Necessity, as the proverb goes, is the mother of invention. If the COVID-19 crisis has done nothing else, it has exposed our humanity. It has brought the best out of some and the worst out of others.
It has made us reconsider everything and has caused us to think outside the box. It has forced us to find value in things which were previously worthless and it has caused us to redefine our every approach.
But perhaps those who have adapted best are entrepreneurs, whose natures are based in resourcefulness.
Gary Heisey is an entrepreneur and a restaurateur. In his 30-plus years of operating Heisey’s Diner & Inn 72, Heisey has seen and lived through plenty. The pandemic, in a way, is a test of his ingenuity.
“I’m very anxious for the county to go green, but people have to be smart,” he said. “If we all herd together like cattle, it’s going to get bad again. If people use common sense, we’ll be fine.”
Heisey believes the county will enter the green phase later this month, and when it does, he’s hoping people will be willing to ease into normality.
“There are so many rules and regulations we have to abide by when we finally go green. It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I’m going to have to be baby-sitting and micro-managing.”
Heisey’s response to the pandemic was to set up outdoor dining on the north parking lot of his establishment, which is located along Route 72 in North Lebanon Township. Eight tables, each equipped with adjustable umbrellas, were spread out eight-to-ten feet apart.
No table service was provided, in accordance with Gov. Tom Wolf’s regulations for restaurants, but patrons could purchase take-out food inside the diner and enjoy it outside. The idea provided customers with a different dining option, while creating much-needed income for Heisey’s Diner & Inn 72.
“It was my idea,” said Heisey. “I was like, ‘Why can’t we have outside dining?’ The regulations said we couldn’t have customers eating inside, but they didn’t say we couldn’t have dining in the parking lot. The rules clearly state that we can’t wait on people.
“When I told people I was going to do it, they thought I was crazy,” Heisey continued. “But the response has been good. I have people telling me, ‘Thanks for allowing our family to eat together.’ People have said they love the idea. I just went with it. Since, I’ve heard that two other [local] restaurants did it as well. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all good.”
Under state regulations for restaurants operations, Heisey’s Diner & Inn 72 will be able to provide outdoor table service beginning Friday, June 5. Depending on the response, Heisey could add up to 20 tables to its outdoor dining set-up.
Eventually, the business will need its parking lot for indoor customers.
“I’m going to be able to bring back some wait staff,” said Heisey. “I’ve been doing outside dining for about two weeks now. I wanted to follow the rules. When we first started doing it, we got slammed. People really loved it. I went out of the way to make it happen and people think it’s been awesome. As soon as I can open my dining room, the outside dining will close, because I’ll need the parking. But I’ll still have the patio in the back.”
Before the pandemic hit, Heisey said he employed a staff of 64 — 85, including his catering business. Right now, he employs 13.
“I’m going to try to bring back as many people as possible. But the question is, are people going to give up unemployment to come back to work?”
Like most local restaurants, Heisey’s Diner & Inn 72 closed its inside dining on March 18, in accordance with COVID-19 mitigation restrictions. Over the last three months, Heisey’s has offered take-out and delivery services as a stop-gap measure.
“As soon as they told us we can’t have people coming into the restaurant, we started take-out and delivery,” said Heisey. “We’re running at about 25 percent of our normal business. The bills are still there and some food prices have tripled. What does that tell you? There’s not money involved with it. We’re trying to keep the place open.
“We have very loyal customers. They keep telling me they can’t wait until we open again. As far as financially, we can’t make a living doing it this way. But I was committed to keeping the restaurant open.”
At this point, at least the initial wave of the coronavirus in Lebanon County appear to be behind us. But work still remains, and no one is quite sure what the long-term effects will be on our community, in general, and on restaurants, specifically.
“I think business will be good,” said Heisey of the future. “I think we’ve become more and more socially awkward. This is going to hurt that even more. That’s the difference. As far as business goes, I think it’ll get back to normal eventually. We’ll do what we have to do to make a living … I think you’ll be surprised by how many [businesses] didn’t make it through it. We’re lucky because we’re so established.”
Heisey’s parents built the diner in 1968. During a three-month span in 1989, Heisey graduated from high school, got married and purchased the business.
“My parents said, ‘Either come back or we’re selling the place,’” said Heisey. “I bought it with my two sisters, but since then, they’ve moved on. The big difference I see now is the people. I think it’s the same, but different. You have different folks coming in. You meet different people every day. As far as the business goes, we just keep on cooking.”
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