Erwin shops and restaurants getting back to business

Sue Guinn Legg • May 10, 2020 at 10:00 AM

ERWIN — Two weeks into the phased reopening of Tennessee businesses, the streets of Erwin remain ominously empty. But what’s going on inside the town’s shops and restaurants is encouraging.

Union Street Gallery

Jan Bowden, who owns and operates the gallery with her husband, has been very pleased with the pace of business since the shop reopened. Bowden spent the three weeks of the governor’s Safer at Home directive building her stock of colorful fused-glass garden stakes.

On her first day back in business, she met her operating expenses for the month. And at the close of the second day of the reopening, she had rung up four months worth of operating expenses.

“I was very pleased. I think people are chomping to get back,” she said

Cindy’s Hair and Nail Salon

Cindy Bryant, owner of a one-stylist, in-home shop just off Rock Creek Road on the other end of Erwin, reopened at half capacity on Wednesday. By Friday she was booking appointments into July.

“Business is fantastic,” she said. But with the many safety measures required of close contact businesses, “It’s challenging.”

“It’s all one-on-one sessions with just me and them in here. It’s kind of strange because usually it’s a full house with everyone talking. Now it's just me and them talking. In between it’s wiping down everything. Capes go into the wash after every use.”

“Clients have been very kind about everything. They want their hair done but they want to be safe. I just want to be working,” Bryant said. I’m trying to keep us safe and open so we don’t have another shutdown.”

Clarence's Drive-In

Never at a lack for customers, one of Unicoi County’s most popular eateries has been a pick-up only establishment since the Safer at Home directives took effect, reminiscent of the drive-in’s early days when all food orders came through its walk-up window.

The line at Clarence’s window has been steady throughout the shutdown.

Owner Teresa Collins, who runs the drive-in with her husband, said. “I’ve been satisfied. We have a lot of good customers who have supported us. It’s been busy.”

Their plan to reopen the dining room at half capacity on June 15, with no more than six customers per table and a six-days-a-week schedule that will close the restaurant on Sundays going forward.

“We had to do some things to get ready. A lot of sanitation things. A lot of cleaning and bleaching. It will be challenging,” Collins said.

Steel Rails Coffee House and Keesecker Appliance & Furniture

Ben McNabb, owner of two Main Avenue staples, said his popular coffee shop and decades old furniture and flooring store “never really closed” during the shutdown.

The coffee shop continued with curbside pick up for those who can’t do without their regular Steel Rails fix, while the furniture store remained open as an essential business because of its appliance and appliance parts sales.

“I was amazed we had so much support from our family and our patrons,” McNabb said. “We had some who were here every day, even with our abbreviated hours.”

But with few others venturing out, McNabb’s sales for April were down about 50 percent from April of last year. “We definitely needed to get back going.”

On Monday, both shops will return to their former hours and the Steel Rails dining room will reopen at half capacity and sidewalk seating. “I think we’ve got some pent-up demand out there once people start getting out. That negative mood is worse than the reality. I know some businesses that have closed. If we can’t (resume business), another month or two it would be unbelievable the number that would fall out.”

Maple Grove

Under new management, the town of Unicoi’s home cooking hotspot reopened its dining room at half capacity as soon as Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee gave the green light.

The new owners, Diane Powers and her son-in-law Aric Long, had done two good weeks of business when the governor’s Safer at Home directive shut down the dining room and limited them to pick up orders.

Back in the dining room with special cautionary measures for the past two weeks, Powers said lunch crowds have been particularly good and business is growing every day.

The menu has not changed. They’ve been selling a lot of strawberry shortcake with fresh berries from the nearby Scott’s Farm Market. And, Powers said, “Everyone seems to be enjoying it.

The Sausage King

A new Thursday regular in downtown Erwin and other sites around the Tri-Cities, Melissa Szucs and her husband Csaba had been hawking their menu of homemade Hungarian sausage and Appalachian favorites at area festivals for years and had just bought their new “Hungarian Sausage King” food truck when the pandemic hit.

“We were worried, but Erwin has really came out and supported us,” Melissa said of her hometown. “I can’t thank them enough. It’s been a blessing.”

Baker's Shoe Repair & Saddle Shop

One of the most eye-catching storefronts downtown, Baker's Shoe Repair & Saddle Shop, has been back in business since the phased reopening began two weeks ago.

After 39 years at the corner of Main Avenue and Gay Street and close to 100 years of operation in Johnson City and Erwin, owner Tony Baker said business is not what it was before the COVID shutdown.

But the shop’s established customers are coming back “a handful at a time,” Baker said. And he is looking forward to once again seeing newcomers peruse the shop's selection of leather goods.

Burnout BBQ & Grill

One of Erwin’s newest and most colorful restaurants, Burnout BBQ on Rock Creek Road had only been opened seven months when the COVID shutdown closed its hot rod-themed dining room. Owners Kevin and Melinda Adkins laid off their wait staff, reduced their hours and managed to stay afloat serving its barbecue and short orders strictly from the curbside.

Reopened at half capacity for the past two weeks, their wait staff is back and they are happy to see their customers returning. For now they’re only open three days a week and are hopeful they will return to their previous schedule as business picks up.

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