Jim’s Place Grille is a restaurant that has been around since the early 1900’s, but even James Taras, nor his family, has witnessed anything quite like this. Listen to a discussion about how this beloved family business is continuing to serve their local community, despite COVID-19 Phase 2 restrictions – on this episode of Main and Mulberry.
Keith: You’re listening to Main and Mulberry, the Grindstone. Main and Mulberry gives voice to local leaders in small towns, telling big stories. This series, the Grindstone, focuses on a backbone of the U S economy, the small businesses who are creating new jobs and driving innovation with hard work and determination. We’ll hear from business operators about everything from success stories to what it really needs to keep your nose to the grindstone. If you operate a business, are considering starting one, or just want to hear some amazing stories, you’re going to love Main and Mulberry the Grindstone.
Keith: Hey, everybody, and welcome to this episode of Main and Mulberry. Today, we have with us James Taras, who is with Jim’s Place Grille, and Jim’s is a restaurant in Collierville, Tennessee, kind of a premium dining experience in Collierville, Tennessee, steaks, chops, those types of things – right, James? And, of course, going through COVID, it’s been curbside, and now, Collierville, Tennessee is in phase two, which means that you can be open to a certain percent of capacity. And we’ve been in phase two for a couple of months, and I just wanted to touch base with you, James, and talk about, you know, how’s that going? How’s phase two going, are you seeing a bounce back or what’s going on?
James: So, yeah, entering phase two, we saw some confidence building and a lot of the regular diners that come here came in pretty quickly and repeatedly. We did have some, there’s a base of our customers though, a significant, I don’t have a number, that are very familiar with us. That’s still are not dining in, due to, you know, a personal choice built on health conditions and fear and all sorts of things. So it’s a continuing challenge right now, in phase two. And especially as we move into the summer here, we have had a unfortunate rise in the data, in the positive cases. Now, we can argue all day whether that’s due to, “Well they’re just testing everybody, so there’s going to be higher numbers,” and then let everybody else look at the severity of it with hospitalizations and such. So there is a concern, and again, the restaurants and the bars are on the front line here, on the bad end of it. So right now, yes, we’re doing okay, but we have seen a bit of a softening here in the last few days due to a little bit of concern with the studies and just a bit of a quieter atmosphere. So we’re taking it day by day, but there is concern. And there’s not a lot of, usually the phones are ringing and people are trying to book things, so it’s a little quiet right now as we sit here in early July.
Keith: Right, I know you’ve seen some fluctuation there and I’ve talked to some other restaurant owners that have said that they made the choice while they were in phase two, since they could be at 50% capacity, based off of their restaurant and their seating, that they didn’t feel like that they could be profitable, even opening at 50% capacity because of what they had the staff to be able to produce the meals and those types of things. And so they just haven’t opened and then stayed at curbside, but I guess you have a bigger space. You’re able to space people out more and can make that work.
James: Yeah, true. And yeah, a lot of our friends and acquaintances that have other places may not have the square footage. And it’s a decision that has to be made. We do have, you know, it’s a catch 22. We’re a larger restaurant with multiple rooms, but that also comes with higher costs, higher space requirement costs, higher rent. So it’s a double edged sword. We can seat the people and we can spread efficiently and safely, but at the same time, we’re also used to having at least a 75%, and you know, sometimes on the weekends, obviously it’s a full percentage of seats being occupied where revenue’s generated. So at this time, yeah, a smaller space operation, I can see where someone could be like, “let’s just do to go, let’s do packaged meals, delivery, whatever.” We’re still trying to do both. Obviously, to-go’s are still, they’re not as extensively prevalent as they were at the beginning of this, when I think a lot of the restaurants got a lot of support, when people literally were ringing the phone off to pick up orders. That’s calmed down a lot, but a lot of the, some of those same people are now eating in. So it’s back and forth. We still do to-go business, and we want to promote that for the people that are not able or willing to come in yet to a restaurant. So we’re at both ends up here. So it’s, you know, the larger dining and the corporate dining is what’s missing. Off-site caterings and the things that everybody does are what’s kind of very slow and missing right now.
