It’s back to business for Appleton bars and restaurants
by Tim Froberg
The once deadbolted doors swing open again and the sights and sounds of commerce return to the Fox Cities.
Welcome back, Appleton businesses! Life in our little corner of the world hasn’t been the same without you. Allow us to salute your survival skills.
Nothing can be found in any pre-COVID-19 business plan about surviving a global pandemic, but the local business community found ways to adapt and endure during an economic firestorm caused by one of the deadliest infectious diseases in world history.
Some businesses are operating at full capacity. Others have scaled back on services, staff, and operating hours. The common denominator is a willingness to adapt to a changing world and observe safety measures to keep employees and customers safe during this global crisis.
No, it hasn’t been business as usual for a majority of area restaurants, bars, and service providers, but many have reopened since the shutdown, which lasted from mid-March to late May prompted by Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order.
“We need, and we’re trying, to get the machine rolling again,” said Fe Montalvo, one of the owners of three El Azteca Mexican restaurants in Appleton. “We need to get the economy back on its feet so we can survive and make things better for our customers and employees. We hope the nightmare is over.”
El Azteca relied on takeout orders to stay afloat until the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Governor Tony Evers’ stay-at-home-order on May 13, allowing bars, restaurants, and other businesses to reopen.
“We appreciate our customers’ loyalty very, very much,” said Montalvo. “They knew we were in a bad situation and kept placing orders and leaving tips. One person left a $20 tip on a $50 order. We’re very thankful to our customers. It allowed us to bring a service to them and give our employees a chance to work a few hours a day.”
El Azteca, like most restaurants and bars, incorporated safety measures such as social distancing and customer capacity limits since reopening its dining area.
“We’re doing all we can to keep employees and customers safe,” Montalvo said. “We’re fortunate in that our restaurant space is very large, so that makes it easier to not have everyone so close together. We’ve spent a lot of time cleaning and make sure everything is disinfected.”
Here’s a look at other area businesses that have reopened this summer.
Opened in the late 1930s, the popular Appleton steakhouse found a way to survive the Great Depression. So, it’s no surprise that George’s has done it again.
Rather than stay open through carryout, owner Brad Quimby shut down until the lifting of the state’s stay-at-home order.
“There’s certain menu types that just don’t fit carryout,” said Quimby. “We’re a steakhouse. We didn’t think people wanted to get a $30 steak and eat it out of a Styrofoam box.”
Quimby and his staff tackled various maintenance projects during the downtime and did extensive deep cleaning. By spacing out tables and removing chairs, he estimates the business is operating at about 50% capacity this summer.
Some popular amenities, such as complimentary appetizers, have been removed from tables but will be brought to customers upon request.
“Things are a little different, but I think the public expects that,” Quimby said. “It comes down to can you make a living when you might be looking at half a building for a while? It will be stressful managing the numbers, but we’re happy we’re back.”
Rookies Sports Bar and Grill
Rookies powered its way through a two-month shutdown by relying on takeout and delivery service. The inside dining portion of the business reopened May 26 with various safety procedures in place, ranging from food servers wearing gloves and mask to the installation of hand sanitizers by the entry and restrooms.
“It was a hard few months and we’re looking to get rolling again,” said Rookies owner Steve Carrow. “We have four delivery apps and the phone business helped us get through it. It’s exciting to see customers back in the bar and we’ve done everything we can to make them feel safe.”
The fact that many of the area’s major summer events have been cancelled makes the months ahead more daunting than usual for bar and restaurant owners.
“Mile of Music, Octoberfest, St. Patrick’s Day, March Madness – all are big money-makers,” said Carrow. “It’s going to be a very challenging year for all the bars here.”
StoneArch didn’t rush to reopen following the reversal of the state’s stay-at-home order and waited until June 1 to fully relaunch the business.
Curbside pickup and carryout options kept the business alive during the shutdown.
“We didn’t do anywhere near the volume of business we usually do, but it helped us survive this thing,” said StoneArch co-owner Tom Lonsway. “We were also in the middle of a massive remodeling, so we took our time in reopening.”
StoneArch has been able to capitalize on an outdoor patio dining area, giving the business time to lure customers back to the main dining room.
“The virus is still out there and who knows how long it’s going to last,” Lonsway said. “We know it’s going to take some time for people to fully come back to restaurants. Never did I expect to see something like this. But that’s life. We need to survive this and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The three Appleton Dairy Queens survived the pandemic better than most due to a popular drive-through option, which produced strong sales.
DQ’s lobbies have been closed for much of the pandemic and there hasn’t been a push to reopen them.
“We lost some good business like everyone else has, but we’ve always done well with the drive-through and we adjusted,” said Nicole Foth, Dairy Queen Manager. “Initially, we had a two-week shutdown just to make sure that our staff was healthy, but we reopened April 9, just before Easter.
