Jay’s Drive-in Oregon thriving amid COVID-19

Carhop system turns out to be convenient during pandemic

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jay’s Drive-in owner Terry Wilken had to ask himself some tough questions.

“It was a scary time,” Wilken said. “We weren’t sure what was going to happen. ‘What if we had no business?’ was what we were thinking.”

What followed this summer was unexpected for Wilken.

“I would say this has been one of our best years ever,” Wilken said.

Jay’s Drive-in business has increased, even though Wilken doesn’t like to say it because he sees how other businesses are hurting due to COVID-19, restaurants especially.

The drive-in’s carhop system makes it a unique case in the pandemic. Patrons can wait in the comfort of their own car and order without making contact with employees. Wilken has yet to open up his indoor dining room.

In years past, Wilken said the dining room has made up for at least half of Jay’s business. This year, it hasn’t slowed down business.

“We’ve had a lot of nice days this year,” Wilken said. “And we have a big backyard. You can often find people playing football back there and stuff.”

The dining room’s small size has been a concern for Wilken during the pandemic. He thinks it could reopen when things “get back to normal” or when the weather turns colder.

It’s also possible the drive-in just doesn’t need it anymore.

Another unexpected development this summer was how much more staff working during the pandemic takes. Wilken said he has more employees than ever with everything being outside and more cleaning required.

Jay’s hasn’t seen any COVID-19 cases with its staff. Some went to areas with higher case numbers considered “hot spots” and had to do a two-week quarantine. Others had to be quarantined due to potential exposures at school. Employees wear masks and gloves at work.

Wilken is surprised at customer traffic considering how empty roads were in recent months and the lack of events being held in the area. He takes pride in the idea that when people leave their house, it’s for a trip to Jay’s.

“We’ve heard from people that they’ve never been here before this summer,” Wilken said. “The repeat customers say they make a point to come out. The good pricing is something we hear a lot about.”

For the future, Wilken said he may add more mobile devices to take orders with in the future. He recently came across an article about Burger King opening new places with small dining rooms and carhop services. The throwback system from the 1950s and 1960s seems to be back and here to stay.

“They said it’s the future,” Wilken said. “I think it’s funny it’s all coming back around again.”

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