Keith: Right. Yeah. Less events. And I’m still doing, our family is still doing primarily curbside. And so, as you know, I go to Jim’s Place a lot, and the fried shrimp holds up really well on curbside. I get it quite often. So you guys are doing a great job with that. But for the people that are coming in, what does that experience look like? Do you have to wear a mask until you get to your seat? How are you spacing people out? What can people expect if they want to come dine-in at Jim’s place?
James: I think a lot of people are kind of confused right now on what to expect. The mask ordinance has been passed Shelby County-wide, I guess, as of this weekend. So we do have signs posted on the front door that mask is required to walk into the establishment by the customer. Of course, we as operators and our employees have been wearing these masks since March. I mean, we had to wear masks right when the thing started. So our customers were not in here for a couple of months, at least. And then they started coming in and they didn’t have masks. I do encourage our guests to have them on to walk into the door. I know some restaurants, a couple of weeks ago, made it mandatory on their own accord. And but that was in the city of Memphis, so now that it’s Shelby County-wide, we do have our postings and we do require that if you would please wear one as you come in the door. We aren’t doing temperature checks. We do that for the employees and all of the staff. If you’re not feeling good and, and you have a fever, I’ve never really gone out and wanted to eat at a restaurant or go into a bar, if I have a fever. So we aren’t taking temperatures, but people know their health and they’re not going to come out, I would not think. So but we are taking the temperature of the employees. We do require and highly encourage our customers to wear the mask inside. Once they’re at a sedentary place and they’re set at a table, they have the privilege and freedom to take the mask off, obviously because they’re of course, you know, here to eat and drink. So we’re doing what we’re told to do, and we’ll do it, you know, to the best of our ability for everybody. And at the same time, you’re trying to generate revenue, and you need people to have confidence to come in. So it’s an ongoing battle, and but you know, we’re prepared to just take it day by day and do the best.
Keith: Yeah, absolutely. And I know that your bar area is really popular around town, almost Cheers-esque, with people that frequent it. How’s that holding up, if you’re having, with spacing people out? Are they able to communicate still? I know people are, you know, they meet there. They bring other, other than the person they bring with them, they’ve always met up there and have friends up there and things like that. Is that atmosphere being able to hold it all, with the distancing.
James: Well, I don’t think it’s the same. No, it’s not the same as it was pre-pandemic. Smaller groups, a couple of people at a four-top, couple of people standing, you’re skipping every other table. The bar itself, traditionally, has one, two, three, four, I don’t know, nine, 17 or 18 stools in the old days. The old days being pre-pandemic. Now there’s only two, two, and two, there’s only six. And it’s just for couples or two people that want to eat at the bars and drink. It’s mainly for dining and that’s not to discourage, it’s just, that’s what it’s there for, cause a lot of people like to eat at the bar. So the congregating is highly discouraged at our bar. In fact, a lot of my loyal customers, starting in March, really started going outside. Now, you’re able, in Tennessee, to take liquor by the drink to go in a disposable, with a top container, outside. So you can take alcohol out. So that’s what they do. They started this. It’s a tailgate. They do it. They go and sit in chairs, weather permitting and enjoy each other’s company. And it’s, you know, it’s small little groups. They’re not, it’s not a big gang of people, but it’s just broken up little groups. Patio, of course, is something that people are rushing to. I think outdoor dining is something I really wish I had the ability to do. And I’m maybe going to try to work on something like that. We are in a center here that is enclosed. We’re not a freestanding building, so there are some possible obstacles, but I would like to have, maybe going forward, an opportunity to have some limited space outside for dining and drinking. But we have, we do not have a patio. It’s funny. I wish we did. Restaurants that do and can do any kind of seating, I think people are really wanting to be at. Memphis is a place where people like patios. I’ve learned that over the years, and people love coming to our bar. They love being inside, but everyone always says, “Boy, if Jim’s only had a patio, can you imagine?” I said, “Yes, I can imagine.” So we’ll look at all angles for that going forward. I don’t have one right now, but there’s some nice places in town that you can take advantage of with a patio. So, but yeah, we’re trying to keep ‘em safe. It’s hard to have, you can’t have two deep people at the bar, and you know, there’s some regulations that they’ve just come out with, announcing again, here, that the Commercial Appeal and the Shelby County Health Department, with the COVID task force, that apparently is possibly closing bars early or severely limiting bar access because of the rise. So we’re just, we’re taking that news as we get it, but we are still open. We’re a hundred percent open for business still.
