Throughout the pandemic, we have followed the recovery of one local restaurant, Kipplee’s, as the owners and staff struggle to operate their business safely.
When I interviewed Kipplee’s co-owner Matt Klees in March, he and wife Kaycey had only owned the iconic Evansville restaurant for eight months.
The dining room and bar were closed by the pandemic and Matt had to lay off most of their forty employees.
Matt said then, “There’s nothing worse than having to call somebody to tell them they don’t have a job. I’ve never had to do something so hard and I wasn’t prepared for it.”
But Kipplee’s had a drive through, and Matt was among the first to apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan. At least some money was coming in. The Klees could hire back their staff and keep them busy until May 11, when the dining room and bar reopened at half capacity.
As they got ready to reopen, Matt said, “It’s a whole new competition. Instead of seeing who can turn the tables the fastest, it will be who can make the customers most comfortable and most safe.”
The Klees made the right choice. They were among the first restaurants locally to require a temperature check at the door before customers can enter the dining area. They observe mask and sanitizing regimens and tables are set apart.
When I visited last Thursday, the parking lot was packed, the dining room buzzing with lunchtime business. Customers Greg Schuble, Rachel Seifert and Jeff Brewer all made it clear what drives their dining out decisions in the time of COVID-19.
Schuble said, “We actually take a look when we go to a different place, and see if people are masking up and stuff like that when they’re walking around. If they’re not, we don’t go in.”
Seifert added, “Oh sure, yeah, that’s very important, to make sure that we’re social distanced, wear your mask when you come in, wear your mask when you go out and have your temperature taken.”
Brewer said, “If we walk into an establishment and see that they’re not taking those precautions, we're gonna’ turn around and leave.”
Kaycey Klees says the fact that they hadn’t been in business too long before the shutdown made adapting to the pandemic a little easier for their restaurant.
“Our whole first year has been about adapting. I think that’s kind of paid off for us. “
How does that work for the staff? Issac Kebortz was working the drive through.
He said, “We’ve definitely adapted to use our voices a bit more to convey our inflections because the masks hide our face a bit.”
For servers Mariah Moore and Brittany Lickey, smiles and friendly service mean better tips, something that’s tough to do while wearing a mask.
“This is Mariah. You have to raise your voice to talk to people so they can hear you. But after a while you get used to it, so it’s not too bad.”
“It’s Brittany. A lot of people just point at the menu to see what they want. It gets tough sometimes when it’s really loud, but we just push through it.”
There can be humor, even in a moment of personal chagrin.
Brittany said, “I went to check their (customer's) temperature and they leaned in too far and I hit them on the forehead with the thermometer.”
With hard work and a sense of humor, Kipplee’s co-owner Matt Klees says they are surviving, but not thriving, yet. When asked if it felt like the virus was winning at first, he said,
“It really did. We kept saying that it felt like it was circling our building and cornering us. Everyone I know that was running a restaurant was having the same problems and it just felt, almost like a helpless feeling. We were short on staff just because we were over cautious with quarantining people that for a while it just seemed, like you said, that it was winning. We were fighting a battle that was uphill that we weren’t going to be able to win no matter how safe we were. Now, it seems like the understanding of people wearing their masks correctly and if you’re not feeling well, not going out, I think that’s a real change in the community in the last month or so. People are getting it more and it’s easier to stay safe.”
Kipplee’s co-owner, Kaycey Klees said she feels like a survivor.
“A little bit, yeah. I would say so. You know, from being in the business like seven months, eight months when this happened, I didn’t know where this was going to take us. I got really scared for a moment. We survived it. A lot of it has been our local community helping the community out. I can’t be thankful enough for that. “
“Do you ever have a moment of reflection when you say, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe we made it through this?'”
“I do, actually. We were watching a documentary not that long ago about the AIDS epidemic and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that is what we hear on the news every single day through this.' About how this is gonna’ shape discussion for years to come. What are text books, what are people going to be saying about right now? It’s a…hopefully once in a lifetime.”