Restaurants throughout the state have been hit hard by COVID-19 restrictions that largely limit operations to outdoors and to-go services.
Duke’s Diner in Olivehurst is no different. The family-owned business, which has been operating since 1962, had to close its doors on Nov. 1 due to an unexpected staffing shortage.
“We’ve been through floods, evacuations, fires; my father prepared me for all of that, but I wasn’t prepared for this pandemic,” said owner Mary Jane Griego, who took over the business from her parents in 2012.
“But some of the lessons he taught me have helped me through this, like the importance of having a rainy-day fund. Other things like the government’s Paycheck Protection Program and local grants through Yuba County and the (Yuba-Sutter Economic Development Corporation) have also helped us, so we’ve been very lucky.”
One of the biggest impacts of the coronavirus has been the fear of the unknown, Griego said. That overwhelming fear has slowly faded as the pandemic has gone on, but the impacts of it have been far-reaching.
“Independent businesses are the backbone of this country, so it’s been scary to see so many locally-owned businesses close, some of them permanently, due to this virus,” Griego said. “It’s been heartbreaking.”
After hiring a new dishwashing and kitchen crew, Duke’s Diner was able to restart operations on Dec. 21, though the facility hasn’t returned to its full weekend schedule as staff are still being trained. Things have been going well, Griego said, and they hope to resume weekends by the end of January.
Griego has used the unfavorable circumstances and downtime to make a number of improvements around the restaurant in hopes of seeing it continue its success well into the future. The biggest improvement is the construction of a patio area where customers will be able to sit outside and eat– a plan Griego had wanted to do at some point that was expedited by the pandemic.
“We are anticipating finishing the patio sometime in February,” she said. “We also plan to do a water fountain in there, some landscaping, and put in music, so it will have a fun atmosphere just in time for spring.”
Other improvements include a remodel of the dishwashing room, repainting, reorganizing the kitchen pantry, and other general spring cleaning that would’ve been much more difficult during regular business hours.
Despite the challenges a nearly two-month closure presents, Griego said she’s confident the business will survive due to its loyal customers and supportive community. The business’ success over the years has come from treating customers like family and friends and building relationships in the community, she said.
“My heart hurts for all these small businesses that have had to close, so seeing us all get back in business, that’s what I’m hoping for 2021,” Griego said. “To see our civic organizations get back to putting on events and doing fun things for the community when it is safe to do so, that’s what I’m hoping for, that kind of normalcy.”