It’s been a roller-coaster ride for the Nutcracker Family Restaurant these past several months.
The beloved 1950s-themed family restaurant at 63 E. Broad in Pataskala garnered international media attention as the setting for the autumn 2019 rekindling of a high school romance between now-octogenarians.
That couple’s October wedding reception filled the party room at the back of the Nutcracker with print and national broadcast media, covering the couple’s first dance as husband and wife.
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That same party room, says owner Steve Butcher Jr., will now be serving as a dining area when the Nutcracker reopens to sit-down service on May 21, following many weeks of state-ordered closure of Ohio restaurants’ dining areas to combat COVID-19 virus spread.
Initially, the Butchers kept the Nutcracker going on a limited carry-out basis, mostly to help-out their employees and to burn through remaining perishable food stocks.
For the past several weeks, the Nutcracker was completely closed. That changed on May 6, when the store again resumed curbside pick-up.
During a May 12 interview in the restaurant’s detailed-cleaned and reorganized dining areas, Butcher said the May 6 return was intended to satisfy a few objectives.
“We opened again on May 6 with a limited menu, focusing on lunch and dinner,” Butcher said. “And we brought some staff back. We mainly brought back those who weren’t getting any unemployment; some students…some falling a few dollars short, or some who qualified but didn’t get the checks for some reason and so had no income coming through…”
Butcher said, so far, he’s brought back five servers and 10 employees overall, with hopes of eventually bringing back the entire team.
Another reason for the return to limited service earlier this month? He knew the state order to allow a return to full-service restaurant dining was looming.
“This will allow us, when we open up to a full menu, to have everything up and running, and machines are back on and going,” Butcher said. Long-idled machines and food preparation equipment are machines that can later cause issues. “That was the biggest reason we decided to gear up…”
Weekday lunches have been a bit slow so far, but he said there was a “terrific turnout” for Mother’s Day pick-up service.
“We’re running specials now to try and get people back in,” he said. “People are looking for a good value. And maybe we get some new customers in because of some of the things we changed.”
That said, amidst all the changes, “It’s great to see regular customers and get a feel for some people and their willingness to come back.”
That latter, Butcher said, is of course the great unknown for businesses and restaurants now re-opening: Their doors may be open, but will anyone pass through them?
“Some of the ones who want to come back are the ones I felt would be hesitant,” Butcher said of conversations with customers looking to the future. Others he thought would be first in line when doors open are taking a more cautious approach, he said.
“You can’t look at it and make judgments because of what category you feel they (patrons) fall in,” he said. “A lot of them are excited that we’re back. Some will only come back when we have dine-in.”
Devoid of any outdoor dining areas, Butcher and company have been focused on meeting safety standards, while not losing so much interior seating as to make re-opening a further financial challenge.
Fortunately, he said, “We have enough things we can do to try and maximize booths and tables.”
In normal times, the Nutcracker ran 24 tables. Through a combination of use of suspended plastic shields between booths and shifting some dining into the former party room, Butcher expects to operate with about 20 tables.
How things will go after May 21 will hinge on many factors, Butcher said, beyond just simple choice on the part of individual patrons. An example: The Nutcracker Sunday business has largely been dominated by after-church diners, and with churches still closed to in-person worship…?
But Butcher is convinced that, “What happens in week one will be different than what happens in week two,” when restaurants open up their dining areas again. “Customers are going to determine if other customers come, because they’re going to come here and communicate to others how it felt to come here.”
The bottom line is, “We’ll be back with a full menu on that Thursday, with normal hours, with the exception of Monday, when we’ll be closed.”
Butcher also said carryout and curbside delivery will continue, too.
“We invested in technology,” he said, “And now everything can be right at the curb…. That’s going to allow those people not comfortable with coming inside yet to have the ability to come.”
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