In this series, we learn from small businesses across the country how they are adapting in the world of COVID-19. We spoke with Robert Pickens, owner of Kornerstone Bistro in Wilmington, NC.


How has the pandemic impacted your restaurant over the last few months? 

We immediately went to curbside only, reopened the dining room and patio per the Governor’s orders with restrictions at the beginning of Phase 2. We closed due to a staff member possibly being exposed to someone who tested positive, reopened with restrictions, within days closed again due to a completely different situation of a team member testing positive. The restaurant was professionally disinfected, our staff was tested, we remained closed until results came back, reopened doing curbside only again. At this point we are currently evaluating what the next steps will be regarding the status of cases and safety of staff and customers. 


As a business owner, how have you handled the situation over the last few months? 

We evaluate on a daily basis, depending on what is going on in the community and the increase of cases, etc. We base our decisions on what is going to be the best for our staff, customers and business in general.  


How have you been feeling? 

I’ve stayed busy throughout the pandemic overseeing construction of our new venture, Tide Water Oyster Bar, managing the operations of our original restaurant, Kornerstone Bistro, and overseeing the food & beverage operations of Eagle Point Golf Club. It is challenging enough to operate a restaurant, the pandemic adds another whole layer to those challenges.  


How have you pivoted operations to ensure the safety of your staff and customers? 

We immediately went to curbside service at the beginning of the pandemic. It was a risk but something the community and our customers wanted. It allowed us to make a little towards overhead and pay some of the staff. We applied for the PPP loan and were fortunate enough to obtain some funding. We were fortunate in the first couple of months to have a modicum of cases in our general area. When Phase 2 opened up for dining with restrictions we followed guidelines outlined by the CDC and state.  Our reopening coincided with Memorial Day weekend and we were overwhelmed with the showing of people and support from the community. We opened with reservations-only seating and took every precaution to accommodate our staff and our customers. Our customers were excited to be out and about with some sense of normalcy but also realized that the politics of the virus was obvious in our customers. It was another aspect of the pandemic that we had to adjust to. I think the fact that we had few cases here, the full reality of the virus had slightly weakened. As things progressed into the second phase there has been an uptick in local cases – the attitudes of most people I have been in contact with have become more vigilant. As a business owner, I try to remove myself from the politics of it and focus on providing the best, safest experience and atmosphere for our staff and customers.  


What are you doing now that you weren’t previously? 

We have added curbside service as a permanent feature of our business. Fortunately, when I designed the restaurant 13 years ago, I had intended to do curbside out of the back of the restaurant. There was a trend at the time with doing curbside and providing a quick service to families with small children, or people in general to have a quick, healthier alternative to fast food in a convenient way. Unfortunately, the trend never really took off with us and it fell to the wayside. However, the bones of the restaurant were still conducive to curbside service out the back door. While we were closed, we used the food service window and dining room to stage food before taking it out to the cars. With reopening the dining room, it was no longer possible to service the front and curbside through the same food window so we integrated staging the food from my original curbside setup. It has proven to be an additional source of revenue that I believe will stick moving forward as people have become comfortable with the convenience. There is still a vulnerable part of the population that appreciates the service for their safety.  


How are you communicating to your staff and customers you’re reopening/reclosing? 

We update our social media page for the general public as often as new developments impact the restaurant. I send out text messages to the staff to keep them abreast about our efforts. It is challenging as I am having to make critical decisions throughout the day to keep them aware, calm their fears and still continue to deal with the daily operational needs.  


What challenges did you have to overcome? 

With the uptick in cases and having staff members test positive, we immediately made the decision to shut down. We hired a professional cleaning company to come in and disinfect the restaurant. We had the staff tested and closed the doors until their results came back. Upon reopening, we have gone to curbside only again and reevaluate daily when is the safest time to reopen for full service. We will more than likely continue curbside only and in the next week or so reopen the patio. The dining room will be closed until we feel cases are lowering significantly and it’s safe again.  


How are you taking care of your employees? 

We have maintained key employees and employees who are willing to work curbside. Some chose to go on unemployment due to the lack of hours or health concerns. With the PPP loan we were able to bring everyone back with the opening of the dining room and adjusted how we generally tip to make it fair for everyone.  


What opportunities do you discover coming out of this situation? 

Curbside will be an ongoing part of our business model.  


What advice or tips do you have for other restaurants who have reopened, shut down and reopened again? 

Maintain a positive, safe working environment for your staff and customers, do not give up, don’t be afraid to speak with other restaurants regarding tactics that are working or not working. I think most people near us are of the mindset that we are all in this together and we will help each other out as much as we can to get through this time together. We have great relationships with the restaurants and vendors closest to us. We realize that all businesses associated with restaurants are struggling, i.e., farmers, purveyors, linen companies, maintenance companies, rental companies, and numerous other party supplies, event caterers and so on. We have adjusted to their schedule as necessary as they have all had to lay people off, trim costs and make hard decisions to survive. We help and appreciate each other’s struggles and want to see each other survive and thrive.