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Jax Daily Record Friday, Jul. 31, 202005:10 AM EST

My view: Bono’s Pit Bar-B-Q President Josh Martino on the pandemic's impact

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All smoke, no mirrors: an honest look inside the restaurant world.
by: Guest Writer

By Josh Martino • President, Bono’s Pit Bar-B-Q

COVID-19 has taken its toll on many industries and has shown no mercy for the restaurant business. 

We have seen our dining rooms restricted to 10%, shut down completely, brought back to 25% and now at 50% capacity. 

We obviously have seen a sharp decline in our in-house business due to customer hesitancy and capacity restrictions, but we have seen an increase in our takeout, online, and third-party delivery business. 

Catering has seen the sharpest decline with many events and parties being canceled or postponed indefinitely.  

Sales fell significantly in March but have recovered since.

We employ close to 900 people throughout all our restaurants and office. 

We furloughed most of our small office staff and most of our servers during the initial months when our dining rooms were shut down. 

Thankfully, we have been able to bring everyone back.

We also suffered a devastating fire at our Town Center location in March, which displaced all the employees from that location.

Plans to rebuild that location are underway and we will come back better than before.

The outpouring of generosity was awe-inspiring.

Our partners at the Jacksonville Jaguars, Jumbo Shrimp, Icemen, Jacksonville University, University of North Florida and radio stations all put out media on our behalf helping to promote our takeout and delivery business during our time of need. 

Serving on the board of Feeding Northeast Florida, it became apparent there was a dire need to feed the elder community who were at-risk and unable to leave their homes as well as children who often rely on school lunches as their source of food who were now relying on at-home learning.

We were able to create Project Share and through the generosity of organizations like the Chartrand Foundation, VyStar Credit Union, the Insetta family and many others, grants were procured to deliver food from the Food Bank to local restaurants. 

That food was then turned into tens of thousands of healthy meals for seniors, at-risk children and many others. 

Many restaurant employees were able to come back to work and receive a paycheck while producing life-saving meals for those in need. 

The soul and purpose of this project lifted our employees’ spirits during an otherwise stressful and anxiety-laden time. 

We were able to receive Paycheck Protection Program loans, as did many of our 16 franchise owners.

We have 36 restaurants comprising 20 Bono’s, 15 Willie Jewell’s and one Aiken Fish House. Four Bono’s locations are owned by corporate partners. 

The health and wellness of our customers and staff are paramount and we have taken as many precautions as we can to ensure a safe and clean workplace. 

We take the temperature of every employee as they arrive for work; we mandate masks and gloves; use disposable menus only; increased the cleaning frequency of the dining room; installed plexiglass partitions; socially distanced our dining tables; and instituted mandatory protocols in the event an employee shows symptoms or tests positive. We have outside seating only at a handful of our restaurants. 

All these protocols have made it difficult and awkward to achieve our normal expectation of hospitality, but we certainly are striving to do our best every day under the circumstances. 

 Many guests appreciate the steps we have taken to ensure their safety.

The restaurant experience is based exclusively on hospitality and making the guest feel welcome while providing them with the best culinary experience possible.

Shared ownership develops when guests talk about a restaurant as if it’s theirs. They cannot wait to share it with friends, and what they’re really sharing, beyond the culinary experience, is the experience of feeling important and loved.

Our online ordering and third-party delivery have been our lifeline for the past few months. 

We are fortunate we have been set up for many years on these platforms and our staff has vast training in making that an outstanding experience for our customers. 

Our food travels well, making it an attractive option for those who have grown accustomed to takeout and delivery as their “restaurant experience.” 

We continue to innovate with better packaging, new menu offerings and a new design prototype we hope to unveil in 2021.

We will be shrinking our dining room capacity significantly. We also will be improving our drive-thru design and overall exterior aesthetic. 

 We feel that due to the “new normal” in the restaurant industry, these trends will continue to dominate for years to come.  

Thanks to the loyal and continued support of our customers, Bono’s will survive this strange and unusual time. We are now and always will be a work in progress. 

What happens next is up to all of us and I believe we are ready. 

Josh Martino is president and legal counsel for Jacksonville Bono’s Pit Bar-B-Q Inc. and Willie Jewell’s Old School Bar-B-Q Inc. He graduated from Vanderbilt University and earned his J.D. from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York.

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