By Brandon Walker EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – Like almost every industry and business sector in the United States, restaurants were dealt a heavy blow with the onset of COVID-19 shutdowns. In order to continue responsibly serving the public, many adapted their services to takeout and curbside pick-up options to continue operating in some capacity.
The Lotus Pad was among them, never wavering following the mid-March dine-in closure mandate. Owner, Alex Omania, and her staff immediately rolled up their sleeves and shifted to a business model that focused on online ordering and takeout, all while maintaining a five days per week schedule.
Now, in adherence to Gov. Steve Bullock’s Phase 2 reopening guidelines, the dining room has reopened and Omania and her staff can welcome patrons inside the building once again, but also still continue to cater to online orders and curbside pick-up.
In Phase 2, restaurants and bars in Gallatin County can operate at 75 percent capacity, meaning Lotus Pad can host 75 percent of their 98-person limit at one time. “It’s been going strong,” Omania said. “I’m feeling pretty grateful.”
Having owned and operated the Lotus Pad in Big Sky since 2007, Omania recently spoke with EBS about the restaurant’s current business climate.
Explore Big Sky: How has your daily work routine been impacted by COVID-19?
Alex Omania: Obviously there’s like the fear thing. Everybody’s afraid. People are scared, but you just have to adjust to that and make sure everyone understands that we are all healthy, everyone working there.
EBS: Shoulder season fluctuations aside, how do you believe the virus will continue to affect your business?
A.O.: We’re focused on operating and serving really good food and we are focused on giving a good experience to people. So, I think that, as long as we can be open that is how it’s going to impact us … It’s going to keep us with our chins up and you know, I’m just trying not to put a lot of energy into thinking about this virus necessarily, you know, and more of how can we adapt to how people are eating.
EBS: What is the overall demeanor of patrons coming to dine-in? Is the atmosphere returning to some semblance of normal?
A.O.: The overall demeanor, I mean I’d say like 90 percent of people are really grateful that they’re here in Montana and I think people feel very relieved when they come in and you know everyone in the restaurant isn’t reminding them of what’s going on and we’re just there to serve food and I think in general, I mean, it’s amazing. People are amazing. People are sick of it you know they’re sick of hearing about it. They just want to eat dinner and see how you’re doing and your day.
EBS: As an owner, what will you remember most from the day when you were able to welcome dine-in patrons and reopen the dining room?
A.O.: I will remember how great it feels to socialize, because I’m an extrovert and that’s why I own a restaurant and that’s why I built this restaurant because I love cooking for people. It is like my superhero power, you know, and just doing takeout was great and relaxing for everybody but being able to like be there and see people is great. That’s what I’m going to remember the most is just the warmth that you get when you socialize. I think it’s pretty important.
EBS: What trends are you noticing in dine-in versus takeout orders now that the dining room has been open for a couple of weeks?
A.O.: People love the online stuff. They love not having to call and deal with a person. I think it’s easier and quick and sometimes you know you’re just getting what you want a lot faster. As far as people dining in … I think that the difference between now than before [is] people are definitely a little bit more hesitant to … socialize and hug.
EBS: Did you adopt any new business offerings or practices due to the pandemic and do you believe they will become permanent?
A.O.: Yeah definitely! Online ordering and delivery and you know even the curbside delivery, I think that’s actually kind of cool. It’s sort of like drive thru. … Really emphasizing washing your hands all the time and awareness around that, just to stay healthy. That is one thing that everyone’s kind of made more emphasis on that.
EBS: What’s been the crowd favorite on the menu since you reopened?
A.O.: People just love Drunken Noodles. I think what happened with all this is that when people were afraid to go out, they didn’t realize they missed certain really simple things that maybe they would get sick of.
EBS: Are there any new menu offerings in the works for the summer season?
A.O.: I think we’re going to remain closed two days a week because it’s healthy for everybody and one thing I’m realizing about all this is that we we’re all, before COVID, operating at a very unsustainable work pace and I think I noticed everybody a lot happier during this. So, we’re going to stay closed two days a week and we’re going to open back up for breakfast like we did last summer.
EBS: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?
A.O.: I can give you a million examples of this, it doesn’t have to be totally literal, it can kind of be figurative. Ciara Wolfe told me this actually. Ask for money and you get advice. Ask for advice and you get money. So, I will tell you that that applies to everything, people asking for raises, you asking your distributors to lower their prices, I mean it applies to so much.