The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, in the short-term, has devastated the American economy, particularly its service industry.
That includes restaurants, which in Ohio have been forced by state order to close their dining rooms and rely on delivery and carryout customers.
King Gyros Greek Restaurant, 400 S. Hamilton Road in Whitehall, is no exception.
But the restaurant with murals depicting the Greek countryside is weathering the crisis better than most, owing to its family-oriented customer service and a little luck, said owner Yianni Chalkias.
Chalkias, whose father operated Vaso’s Greek Restaurant at East Broad Street and Yearling Road until its closure in 1992, said he has never seen anything like this during his lifetime in the restaurant industry.
Chalkias opened King Gyros in 1991, and it included a drive-thru window.
“I never thought that it would save my business in 2020,” he said.
Chalkias said the window aligned him more closely with fast-food restaurants – from which he has tried to distance his own eatery.
In 2011, Chalkias invested $250,000 to expand King Gyros’ dining room, almost doubling its seating from 36 to 68, and the outside patio was extended and covered.
Chalkias also developed a catering service and expanded the menu to offer a variety of gourmet-style entrees and desserts and a beverage selection that includes alcohol.
But the restaurant’s drive-thru and carryout orders have continued to thrive, Chalkias said – so the loss of dine-in service following Gov. Mike DeWine’s March 15 order has affected him less than many other restaurants.
He estimates the dining room is responsible for about 25% of his annual sales, whereas the drive-thru accounts for about 40%, and takeout and delivery the remaining 35%.
In addition to dine-in sales lost, Chalkias said he also is losing money from shuttering the catering side of his business – yet, as of April 3, he said, he has not had to reduce the number of his employees.
Those 18 employees include manager Stefanie Huber.
The 32-year-old Whitehall resident has worked at King Gyros since 2013.
“We’re a family business,” Huber said – and she means both literally and figuratively.
King Gyros’ employees include Lilian Hernandez and her nieces, Sonia and Wendy, as well as siblings Jeff Smith and Laurie Hamilton.
Smith began working at King Gyros in 1992, then stepped away for a few years, but returned to assume the restaurant’s catering operations in 2015, illustrating how close-knit all employees are, Chalkias said.
Employees and customers also are well-acquainted, said Huber, who has helped build employee-customer relationships through social media.
Huber began making videos with Chalkias before the coronavirus changed the world’s routines, but she since has stepped them up to include live videos on Facebook – something Huber considers to be more personable because they aren’t rehearsed.
The restaurant has a website, kinggyros.com, but the videos are on the restaurant’s Facebook page, “King Gyros Greek Restaurant.”
“We love, love the support we’re getting back from our customers,” said Huber, adding several of those patrons have recognized her from the videos.
Chalkias said the videos are not part of Huber’s official duties, but said she’s a “natural” at using them to showcase King Gyros’ menu items.
For Huber, working at King Gyros is more than just a job.
“It’s a blessing. I get to do what I love and to keep the business moving,” said Huber, whose 11-year-old daughter, Amiyah, recently began accompanying her to work.
Although Amiyah isn’t on the payroll, of course, Chalkias said, her presence is another example of the camaraderie among employees that transfers to its customers – and has helped keep his business afloat in a troubled time.
Whitehall leaders say they are doing all they can to ensure all its restaurants survive, said Jenna Goehring, the city’s economic-development manager.
“The city has been working closely with the Whitehall Area Chamber of Commerce on getting the word out about our local restaurants still being open for both carryout and delivery,” she said.