Diner Owner Faces Down COVID, Construction, Labor Shortage

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By SCOTT SEXTON, Winston-Salem Journal

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — John Nikas thought he knew what he was getting into when he bought the venerable Murphy’s Breakfast and Lunch in 2010.

“Mostly,” he says with a weary laugh.

His father owned restaurants, and since 2000 Nikas had owned and operated the Courtside Cafe across from the Forsyth County Hall of Justice — and a steady stream of hungry lawyers and unfortunates unable to duck jury duty.

He’d seen other notable diners close up as the town transformed itself. Simple, family run spots such as the Dill Pickle and the Lighthouse switched off their grills as newer, flashier places, including a surfeit of burger joints, set up shop.

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Murphy’s, one of the longest continuously operating restaurants in Winston-Salem, was going on the market, and a well-connected real-estate broker asked him if he was interested.

“I wasn’t looking at that time,” Nikas said. “But I didn’t want Murphy’s to become a Bojangles, either. Places like this are important to every town so they can be unique, so that we’re not all the same.”

Now, though, thanks to a series of circumstances including a pandemic, a prolonged shutdown, profound change in the American workplace and a garden variety closure of the street and sidewalk outside Murphy’s, Nikas finds himself trying to hold a landmark together one meal and one customer at a time.

It’s an oversimplification to say that a very irregular confluence of events has Nikas — and, by extension, Murphy’s 2010 — just barely holding on.

For openers, he’s a smart businessman who can read the numbers on the bottom line. And being able to buy the building that houses the restaurant in addition to its equipment, name and legacy, certainly helps matters.

“I’ll be OK,” he said. “I have the means to make it.”

Still, re-opening the place early this summer after a prolonged pause caused by COVID came with its challenges and forced changes Nikas hadn’t expected.

Near the top of the list is the bustle of construction right outside his door on West 3rd Street.

A building that once housed the Forsyth County Sheriff’s office has been stripped to its bones for construction of a new children’s museum. Work on Merschel Park, which should have been finished long ago, has made a chore out of popping in for a quick lunch.

“(Closing) the sidewalk really hurt,” Nikas said. “I had regulars walk right down the hill from the Winston Tower and the courthouse. Customers used to walk straight over the hill from the Winston Tower. It’s not only difficult to get here with the sidewalk closed but parking, with the street closed, is more limited.”

Changes in the way America works left a mark, too. Office workers accustomed to coming downtown five days a week pre-pandemic were in some cases slow to return.

And then there was a much bemoaned labor shortage — the bane of a small businessman’s existence. It really is hard to find good help these days.

Nevertheless, after reopening to sit-down diners in May, Nikas managed to cover breakfast and lunch services with the help of two daughters, students at the University of North Carolina who gave up other opportunities to work in the family business.

“We were steady during the week and things were picking up on Saturdays with the younger crowd living in apartments downtown coming in for breakfast,” Nikas said. “Those new apartments on Fourth Street were going to help, too.”

But when his daughters returned to Chapel Hill and a grill cook who’d agreed to work Saturday breakfasts backed out, Nikas had to make difficult decisions based on hard numbers: no more breakfast, no more Saturdays and no more employees.

A 53-year-old business owner would by necessity become a one-man band — cook, cashier, server, busser and clean-up crew.

Most weekday mornings, Nikas turns up shortly after 7 a.m. Construction crews across the street are moving already, the cacophony of heavy equipment and worker chatter contributing to the urban soundtrack.

The street, he said, should be open by March. More importantly, the sidewalk is expected to be as well.

When that happens, Nikas said, he’ll begin looking for staff and reinstating breakfast. Customers have noticed the strain and the fight to keep up.

“It’s really amazing what he’s been doing these last six weeks,” said Jerry Greco, a lunch regular. “You have to feel for the small business owners with everything they have to do just to keep the doors open.”

So for the foreseeable future, Nikas will be showing up around first light five days a week and hustling to prepare for lunch, cook the meals, serve them and clean up at the end of the day. Then there’s paperwork and various other tasks that can keep him tied up until well after 6 p.m.

No time for the flu or sneaking out for a “mental-health” day for a small business owner keeping an iconic eatery open all by himself.

“What do I do if I get sick?” he said, repeating the question to help formulate his answer. “I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. If I get COVID I have to close.”

For the time being, the plan is to show up one day and one lunch at a time until conditions change enough to allow breathing room.

Until then, he’ll rely on understanding from diners who like supporting local establishments. The wait for a table at Murphy’s 2010 is roughly the same as at any other restaurant.

The only noticeable difference is that there’s just one man handling four jobs.

“There are two kinds of restaurant customers,” Nikas said. “Those who want everything the same every time; chains are for them. Then there are people who want something different, local flavor and a unique feel. That’s who comes here.”

Provided they can pick their way around the cones, detours and road closed signs that is.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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