“The biggest change we made was allowing our cake business to have drive-through availability.”
Staffing has been Dairy Queen’s biggest challenging during the pandemic.
“April is usually our biggest hiring time and we do a lot of one-on-one training,” Foth said. “Initially, we were phasing in new employees while trying to separate them from the main crew, just to make sure that everyone was healthy. When you start bringing in new people and training them, there is always a concern among the crew that they’re healthy.”
Glass Nickel Pizza Co.
Glass Nickel experienced solid financial success during the height of the pandemic, despite a closed dining room.
Known for its award-winning pizza, pasta, and salads, Glass Nickel’s business model is built around takeout and delivery services.
“Luckily, 60% of our business is carryout and delivery,” said Glass Nickel owner Doug Wassman. “That part of the business is self-sustaining and increased substantially. If we didn’t have carryout and delivery, we would have been gone.”
Employees now follow contactless safety procedures during delivery. All payment is done in advance through credit cards.
“We’ll drop the pizza off at the front door and ring the doorbell, but there’s no contact and no cash is used,” Wassman said.
Glass Nickel, which also has locations in Neenah-Menasha and Green Bay, shut down its dining rooms during the height of the pandemic, but they’re expected to reopen in some capacity by fall.
“If you open your dining room too soon and then have to close it, that may not go over well,” Wassman said. “It’s tough to plan right now. You play everything by ear because you can’t predict what’s going to happen.”
Vande Walle’s Candies
Vande Walle’s is licensed as a food manufacturer, so it had the good fortune of keeping its doors open during the stay-at-home order.
While in-store foot traffic decreased, online sales spiked and Vande Walle’s worked hard to meet customers’ changing needs. They offered curbside pickup and a delivery service for the first time.
“Delivery was something we hadn’t done before and we offer it free within five miles with even a minimal purchase,” said Steve Vande Walle, a co-owner of the family business.
Vande Walle’s also made in-store adjustments, installing plexiglass barriers between the salesclerk and customer. As usual, hygiene and sanitation were stressed with employees.
“Because we’re a food manufacturer, we’ve been doing these things all along – washing hands, using sanitizer, washing down surfaces between products, and using hair nets and gloves,” said Vande Walle. “That’s part of our normal operating procedure.”
Jacobs Meat Market
The family-owned business opened in 1945, and it will take more than a pandemic to close it.
Jacobs was designated an essential business and remained open during the state’s stay-at-home order. By offering a valuable in-demand product, Jacob’s did more than just hold steady – it actually thrived.
“I felt very blessed to not only stay open, but to be as busy as we were,” said co-owner Luke Jacobs. “We were super busy, especially during the stay-at-home period. At first, people started hoarding toilet paper. Then there was talk of a possible meat shortage and people started doing that with meat. We never put any limits on and were fortunate that people really embraced our business.”
Still, it wasn’t business as usual. Despite high sales, Jacobs had to adjust to pandemic conditions. With fewer customers entering the actual market, Jacobs offered options such as curbside pickup for the first time.
“We had to adapt and probably one-third of our orders were curbside pickups,” Jacobs said. “We’ve been in business almost 75 years and just when you think you have your business right where you need it to be, something like this happens.”
The Frame Workshop
The Frame Workshop is known for its award-winning custom picture framing, along with a selection of fine art, gifts, home décor, and Christmas collectables. It attracts customers from across the globe and is the largest European Christmas shop in the Midwest.
They were forced to shut down the shop during the first few months of the pandemic, but online sales continued to pump in revenue until it fully reopened following the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision.
“A lot of our gift items were on our website and with the store closed, it was really easy to direct our customers to our website,” said Frame Workshop owner John Ranes. “Puzzles were a huge gift item. We offer five different lines of puzzles and they proved to be really popular.”
Since fully reopening, The Frame Workshop has put an emphasis on customer and employee safety.
“We want to make sure customers have a comfort level when they’re here,” said Ranes. “We’ve worn masks and have been wiping every down everything. We usually have only one to three people in here at a time, so the transition has been pretty easy.”
Most of Northland Mall’s 17 stores – including retail giant Kohl’s – were closed for several weeks before reopening in late May and early June with limited hours. Pet Supplies Plus, deemed an essential business, was the exception.
Northland Mall originally opened in 1969 when it was known at Northland Plaza and featured a Kroger supermarket. When Kohl’s arrived in 1983, the mall became enclosed and was given its current name.
“It’s been a challenge and the virus isn’t going away,” said Angie Walker, property manager for the Northland Mall. “Some of our shops offered curbside pickup just to maintain. It’s tough when you don’t have money coming in.
“We’ve had to make certain changes. We put up stations for hand sanitizers and have asked people entering the mall to wear masks. We have hair and nail salons that require that. But overall, it’s great to see people back in our stores again. I think that over time everyone here at the mall and on the strip will bounce back.”