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A famous diner fights for survival as COVID-19 rewrites restaurant rules

Famous diner fights for its life
Famous diner fights for its life 03:03

For decades, Hank's Creekside Restaurant has been a fixture in California's Sonoma County and even made a cameo in one of Guy Fieri's road trip videos. Yet the popular little diner, at barely 1,000 square feet, is facing the same harsh reality confronting thousands of eateries around the U.S.: Packing in patrons, while good for business, isn't an option as long as the coronavirus remains a threat. Hank's owners, Hank and Linda Vance, both in their 60s, spoke with CBS MoneyWatch about the challenges of running a restaurant in the era of COVID-19. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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Hank and Linda Vance, who have run the family-owned Hank's Creekside Restaurant in Sonoma County, California, for nearly three decades, describe their diner as "a little bit of heaven on earth." Courtesy of Hank Vance

CBS MoneyWatch: You were forced to close Hank's shortly after the virus erupted this spring. How long did you have to keep your doors closed?

Hank Vance: We closed right away when everybody got sheltered in place, and we stayed closed for two months. About two weeks ago, we started reopening for to-go breakfast — just me, my wife and my daughter without any other employees. 

So it's a family-run business? You have a big family, I understand.

Linda Vance: It's a family-run business. We have six kids, we opened 28 years ago and it has absolutely been a little bit of heaven on earth. People come in from all walks of life. It's really a gathering place for a lot of local people. It's a bit like "Cheers," where they all become friends and we have our regulars.

Sounds like fun. This video call shows how tight things can get behind the counter. What's the layout of the restaurant, and how is that affecting how you operate now that you've reopened?

Hank Vance: We have a very small floor. We had a lot of tables packed into a small square footage. It's a very challenging time, yet we want to see if we can keep the pulse of business alive. It will be a different kind of business than before. We used to have people lined up and waiting 45 minutes to get a table. Weekends were always busy. I think that's over.

How did you prepare to reopen? What kinds of changes have you made?

We had to do some extra stuff. We didn't open when we expected to because we were waiting for more plexiglass to create more separation between tables, which is quite a bit of work. The plexiglass was on back order. That's why we hesitated to reopen right away. 

It's expensive stuff. Probably a few hundred dollars. But the cost isn't as significant as the amount of tables we are going to lose to accommodate social distancing. 

It's really close quarters there inside the diner. Can you practice social distancing in the kitchen?

Well, no. But everybody masks up back here. The guys in the back are up to their elbows in soapy hot water all day, they are pretty good. And if they go out on the floor it's a different protocol. 

How much of your staff has returned?

Two of my daughters and one son work here. I could run it on a reduced staff with mostly just my family, so I will survive, but it leaves a lot of my employees in the wind. 

So how is business since you reopened?

We are used to a pretty high volume of business here —my people don't even know how to react with it being this slow. They are used to "go, go, go" all the time, with people lined up out the door. Those days are over for a while. It's a different business now, but we are going on 29 years here in a couple of months. We own the building, which is a huge benefit. A lot of people have high lease costs and keeping those up for the last three months has been a challenge. 

How much business are you doing now on, say, a Saturday compared with in the past? 

Usually, I will do anywhere from $3,800 to $4,600. When we reopened, we did just under $1,000. I'd be happy if we could get our days back up to $2,000. 

Obviously, having to dramatically reduce the number of customers you serve is a problem for any business. Will you be able to make it? 

That's what we have to decide. Is this worth it? I think so. It's a whole different restaurant. It's a whole different operation. I am used to coming in at 4:30 a.m. in the morning and doing all my prep, and now I do prep every three days because I am doing about a third of the business. I think it will gradually improve as people start to feel more comfortable to go out and they start to open it up a little more. 

You own the building next door — have you considered taking that over? 

I do have the building next door. It used to be a pie shop and was one of the restaurants that was forced to close in the middle of this. Between the two wildfires we had here and then this, they weren't able to survive. It's a small building that I could possibly annex in a way and use for extra seating. I'd have to put the girls and  guys on rollerblades or something, I guess. It's maybe 50 yards away. We are thinking about that but aren't there yet. 

It's a stressful time for many small business owners. How are you and your family holding up?

I'd like to get some normalcy back into our lives. It's been hard, but it's been harder for other people. Some people have been devastated by it. Not just by the virus, but by its effects and having their businesses shut down, not being able to go out, isolated in their homes. 

You and your wife are considering retiring early because of the pandemic. 

This is going to help us make a decision about that. I haven't retired yet because I enjoy this. That's why we do it. We love our customers, we love our employees. It's our life on a lot of levels. But I just don't know if I want to do it this way. I am not wired for it. 

Linda Vance: We are getting ready for our retirement. This is not a good time. Maybe the kids will take it over, maybe we'll sell it, maybe we'll keep it for a while and see if we can get it back to the thriving business that it was. 

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