Business had already begun to slow some, but the Rachel’s Whistle Stop staff really sensed something was amiss last Tuesday when Fried Chicken Day, normally a patron favorite, failed to draw a big crowd.
It was the same day Gov. Roy Cooper issued a statewide executive order banning customers from dining inside restaurants due to the coronavirus outbreak that was declared a pandemic March 11 by the World Health Organization.
Last Wednesday was even slower, the worst day owner Rachel Aycock said she had experienced since taking over the Hyco Street location in Norlina about a year ago.
Aycock knew she had to do something to reestablish enthusiasm and “put a little fun back into the community,” so she created the Facebook event “Old Fashioned Carhop” for last Friday, designed to be a throwback to the days when drive-ins ruled.
Well, that didn’t go quite as planned. It turns out drive-ins aren’t allowed to rule in the age of COVID-19. But Aycock’s online marketing efforts generated enough interest to make it seem like a normal, busy Friday at Whistle Stop, while fostering hope for at least another day that a locally-owned restaurant in a rural county might survive such a climate of uncertainty.
“The way it was supposed to work is the waitresses were supposed to go to the cars and take the orders like back in the day,” Aycock said. “But the health department called and said we couldn’t do it that way. So we had to have the people call in (orders).
“.. . But, it was a big success. We will be doing it again, especially once all this stuff has passed.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and White House guidelines, adopted by the state last week, limit mass gatherings and are effective through at least the end of the month. The state order allows for restaurant carry-out, drive-through and delivery services only.
Last week could have been especially confusing for North Carolinians as new guidelines or recommendations seemed to drop each day, or hour, from different sources.
Aycock is hopeful her loyal customers have caught on now.
With warm temperatures well above the average last Friday and lively music booming from of a speaker outside the Whistle Stop doors, a steady stream of folks parked for curbside service or strolled in to pick up their orders.
Rachel’s mother, Paula Aycock, filled orders and ran the cash register, as the retired Warren County Middle School teacher often does. By about 5 p.m., the phone went through a spell of nonstop ringing as Paula enlisted the help of her 9-year-old granddaughter, Madison, who will be out of school at Northside K-8 School until at least mid-May because of the virus.
“I have been going, trying to be moral support,” Paula Aycock said, “trying to fill in where needed, do whatever (Rachel) needs me to do. I want to see her succeed, so my husband (Wayne Aycock) and I both help her out whenever we can.”
Melinda and Gene Curtis, regulars from Drewry, did their part to help, attracted last Friday by the carhop theme circulating on Facebook, even though it didn’t pan out exactly as intended.
Still, Rachel Aycock altered the daily special, adding to the normal seafood selection a burger special featuring homemade chili and a banana split.
“It’s a pretty day,” Melinda Curtis said, “and we just thought that was a good idea for her to try to do something different, out of the ordinary to get people in.”
Boyd Scott might have come in no matter what was being served. Working down the road at Norlina Auto Parts, he’s a lunchtime regular and aims to support any small business in Norlina or Warrenton.
Ahead of Scott in line was Warrenton’s Bob Marlin, who usually dines in at Whistle Stop on Friday evenings. Marlin said he was willing to temporarily sacrifice the camaraderie the restaurant normally provides if it means getting through the crisis a little sooner.
“If everybody else would do the same thing,” he said, “maybe we’d be through with it.”
How long the restrictions will last, no one knows just yet.
The National Restaurant Association sent a letter to Congress last week outlining actions that could be taken to provide relief and aid recovery to restaurant workers. The association cited analysis that predicts as much as $225 billion in losses in the industry with the elimination of 5-7 million jobs over the next three months.
Many eatery owners are facing the same challenges as Rachel Aycock, who takes pride in Whistle Stop being a social gathering place. Without a physical place to congregate, she has been posting more to Facebook, where she thanked her customers for their support last Friday, and offered up yet another new idea on Monday: “Meals for 4” specials with large helpings of entrees, two quart-size sides, family-size dessert, rolls, and a gallon of tea.
Rachel Aycock has no choice but to think outside of the box and try to keep business alive as long as possible. Without customers, she can’t pay her employees.
“And if I can’t pay my employees,” Aycock said the Friday before last, “they’re going to work somewhere else. And also, I need my customers to pay my vendors, and if I don’t have food, I don’t have customers.
“So it’s very challenging and scary, and honestly, the only thing I can do is say a prayer and leave it in God’s hands.”