Multi-restaurant owner/operator and long-time restaurateur, Gary Schoelkopf reveals the secret to his businesses success and why he doesn’t plan on opening for outdoor dining right away
ALLENHURST, NJ: Restaurant owners all over the country have been reinventing the wheel transforming from close-knit dining establishments, to exclusively take-out and delivery carriers. But in New Jersey, the days have been getting more challenging as businesses are approaching 100 days without in-house diners, turning streets, sidewalks, and parking lots into temporary dining rooms to serve customers outdoors. Despite the limitations, longtime-restaurateur and owner/operator of the Pour House in Tinton Falls and the Sitting Duck in Long Branch, New Jersey, Gary Schoelkopf, has continued to drive business at his restaurants, even while the doors remain closed.
Schoelkopf has experienced his fair share of crisis’ during his 34-year career in the restaurant industry – the last 26 years as a restaurant owner. After previously owning four restaurants in the Jersey Shore area, he has since scaled it down to two properties – one, a casual pub-style eatery, the other, a laid-back family restaurant. But since the global pandemic forced restaurants to close their dining rooms, Schoelkopf had to adjust to reduced hours and take-out services. Although customers are unable to sit at the bar to enjoy their meal, this hasn’t stopped them from ordering their food to-go. “We have a very strong local base,” said Schoelkopf. “They’re not driving by and coming from North Jersey or anywhere else.” At the Sitting Duck, Schoelkopf credits the uptick in business to the restaurant’s neighborhood location where most customers live nearby and have been primarily staying home the last few months. While the Pour House had a slower start due to customer’s apprehension to go out, regulars of the eatery couldn’t stay away for long. “The phone does not stop ringing from 3:30 in the afternoon to 7:30-8:00 at night almost every day of the week,” said Schoelkopf.
The positive turnout is refreshing as many restaurants have struggled without their usual dine-in customers, but Schoelkopf made sure both restaurants were prepared for these “rainy days” by scaling back the hours of his kitchen staff and reassigning job titles to keep more long-time employees. In anticipation for when guests can return to indoor dining, Schoelkopf installed touch-less doors to his restaurants several weeks ago to help alleviate guest’s concerns about dining again. “Everyone seems to be very happy with it,” said Schoelkopf. “We put it out there on the Internet and the response has been very positive.” In videos posted to the Pour House’s website and Facebook page, guests can see the automatic doors in use at the front entrances where sanitizers are also supplied as well as signs encouraging people to use them.
While New Jersey restaurants are permitted to open to outdoor dining beginning this week, Schoelkopf is “waiting to see how things go” before making arrangements, hoping indoor restrictions are lifted “sooner rather than later.” “There has not been one person in the last two weeks who has said that they would sit in the parking lot of the restaurant,” said Schoelkopf. “Our customers are very loyal, and they can’t wait to come back to eat inside.” However, regardless of the Governor’s decision on when restaurants can operate again, Schoelkopf believes it is ultimately up to the people and if they will feel comfortable returning anytime soon. “I think it’s going to be at least the end of the year before you see over 50 percent [capacity],” said Schoelkopf, adding that a vaccine would be needed to ease the public’s “covid-fears.” By March of next year, he hopes the restaurants can get back to the level they were pre-pandemic. “These people have been cooped up for months. I think the response is initially going to be really vital,” said Schoelkopf. In the meantime, he has been acting as a guiding light for his customers and staff to keep their spirits lifted during these uncertain times. “My biggest challenge with the business is keeping the morale up,” said Schoelkopf who has kept his employees engaged by challenging them to come up with new menu items and modeling a hard work ethic. “That keeps the morale high because they see me working hard and so they work hard.”
While customers and staff have been getting used to the new safety precautions and take-out procedures, they are expecting to follow further guidelines when in-person dining resumes. “It’s going to be something different that we’re not used to, and you have to be very disciplined because I think customers are going to be very critical of skipping a beat,” said Schoelkopf. As his restaurants have survived several catastrophic events over the years, Schoelkopf trusts that they can emerge once again. “We have to keep the faith. This is just another hiccup like 9/11, like [Superstorm] Sandy,” said Schoelkopf. “The tragedy is on the other end. We’re riding on the gravel road, when are we going to hit the asphalt?… I’m wondering for everybody, what are we going to have on the other side.” After nearly 100 days servicing customers at a distance, Schoelkopf is eager for them to return, promising the same service they are used to. “We welcome you back,” said Schoelkopf. “We’ll be ready to receive you in a good, healthy fashion and following all the rules. Nothing will have changed as far as the quality, the price, or the food.”
To view the full video interview, visit Bielat Santore & Company’s website at www.123bsc.com, Facebook https://www.facebook.com/123BSC/, and Vimeo page https://vimeo.com/bielatsantore and stay tuned for the next “Thursday Restaurant Rap” interview.