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Customers pay for orders at Penn's truck in Natchez Trace Village subdivision in Madison. Photo by Jack Weatherly

Restaurants turn to neighborhoods during downturn

By JACK WEATHERLY

Some restaurants have taken deliveries one step further by making visits to neighborhoods.

The strategy is enabling them to partially offset losses due to the corona virus pandemic lockdown

And some of them may continue to use the strategy after the pandemic passes.

Penn’s even prepares its fish and chicken on site.

Penn’s, which was founded by Roger Penn in 1967 and now has a number of stores, has been able to adapt its catering service to the realities of providing food during the highly contagious outbreak across the nation and world.

Catering customers such as corporations and events such as the Mississippi State Fair, the Neshoba County Fair and the Canton Flea Market were canceled because of the virus.

The company lost more than 60 contracts when the virus surfaced in March, Michael Penn said.

But the public reached out to Penn’s, said Michael Penn, who with his brother, Mark, operate the catering service.

Plus, five of the six Penn’s restaurants closed, one reopened and now four are operating on a drive-through basis.

We roll up in there, and we know about how many people they’re going to have because of the housing counts,” he said. It takes a commitment of 100 households and has reached 600, he said.

Usually, dinner is served starting between 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.

Despite the neighborhoods success, it has not measured up to the contracts with companies and events, he said.

Gov. Tate Reeves on Monday loosened the restrictions on eateries  as long as they do not exceed 50 percent capacity.

Jackson-based 4Top Hospitality is likewise making neighborhood-based deliveries. 4Top includes Amerigo, Anjou, Saltine, Char and Sombra in the Jackson area, as well as in Nashville.

Ali Gensert, director of marketing for 4Top, works with homeowners associations, as do other restaurants, which post the location and time for the visits via social media. The customers, who pay in advance, simply do a “drive-through” for pickups, Gensert said.

She said that the orders for family meals range from 10 to 30.

John Bullard, marketing director for Fresh Market Cafe and Bumpers, said that he concentrates on lunches and that orders can be placed the day of delivery. There is no minimum, he said, adding that they have ranged from 20 to 60 orders.

Primos Cafe and Bakery Director of Operations Kenya Parks said while the “new normal” is not something restaurants would have ordered up, “we have been blessed.” Orders have ranged from 16 to 40, with more than one person per order, she said.

When the lockdown began in March, Primos had to lay off part-time workers, Parks said, but they have been paid their normal minimum wage of $7.50 an hour, plus another $2 per hour. Those on duty get the same, plus tips, she said. Primos has locations in Flowood, Madison and Ridgeland.

Restaurants are only required to pay servers $2.13 per hour, not including tips.

As to the future for the new method of delivery, outlooks vary.

If it’s profitable, why wouldn’t you?” said Fresh Market Cafe and Bumpers’ Bullard.

4Top’s Gensert said the arrangement would last at least till the end of the month, but it could continue beyond that “if there is interest.”

Michael Penn said, “We’re going to keep doing the neighborhood thing” after the lockdown is lifted.

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About Jack Weatherly