Immediately upon meeting Tina Bolick, owner of Skylines Café and Bar in Clayton, it is clear she is a no nonsense kind of gal. With 35 years in the restaurant industry, 14 of those running the café, “I feel like I’ve seen it all,” she said. That was until the pandemic forced the world to shut down and presented Tina with “all kinds of challenges.”
Bolick’s dad who was in the hotel business and worked for Howard Johnson’s introduced her to the service industry at a young age. Her first job after high school was at a HoJo’s restaurant where she learned the ins and outs of being a server. After a stint at NC State University as an electrical engineering major, she went back to waiting tables. “I kind of got trapped in the restaurant business,” she reminisced.
Restaurants, which employ 11 percent of the NC workforce, were pummeled by COVID-19, leaving a trail of closed restaurants and servers, chefs and bartenders out of a job. Like every other business owner, Tina “had to adapt.” And adapt she did. Her two main focuses were keeping her small staff busy and keeping her customers fed while keeping them safe.
Tina qualified for a Paycheck Protection Program loan allowing her to bring all of her staff back. She also received a check for $2000 from Heinz that, unbeknownst to her, someone had nominated her for.
Although business declined by 30%, Tina wanted to “do our part ” to keep the supply chain strong by continuing to order food. “People have to eat every day,” she said. So, she and her staff got creative by making and selling homemade soups, and offering salmon and steaks by the piece like a grocery store. Her purpose was to continue to provide a service of feeding others.
Luckily, Tina had already begun using GrubHub in January of 2020 because to go ordering was already trending. With just one chef and a small kitchen, “It was a big adjustment,” she said. The servers rotated shifts and in between taking phone orders and laminating menus, they did jigsaw puzzles to pass the time. Although the restaurant was open they couldn’t seat anyone inside so here was very little for them to do.
Her regular guests were concerned about the restaurant surviving and a lot of them made sure to order at least once a week. “Our community wasn’t going to let us fail,” she proudly said. Her regulars would buy gift certificates and give generous tips to the staff.
Mother’s Day 2020 also showed Tina how much the community truly valued Skylines. Normally this day brings people to the café for brunch leaving the dinner service basically non-existent. Like the rest of 2020, nothing was normal. Tina decided to offer a full menu all day expecting a rush during the normal times and that would be that. To her surprise, the kitchen was twelve tickets deep (a lot for a small kitchen) for 3 ½ hours straight that evening.
Once the café was allowed to have indoor dining again, the health inspector said the cafe could seat up to 90 guests, but Tina decided to keep the capacity to 50. “Perception is a huge thing,” she said. A lot of the regular clientele is older and the restaurant is small, so she didn’t want people to think it would be too crowded or unsafe.
Before COVID, Skylines Café was on a steady increase for nearly three years. Tina bought her part of the building and didn’t have to worry about making rent, which was a huge benefit during the pandemic. With the first quarter of 2021 nearly over, she is set to be back on track by August touting February as the busiest month in 14 years and having only 28 days. Tina believes the uptick in business has come from people being home with nothing to do except look for a new restaurant to try.
The growing pain now is keeping up with the constant influx of orders. With more people working from home, the lunch rush has shifted to later in the day. That means tickets come in all day long and requires double and triple batches of prep.
A veteran of the industry, Tina seems to take it all in stride. When asked what was her biggest take away she quickly replied, “I’m so grateful to this small community. I already knew it existed.”