eat in the added comfort of space between other patrons.

She also has discontinued the Rookie’s buffet service and salad bar.

In their stead she’s begun offering curbside order pickup. Just call ahead, and a server will greet you at your car.

“The city has been great to work with,” Sailor said, noting Iola officials allowed her to place a temporary sign outside her restaurant’s door, advertising the curbside service. She’s also begun offering family platter meals with multiple entrees and sides.

And while cleanliness has always been a staple in eating establishments, Rookie’s staffers have taken extra steps, disinfecting tables more often.

“I’m doing everything I can to keep my staff,” Sailor said of her crew of 13. “I just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The Sailors haven’t changed their hours.

“We’ll go until they tell us to shut down,” she said.

HUMBOLDT MAYOR Nobby Davis understands the concerns surrounding the growing health crisis.

And as the owner of Opie’s in Humboldt, he has seen his in-house dining slow to a trickle.

David contends diners are likely better protected against cross contamination in a restaurant than in other places of business.

“We have to keep things clean,” he said. “We’ve always had to, and we want to be safe.”

Like other dining locations, Opie’s employees are asked to clean areas more frequently.

“We bleach down every table after somebody leaves,” he said. “We disinfect the door handles multiple times a day.”

Davis encouraged residents to not to pay attention to rumors.

“Just listen to the official sources,” he said.

Sandy Hurst, owner of H&H Grill in Humboldt, has found it more dificult to get food, supplies, and most importantly, customers.Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

SANDY HURST, owner of H&H Grill, and Todd Brandon, owner of TJ’s Barbecue, have a bit of an alliance, and for good reason.

Brandon’s girlfriend is Hurst’s daughter.

As such, TJ’s often has enough supplies to give Hurst an assist.

“Todd would do that for anybody, but it’s really neighbor helping neighbor,” Hurst said. “It has to be in a small town.”

But there are limits, Brandon noted. 

In recent days, the cost of such things as pork and brisket have increased substantially. “I don’t even want to know what the price of chicken’s doing,” he said.

So both restaurants, like the others, are in a state of flux.

“It’s slow,” Hurst said. “It’s really been getting hard to buy supplies. We’re gonna have to cut back on toast, because it’s harder for me to get bread. (Each meal now gets one slice of toast instead of the customary two.) And we’re going to have to start finding alternatives for hamburger.

“I’m just glad we got this joint paid off last summer,” Hurst said.

But there is plenty of room for angst.

“Are we going to make enough money to pay our bills, pay our help?” Hurst asked. “Are we going to have enough food? Can we get food?”

WHILE SPORTING options are limited, Sailor continues to seek the silver lining.

While no organized sports leagues are in operation domestically, there are some still in operation overseas. Some soccer leagues are still going, albeit without fans in attendance.

“I’ve watched more rugby than I’ve ever seen before,” she said. “I’ve become a big fan.” 

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