By Sylvina Poole
Many businesses are suffering due to the Covid-19 pandemic. One industry that is particularly visible and symbolizes this economic struggle is restaurants and eateries. In many states, eateries are closed, and restaurants that choose to stay open are only allowed to provide delivery or takeout. They do this because customers and businesses are facing deep financial and health uncertainty. At the same time, customers face a different dilemma: Is it worth leaving the house (and risking possible exposure to the virus) searching for takeout food to break the monotony of a new reality at home.
To survive, restaurant and eatery owners are forced to find creative solutions to exist in this new normal and adapt to customers’ plight, just like Mama J’s Kitchen. In this pandemic, Mama J’s Kitchen is an example for all restaurant owners who are wrestling to bring food to the table.
Located in the heart of the Jackson Ward Historic District, this family-run restaurant reflects the family tradition of visiting Grandma’s house for Sunday dinner. Mama J’s Kitchen started with Velma Johnson (known as MaMaJ) during her childhood where the origins of her famous signature recipes all began. Some years later, her eldest son, Lester Johnson and best friend decided to carry the torch forward. Today, MaMa Js Kitchen serves a wide variety of mouthwatering dishes and combines excellent southern cuisine with great service in a relaxing atmosphere. They opened in 2009 as a small local soul food restaurant after opening a catering business in 2002. Their menu consists of southern staples such as fried chicken, catfish, pork chops, pasta and cheese, and kale greens made with fresh, high-quality ingredients. The company’s customers are always looking for fresh and homemade organic food, and this is what Mama J’s Kitchen has been doing for years.
When the pandemic broke out, and people limited their social activities, Mama J’s Kitchen had to reinvent their business model to effectively serve customers in this pandemic situation.
“We switched to a take-away-only model in March 2020 when things started to close,” said Lester Johnson, owner, and president at Mama Js.
“Fortunately, we already had an online ordering system that our clients have been using for several years. Our menu was also handy for takeaway. With the support of our customers and staff, who were willing to stick with us, we were able to weather the storm normally. We got financial assistance, and PPP loans at the national, regional, and local levels have also helped us keep our heads up.”
More specifically, business plans during pandemic recovery involve focusing on two key aspects: delivering and setting up online orders using the app, a cloud-based point of sale system.
“We were heading into growth mode before the pandemic, and now that there is light at the end of the tunnel, we have begun to reorient our efforts towards that,” Johnson explains.
“Making some adjustments based on what we have learned over the past year and accounting for the changes they see in the future development of the hospitality business. It cannot be denied that the coronavirus pandemic is alarming for both restaurants and eateries.”
Survival and accepting the “new normal” is key to moving forward. The nature of the coronavirus landscape is constantly changing. In a constant era of uncertainty, one of the most significant measures restaurants can take is to keep in touch with their customers and provide them with great service right at the door.
“We love what we do! I feel like we are very good at it! And to be honest, I can’t think of anything else that I would like to do more than that. It was harder than usual in an already challenging industry, but the rewards of people who enjoy and appreciate what you do keep you going in this business. Even in spite of everything, this has not changed,” said Johnson.
As the nation reopens for business and state governments loosen restrictions, Mama Js is looking to return to some sense of normalcy by late summer.
Johnson feels though that this much-anticipated move won’t have any real significant impact because the bar seating is already limited due to the size of the area at the restaurant.
“Depending on the logistics of how we reopen, it may continue to be unavailable. Our to go business has expanded significantly during the pandemic and the bar area is an integral part of being able to complete those orders efficiently where our customers are able to just walk in and pick up their food and walk out,” he said.
But just when things were beginning to look up for the hospitality industry, these businesses are facing another equally challenging matter in finding workers.
Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association recently talked about the challenges restaurants are having hiring back workers.
“Yes, hiring qualified staff is a bit of a challenge right now. Because of how hard the industry has been hit, we have not only lost good restaurants but good workers as well. I think some of that will ease up though as the federal unemployment phases out. Right now, there is very little incentive to come back to work in this industry for multiple reasons.”
The association also offered to help restaurants do some recruiting.
Johnson said luckily, they never shut down completely and business continued at a relatively steady pace, the restaurant was able to retain most of their full-time staff.
“We shed most of our part time workers off the schedule so we could guarantee hours to that core group of people. That has allowed us to maintain a relatively stable staff for the amount of business we were doing.”
Johnson admits the business has some “holes to fill” currently, they are otherwise doing okay.