Keith: Gotcha. And I’ve heard some of that too. I don’t know if they’re, what the basis, or what it’s founded on, but I had heard that there was statistics coming out that, you know, that people, and I guess there’s some logic to it, but people social distance less, take off their mask less the more they have a drink or something. So they’re trying to put that towards bars or something. I can’t imagine that’s going to be overly fruitful, but you know, but it’s a…
James: It’s a tough deal for us. It’s horrible for us. I mean, there’s a lot of people that post on Facebook that I know and are friends with that speak for us, and the outcry of inefficiency toward “How do you control it?” and “Let’s attack the restaurants.” Of course, musical venues have been totally shuttered, and bars. We’re kind of all in the same group of, you know, we’re kind of the, I don’t know, I don’t think a lot of the public thinks we’re labeled as dangerous place to be, but I just think a perception has arisen that spread that we kind of are on the stay-away list. And we all believe, we would hope, that that’s not the case, because we’re here to serve.
Keith: And when you say that, do you mean restaurants in general are on the stay-away list? Or are you saying, you’re feeling that specifically for Jim’s Place?
James: No, think it’s, I think it’s everybody. I don’t think it’s, I mean, some people might not want to come to Jim’s for different reasons, maybe ‘cause the bar scene was busy at one point, but no, I think it’s all of us. I think it’s anybody that has a bar, you know, that, alcohol consumption and things, you know, people tend to gravitate toward one another. So there’s a natural inclination to think that that could be a disease spreader, but we that are in the business, whether if you’re an after-hours bar or like us, our bar is not, you know, we’re a dining in restaurant that has a bar that people sit and eat at, but we close, you know, we’re not a later place. It’s possible they’re looking at some of the younger adults or whatever that are congregating at different areas and trying to say, “Well, that’s why numbers are going up.” So it’s, you know, it’s a complex deal.
Keith: Yeah. Everybody’s trying to just figure it out as best they can. And so you guys are, have you had to, I know when you were doing curbside, I mean, in terms of direct effect from, from COVID, have you had to make any changes there? Has it affected you from a, I mean, obviously it’s affected you from a financial standpoint, but have you had to make any changes that could affect you in the long-term?
James: That’s a tough question, on the long-term. It’s, you know, we’re doing things, we’re looking at the future, but we’re also taking the present and the near-term into account. As we all say, and whenever someone calls here, it’s like, “Well, you know, there’s a lot of uncertainty. I want to plan this party in October, but there’s uncertainty.” So we all have the uncertainty, the uncertainty of what happens this fall. Do we get the, you know, there’s not a magic bullet for, per se, for this, but do you get a treatable vaccine from one of the major players or, and it could change the whole landscape, but, you know, right now I think people are just uncertain. The uncertainty of the future is what’s, I guess, the hardest to get through for us.
Keith: Yeah, and I heard that from a lot of people, everything from the schools and what they’re going to do, and private schools and businesses, and that, everybody’s just really, like you said, it’s just an uncertain time. And so people are hesitating and, and trying to figure it out day by day. And I know you guys are doing some things, just from talking to you before, that you haven’t done previously. Like July 4th, you guys decided to stay open this year, when that’s time that you usually would not be. Are there other things like that that are just different about these times?
