Oscar Puga doesn't pretend to know every inch of the restaurant world, but — with 13 years in the business — he doesn't deny knowing more than most 23-year-old owners.
The face of Joanna's Family Restaurant on West Jefferson Boulevard in Fort Wayne also knows a few things about adapting to an unforeseen environment.
He took on the former Friends II location in August 2019 and has struggled more than half of the intervening 17 months in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He has added partitions, marked off tables, cleaned feverishly and enforced the mask mandate for up to 80 hours a week. Besides the daily cleaning there is extra attention to sanitizing high-contact surfaces. "The door handle is wiped down every hour," Puga said. While he hopes the virus fades soon, he plans to keep on working hard to ensure the diner survives into 2021 and whatever waits beyond.
From breakfasts to burgers, the 8-page Joanna's menu offers drinks and desserts and variations on 187 items. That's likely to change in 2021 as Puga writes "a little more streamlined and to-go-friendly" menu to encourage take-out and delivery.
"2020 has been a year that seems like it was taken from a movie with all the government shutdowns, people wearing masks and a virus killing millions," Puga said. "But unlike the movies we are trying our best to continue as normal.
"2020 really has been the year of resilience. You ask how we are coping with the virus and honestly, I do not have an answer because it feels like we are not. I think I would say we are trudging along.
"Every day, it seems, another restaurant is seen closing its doors permanently and it feels as if it were a circle closing in on us."
Puga's parents own the other Joanna's location, in Leo Crossing. Puga describes that as a more established restaurant, more certain to survive and rebound.
"I have been in the restaurant business technically since I was 10 and I am 23 now, so I would say I have a decent amount of experience in restaurant compared to my peers," Puga said. "Through the years I have worked every single position, gaining as much experience as I could. I have been a dishwasher, cook, server, manager. And at the age of 22 I opened our south location on Jefferson. But nothing prepared me for what came in 2020."
He continued, "I have made sure that both locations are following the governor's order and we are doing our due diligence to make dining as safe as possible for everyone. But the extreme effort is met with record low numbers in our books and we fear if things don’t turn around Joanna’s will have to start thinking of things that 10-year-old me would have never thought we’d be thinking about."
As accustomed to long hours as he may be, Puga has seen even more of them this past year. "I work more just because it saves us costs," he said. "I went from 50 hours a week to 80 hours. I do a little bit of everything. I'm definitely more hands-on and just trying to cover everything I can to minimize costs."
It's been a rocky few months for Joanna's, complying with the governor's ban on dine-in service and closing altogether for about 3 months.
"We wanted to do carry-outs but we weren't sure there would be enough business to sustain us," he said. "When other restaurants started doing carry-out, we decided to try it."
When the governor allowed dine-in service at reduced capacity, Puga installed plastic partitions between tables. Those fixtures are "definitely not cheap," he said. But he bought the plastic at a home supply store and installed the dividers without outside labor.
The restaurant stands at 50% capacity. When the main dining section fills up, the larger, more open room is available. "We try to open up every other table," he said.
He sees a continuing shift away from conventional, wait staff dining. "I think the virus is going to be here a couple years, but I also think a lot of people are just going toward online delivery service," he said. He expects to reach a deal with Waiter on the Way in January.
Joanna's though, is of a style of restaurant that stresses casual, unhurried dining. That expectation does not mesh easily with today's reduced capacity. He said most people are understanding of that schedule. "They're doing their part, wearing masks, sitting where they're supposed to sit," he said.
There have been cases of diners enjoying another cup of coffee without attention to the clock. "We really can't do anything about that. We obviously aren't going to kick anybody out," Puga said. "As long as they're enjoying their time and other customers are also having a chance to enjoy their time, nothing will be said."
In general, Puga has been able to keep the staff in place. "We did lose a server or two during the time when unemployment was being paid out," he said. "But for the most part everybody has been retained. Some hours have been cut and we're trying to keep our current staff with us, and hope this virus goes away and we will be back to normal."
"We haven't lost any suppliers," he said. "But I do know a couple of our suppliers are struggling." One delivery truck that is usually full when it arrives from Chicago pulled up to Joanna's recently showing the even greater stress facing restaurants in Illinois. "But everybody's definitely feeling it, the whole chain, the people who grow the produce and our suppliers and then us."
"I'm doing good," he said. "But to me the first five years of a restaurant are when you're barely making it but you're getting established."
The Leo location has those five years and then some. "Our numbers are low over there but I'm sure we will be able to bounce back," he said.
"But we didn't even have a year at this location and then we got hit with the virus. We're just hoping we can hold out and see what the future holds for us."