East TN restaurant company closes one day a week to give employees break amid pandemic

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GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — The Johnson Family of Restaurants decided to close one day a week to give its employees a break amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Kelly Johnson, the president and owner of the company, said all 11 of her restaurants will close one day a week in order to give most employees two days off each week.

She said that owning a restaurant company amid a pandemic wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t any easier on her employees either.

A restaurant job is always a little physical draining, but the pandemic added more stress for everyone.

“With the pandemic the mental strain on people with wearing a mask and being a little bit nervous and the inevitable of dealing with customers that don’t want to follow our specific rules regarding masks and, it’s extra stress and it was showing on our staff. The mental health challenges were becoming as big of a deal as the physical challenges,” Johnson said.

Johnson isn’t new to starting over after a tragedy.

The Alamo Steakhouse in Gatlinburg had to be rebuilt after burning down during the 2016 wildfires.

Johnson said rebuilding a restaurant is like opening a brand new one. It’s straight forward and once you have a plan, you get to work.

She said reopening after a pandemic was a lot more difficult.

“It’s been sort of nuts. You have the general, do I have enough masks to open? Can I get enough sanitizer? You know, what other PPE (personal protective equipment) do I need to keep my people as safe as possible,” Johnson said.

She said they added air purifiers in her restaurants to help limit exposure indoors.

Her restaurants have safety guidelines signs posted all inside, every employee gets temperature checked before work, they all wear masks and guests are required to wear them as well.

If guests don’t have masks, her restaurants can provide them.

On top of learning what she needed to reopen following the safety guidelines, Johnson said she had to deal with other side effects of the pandemic, such as a shortage of products–pepperoni as of late, according to Johnson–and people.

“It’s always a tough labor market in Sevier County, but understandably, there are people who did not want to come back to work and so it’s a tight labor market made even more challenging by (the pandemic), and so you just had staffing issues everyday,” Johnson said.

Limiting the capacity in the restaurants hasn’t helped with the issue of fewer staff, mainly because they are still busy with visitors.

Not being able to find enough employees to help with staffing shortages, the Johnson Family of Restaurants have been closing one day a week ever since the week of July 4th.

Johnson said she didn’t want to burn her employees out by making them work six days each week.

“It just seemed like it was imperative to sort of respect that. You know, it doesn’t do good to anybody to burn out your employees and without them we have nothing. And so protecting them physically and mentally became important,” Johnson said.

On Friday, Johnson said her restaurants would most likely continue with the one day a week closures through September.

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