Diners returning in slow-but-steady numbers to eateries

  • Diners at Wright’s Family Steak House in Duncan.

DUNCAN – Here at Wright’s Family Steak House on Bois D’Arc Avenue, manager Wes Chokpoyah is fairly satisfied with how his popular dine-in restaurant has fared over the past seven or so months since COVID-19 hit the restaurant industry like an atomic bomb.

However, Chokpoyah and his friendly staff of servers and cooks have managed to “ride it out” by taking all the safety precautions as prescribed by the Oklahoma Restaurant Association.

In fact, the recent layoffs at Halliburton seems to have slowed things down more than other issues. That’s not to say COVID-19 has not had an impact – it has – it is just that diners here in Duncan are eager to get out and enjoy a sit-down meal, as they had prior to this past March.

Chokpoyah said the guest numbers at Wright’s had “kind of leveled” and that it is “slower than it should be”.

“Some are still timid about getting out,” he said. “Customers getting out is great (for us). Getting to see all the regulars.”

Stephens County has had a total of 816 cases of COVID-19 and eight total deaths. Between October 19 and November 1, Stephens County has experienced 213 cases of coronavirus.

“The girls up front wear masks,” Chokpoyah noted, adding that hand sanitizer is accessible to all diners and that spacing between tables and seats is such to offer a safe environment for folks to enjoy Wright’s much-loved chicken-fried steak and rib-eye dinners.

And while restaurants like Wright’s Family Steak House are seeing a steadying of business, that is not the case across the country, as noted in the latest study from professors at Washington State University, in Pullman, Wash., which analyzes data from restaurants and consumers regarding their dining preferences in the era of COVID-19.

Dr. Dogan Gursoy, a Taco Bell Distinguished Professor at WSU’s Carson College of Business prepared the October report along with professors Oscan Hengxuan Chi and Christina Chi.

“The big takeaway from this report is that customer confidence is slowly increasing but a large portion of customers are not planning on returning to restaurants anytime soon,” Gursoy told Southwest Ledger via email.

He explained that the WSU study was collected from a nationwide sample of American consumers – 810 total. Even though he is based in the Pacific Northwest, the sampling comes from around the nation.

“We conduct this study every month in order to track restaurant and hotel consumers sentiments,” he said.

The report noted that consumer confidence in dining out slightly increased from September to October. The report notes that while many restaurants have already re-opened business, they are operating at a significantly reduced capacity. In most states, analysts note, restrictions have been eased significantly. For example, allowing dine-in restaurants to reopen at a reduced capacity with strict social distancing guidelines, as witnessed at Wright’s Family Steak House in Duncan.

“Around 49% of respondents indicated that they dined in at a sit-down restaurant once or more during the previous month,” Gursoy said. “However, only 48.39% indicated that they are planning to dine in at a sit-down restaurant during the month of October. While the number of consumers who would dine out in October is increased by 6.10% compared to last month, (the) majority indicated that they are not willing to dine in at a sit-down restaurant anytime soon.”

The report’s findings suggest that nearly 16% of the respondents will only feel comfortable to dine in at a sit-down restaurant when their communities’ ability to test, trace and isolate COVID-19 cases is significantly improved.

“These findings clearly suggest that a large portion of consumers do not feel comfortable about going out to restaurants,” he said. His report specifically notes that those willing to dine out at a sit-down restaurant is “increasing but very slowly.”

Among the main statistics the analysts also found included:

1. Approximately half of all respondents indicated that they dined in at a sit-down restaurant once or more during the previous month.

2. Again, 48.39% indicated that they planned to dine in at a sit-down restaurants during the month of October, which is a six percent increase over September.

3. Regarding a COVID-19 vaccine ... slightly less than

20% of those queried indicated they will only feel comfortable going to a sit-down restaurant when a vaccine becomes available.

4. While 44.6% indicated a willingness to pay more at sit-down restaurants that implement increased safety precautions, 29.3% expected sit-down restaurants to implement increased safety precautions without passing the cost to the customers.

5. And finally, 72.3% of respondents agreed that the use of various technologies in service delivery at sit-down restaurants would be necessary in the COVID-19 environment in order to minimize human-to-human contact. This could include service robots, contactless payment, digital menus and more.

Some eateries are taking even extra steps in protecting their staff and the public, such as Pie Junkie in Oklahoma City’s Plaza District.

Since the advent of COVID-19, Pie Junkie has adjusted its business model accordingly, says Pie Junkie co-owner Darcy Schein.

And even though they do not offer a dine-in option, preferring take-out orders only, masks, social-distancing and sanitary food-handling methods are followed in an extraordinarily serious manner.

“For us, we were different in that we are set up for carry-out, Schein said, who co-owns Pie Junkie with Leslie Coale-Mossman. This past week they were closed because they lost power due to a terrible ice storm that afflicted Oklahoma City.

One area where that business adjustment has been successful was the move away from strictly sweet pies to more savory, family-oriented meals, Schein explained. This includes filling favorites like shepherd’s pie, chicken pot pie, and casseroles of all sorts.

This week, their pre-sale Thanksgiving pie event begins, with people placing orders to pick up around Thanksgiving. It’s a busy time of year for Pie Junkie, but precautions are still in place.

“We leaned into it and modified our business model,” Schein said, noting that it became carry-out only and curbside pick-up. Some repeat customers would purchase extra casseroles and leave them on the doorstep of friends and those in need.

“We’re probably more risk-averse than most,” she said. “We want to keep our staff safe.”

That means that their traditional Black Friday pie sale will not sell extra pies so as to avoid a line forming, as usually happens in years past.

“It’s not responsible to create an environment where people are waiting in line,” noted Schein. And as their store website explains, Pie Junkie values the staff and community’s health and safety over profits.

That said, each day brings different challenges, but the popular purveyor of pies takes them as they come.

“We’re trying to gauge things,” Schein said. “Every single day is different.”