Billings restaurants lay off employees after health officer order to close

Some scrambling to create delivery menus
Posted at 7:14 PM, Mar 18, 2020

BILLINGS — Billings restaurants Walkers Grill and Jake's Downtown steakhouse are laying off workers this week after the Yellowstone County Health Officer orderedrestaurants, bars, brew pubs, casinos and wineries to close for one week.

“There’s so many restaurants that, I don’t know if they’re going to make it through this. And I hope they all can," Walkers Executive Chef and General Manager Nick Steen told Q2 over the phone Tuesday.

The order to close was made to provide the recommended six feet of social distance space between people, Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton said Monday.

Two people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Yellowstone County as of Wednesday. Ten cases have been reported in Montana.

Steen said he had to lay off more than 30 people on Tuesday and there are about five employees left to run the restaurant.

"There’s no mystery that things were getting bad, obviously. But, I thought we might have a few more days ... We’re going to roll with it. We support the decision. We stand behind it. We know that it’s a hard thing for them to tell us to do too. I think they all know the repercussions on the economy and on the workforce," Steen said.

The health officer order instructing dine-in restaurants to close for one week made an exception for restaurants that could offer delivery or take-out service.

Remaining staff at the traditional dine-in restaurant Walkers have been scrambling to create a take-out menu and establish a delivery service.

“But we want to make sure that we do this the right way. We don’t want to just throw things at the wall and hope that they stick and assume that we can do it all perfect the right way. We want to make sure that we do it right. But that being said, our staff is going to be fed right away," Steen said.

Steen said he will be cooking meals for his laid-off staff and their families in their time of need.

“Come rain or shine, I’m going to make sure that my staff and their families are going to be fed. I’ve got a lot of people here with wives and kids and husbands, they’re all being hit by this. It’s the least that we can do as a business," Steen said.

Across First Avenue North at Jake's Downtown steakhouse, owner Kathy Bolin is taking the shutdown "day by day."

“I thought it was probably coming. We were prepared on Monday. We didn’t make any orders. We canceled all our orders we had for food. And I’m the lucky one because I get my deliveries on Tuesdays. So all the food that was left after we closed down at 9 p.m. on Monday was given away to all our employees," Bolin told Q2 over the phone Wednesday.

Bolin said she had to lay off a majority of her staff.

“I gave them the workers' comp claims today and told them to go fill them out. And told them that I would do the best I can for them. Because I don’t want to lose any of my employees. I love my employees," Bolin said.

Offering take-out service wasn't something Jake's could do, Bolin said.

"With the kind of food that we serve, it’s kind of hard to do take-out and make it profitable. I don’t think people that are unemployed will want to spend that kind of money on food like that," Bolin said.

In response to the economic pain of coronavirus pandemic, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced Tuesday that he's relaxing requirements to file for unemployment, which he said would allow more displaced to apply and receive benefits faster.

Both of the restaurant managers said it is important for the Billings community to support its local businesses during the closure and after COVID-19 starts to die down.

Purchasing gift cards for future meals is a good way to support restaurants during this time.

“If you buy a gift card from Walkers right now, all the money is going to go towards providing for our employees. Every gift card sold is going to go toward funds for our employees to make sure that they have things," Steen said.

At Jake's, Bolin said she may soon be offering discounts on gift cards.

Below are links to both restaurants web sites where you can find ways to support them. Walkers is starting its take-out and delivery service on Thursday.