Before the days of COVID-19, the Village Inn would see more than 200 people pass through its dining room to enjoy a hot country-style buffet three meals a day. Now, food and beverage manager Betty Cook said the restaurant is lucky to feed 40 people for breakfast and lunch.
“It’s a sad thing,” she said. “Every day we are hanging on.”
Located off South Valley Pike near the Rockingham County Fairgrounds, the Village Inn has been serving people in the Shenandoah Valley since the 1930s — building off a dream O.K. Early had to provide travelers a comfortable place to stay.
The third-generation family-owned business offers a variety of accommodations and activities, as well as a buffet for not only guests, but locals-turned-regulars.
But the days of getting a home-cooked meal on the go became hard to come by when the Village Inn closed its dining room on March 30 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The buffet wouldn’t open again until July 6.
Cook said the business tried to provide a takeout option for its customers, but the plan was unsuccessful.
“It didn’t fly,” she said. “We are known for our buffet.”
When the dining room opened back up in July, Cook said, the restaurant changed the way it operates by having guests tell a server what they wanted to eat and the server would bring their meal to them. Eventually, and with help from a friend, Cook was able to come up with a way to have the buffet open safely by making sure guests wear masks and gloves when getting food.
“It’s worked well,” she said.
Where the buffet starts is a box of gloves for guests to use. Before picking up a plate and ladle, guests put on a pair of disposable gloves to keep the area sanitary.
Cook admits that she has been the “mask police” when it comes to people coming to the buffet and not wearing a mask, and while most visitors have been understanding, the rules are simple — no mask, no eating at the buffet.
“We have regular customers not wear mask and gloves that said they would come back when it’s over, but we’ve also had customers not coming because they are afraid to come out,” she said. “We are doing everything the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] requires.”
When employees arrive for work, Cook said, everyone gets their temperature checked before starting a shift, including managers and owners.
“We are doing everything to keep safe, but there is still that fear,” she said. “We are probably one of the most safest places.”
And keeping the buffet safe and a clean environment isn’t the only challenge Cook has faced since reopening. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the dining room employed nearly 25 people. Today, only 10 people are employed.
On slow days, Cook has to decide whether to send someone home or keep them on the floor — a decision that gets harder to make each day.
“These employees have been here for years,” she said. “They have to struggle through what they are making and it is a terrible thing for them to endure and for me too.”
Prices for food have also increased during the pandemic, leading menu prices to rise as well.
“A case of green beans went from $15 to $25,” Cook said. “But we’ve heard no complaints with price increases from customers.”
Cook said it’s important for people to remember to support local businesses, adding that the “small businessman is counting on the community to keep it alive.”
“We are here and want to remain open, but we need help,” she said.