James: Yeah. You know, Jim’s Place is open Monday through Saturday. We’re closed Sundays. So we do have the one down day. We’re only open if it’s a special day, like mother’s day or such, but, you know, the 4th of July thing was kind of a play to see if, where the consumer confidence level was and if people were in town. I think a lot of the customer base out here, in our area, a lot of people are comfortable, you know, if they have another residence or a vacation home, they’re there, you know, whether it be the beach or the lake. And I think a ton of the clientele was scattered amongst those areas over this holiday, as I would be. But we were very slow for the fourth, for dinner, but then again, the night before on Friday, it was a good Friday night, you know. It wasn’t the, we didn’t have a party of 60 and a wait of an hour, that’s for sure, but we did have several people. And for 50% capacity, we were full of 50% for a couple hours. So we did, we have good weekends, you know. The weekdays are concerning at times because you’re missing your corporate partners, your FedExes the world and the bigger companies that just aren’t gathering right now in a social setting with food and drink and being close quarters to each other.
Keith: Yeah, that’s a good point. And I know that’s a big piece of your businesses is having events and you’re in certain rooms and things that you have there.
James: That’s basically what’s missing. Our twos and four tops, as I call them, the couples and the maybe two couples, or just the get-out night kind of thing, I think is still steady. In fact, some days, they were better than last year, but what’s not here, like this week compared to last week, we had two events on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in each room. Well, we have, that’s o for six, o for six batting, on private dining this week. ‘Cause you don’t have anything. We have a little bit later in the week, but so that’s what’s hitting the numbers in a negative way, numbers as in revenue numbers.
James: Right. Right. And that’s, yeah, and I know certain corporations may have policies of what you can do, and then what you can’t do, and travel, and then there’s not people traveling into these places as much, so they have less entertaining they want to do and things like that. So I know it’s a tough time out there, man. I can feel it. We’re doing all we can to support you at the magazine. The Tour Collierville Magazine I know is doing a lot, that publication we have. And we see a lot of support out there in the community for local, but it’s like you said, there was a really strong push at first, but people have short memories, right?
James: Sure, and I understand. You can do only so much, and individual households are affected in different ways. You know, there’s a lot of, you know, we’ve had some jobs created, but there’s been a lot of furlough. There’s been a lot of, a massive amount of involuntary unemployment in this country, and probably locally, that has changed the dynamics of spending and changed consumer confidence at a level that, you know, is kind of unprecedented in what I’ve dealt with as a younger person. I haven’t lived through the past, besides ’08, and ‘08 was a little bit different. It was a banking situation. This is a health crisis that affects all levels. So it’s just, it’s different.
Keith: Yeah, and that’s a good point, looking historically, you guys have been around for many years, right, starting downtown and having different locations. Have you, or any your family members, did they remember any time that was anything like this that was affected, that you guys have had to come through, anything that would be remotely comparable?
James: Yeah, the second-generation owners and their age group, which is my father, Dimitri. And I know when he worked with his brother Costa and Angelo, you know, that age group of the seventies, people in their seventies, the baby boomers, they don’t, no. Every one of them would say, you know, and my customers that are baby boomers, have never quote, seen anything, as they say, like this. Nobody was around in the great Spanish Flu and the pandemics of the past and only their parents were around for the highly-leveraged fall out of the great depression in the twenties and early thirties. So no one experienced an economic halt like this. So no pandemics, and like I said, the different recessions, those come and go, and 2008 and 2009 was a big event, but my restaurant actually was growing every year, even through a banking and real estate shock of collapse. So this is a health crisis that has led into an economic situation. So even though you see your stocks go up a lot every day, and the NASDAQ breaks records, because Amazon’s trading at 3,000 a share, and Apple’s up, and all these things that’s being carried by a certain, very small segments of mega-company and mega-power tech. So we don’t move the market. We’re just trying to get their money back in.
Keith: Yeah, absolutely. So, well, man, we’re, we’re definitely rooting for you, and I know it’s tough out there and it’s tough for you guys and all restaurants, but you’re doing a great job, and I appreciate you spending a few minutes with us.
James: Absolutely, Keith. A pleasure and anytime. I’ll see you soon. Let me know.
Keith: Will do. Thanks, James. Guys, this wraps up this episode of Main and Mulberry. You can find more podcasts and interviews at mainandmulberry.com.