OREGON – The sign at Jay’s Drive-In reads “Social isolation party here, 11-8 p.m.”
The owner of the historic restaurant at 107 W. Washington St., which opened for the season Wednesday, says he isn’t making light of the situation, he just wants to bring some normalcy back to the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think it’s been a welcome relief for people, having somewhere to go,” owner Terry Wilken said.
Like every other restaurant, the dining room is closed. Many area restaurants are putting their all into carry-out and curbside pickup to maximize business, but the carhop system, a throwback from the 1950s, is tailor-made for social distancing. Customers stay in their cars and call in their orders, via phone or the intercom system, and workers bring it out to them.
“I don’t think it was their plan back then, but it works for the situation we’re in right now,” Wilken said. “It’s perfect for us. You sit in your car and you’re isolated.”
Wilken, who has had 2 weeks to watch other businesses cope and consider the best way to serve his customers, has changed his system by adding parking spots where customers can order using their phones, in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Around 90 orders had been placed as of Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s been very good,” he said. “It’s been busy, and we’re working out the bugs on our new system.”
Jay’s now also offers delivery through a local service, ChowDown OTown.
Delivery is something customers have asked about for the past few years, and he’s happy to finally be able to provide it, Wilken said.
Other coronavirus concessions: Employees get their temperatures checked before they begin their shifts, they're wearing and frequently changing rubber gloves, and surfaces are getting extra cleaning.
Between the delivery option and the new cleaning policies, Wilken actually has hired more employees than usual. No school helps fill those positions – and those burger orders.
“It gives us staff," Wilken said. "A lot are students out of college and high school, and it helps with business. Kids have to eat lunch somewhere.”
The drive-in, which opened in 1965 and changed the name to Jay’s in 1983, always opens for the season on the last Wednesday in March, and is open 7 days a week. That hasn’t changed, but, like many other restaurants the hours are shorter for now: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., closing an hour earlier than usual. You can call 815-732-2396 to place an order.
Despite its tailor-made business model, COVID-19 still will take a toll on Jay’s. Wilken estimates that at least half its business usually comes form the dining room, especially when temperatures are cool.
For now, though, it's good to know a trip to Jay's for a burger and a shake is still an option.
“I think they need that right now,” Wilken said. "Everyone is taking it seriously, but they don’t want their lives to stop. They want an escape.”
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