Owners of Freight Yard Pub, Trail House adding Craft Food Barn with timely focus on takeout
BY JOHN TOWNES
As a veteran restaurateur in northern Berkshire County, Colleen Taylor has experienced many trends, economic ups and downs and other changes in the restaurant industry and local market.
She and her brother Sean Taylor have operated the popular Freight Yard Pub in the Western Gateway Heritage State Park at 1 Furnace St, in North Adam since 1992. They also own the Trail House restaurant which opened in 2018 at 896 State Rd. (Route 2) on the city’s west side near the Williamstown line. In addition, they have extensive prior experience at other establishments.
However, this year, like all their peers in the industry, they have had to contend with the unprecedented challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This meant first dealing with the full restriction on public dining imposed by the state emergency order in March, which left the takeout business as the sole revenue source. It then involved figuring out how best to handle the gradual and partial reopening allowed in late spring and early summer, which included an initial emphasis on outdoor dining and, later on, limited indoor seating at reduced capacity.
Now, with the impending change of seasons, they face a gradual transition from outdoor dining as well as ongoing uncertainty about the pandemic’s impact and status.
Among other changes, the Taylors recently made an innovative adaptation to the situation by deciding to add a third operation. They have purchased the long-vacant former dairy Queen building at 465 Curran Hwy. in North Adams, a little under a mile south of the Freight Yard Pub.
They are converting the building into a new eatery named the Craft Food Barn, which will be focused on takeout meals. It will also include food preparation facilities for their existing catering business.
While the new venture was prompted by the COVID crisis, Colleen Taylor said the Craft Food Barn is envisioned as a permanent operation that will complement the food and services offered by their other establishments.
“I would drive by that building several times a day while making deliveries for the Freight Yard Pub,” said Taylor. “I thought it would be a great spot to house our catering operations, as well as offering takeout service. In early April I said to my brother Sean, ‘Let’s look at that.’”
The building was being offered for sale, and in early July the Taylors purchased it from Haskins Holdings LLC for $30,000.
They are currently renovating the building with the goal of opening the Craft FoodBarn in late autumn. “We are stripping the interior down to four walls and completely rebuilding it with a new kitchen and state-of-the-art equipment,” Taylor said.
Most of the structure will be dedicated to food preparation facilities, with a small inside customer service counter and outdoor ordering window. While there may be some picnic tables outside for seasonal use, it will not have indoor seating because of its orientation to takeout service.
Taylor said their plans for the Craft Food Barn became more ambitious as the project got started.
“Initially it was primarily going to be a service kitchen with some takeout service,” she said. “But, as the project has moved forward, its role got bigger. Now it’s a separate entity. I believe there will continue to be a strong interest in takeout regardless of what happens with COVID.”
While the Craft Food Barn will have its own identity, it will incorporate elements of its siblings and support those operations. “It will be the largest kitchen we have and will include state-of-the-art equipment,” Taylor said.
One of its roles will be to handle the preparation of food for the restaurants’ catering business. Although catering this year has been largely scuttled by the restrictions on social gatherings, Taylor said the new facility will improve their catering operations in the future.
“Under normal conditions, catering is busiest at the times when the restaurants are also at their busiest, and this will take that pressure off them,” she said.
As a food-service outlet, the Craft Food Barn will combine the staples of a traditional drive-in with the offerings and quality of full-service restaurants, according to Taylor.
She said there will be burgers, fried fish, and other drive-in fare, as well as hard and soft-serve ice cream, shakes and other related items. But it will be more diverse than that, she added.
“It will have a menu similar to the FreightYard and Trail House,” Taylor said. “It will include menu items such as high-quality burgers, salads, and full meals like steak tips and lasagna. We’ll also feature healthy options and protein shakes.”
She said their plans also call for offering a breakfast menu there. The Craft Food Barn will incorporate contemporary customer service technology.
“Because we will be preparing everything to order, it’s not a quick-stop fast-food outlet where you place your and get your food right away,” she said. “To enable people to do a quick pick-up, we will have online systems so people can place their order in advance. That way, their food will be ready when they arrive.”
However, the Craft Food Barn will serve those who stop in spontaneously as well.“It will also have old-school ordering at the window or inside,” she said.
Taylor said the Craft Food Barn will operate year-round. There will be a small waiting area inside, or customers can wait outside in their cars.
Adjusting to COVID
At the beginning of the pandemic and the state’s emergency orders that limited restaurants to takeout orders, Taylor said she and her brother decided the best way to adjust was to focus on the Freight Yard Pub.
“We shuttered the Trail House on March 18, to enable us to concentrate on offering takeout the Freight Yard Pub,” she said. “Then, in mid-May, we started opening the Trail House on weekends only for to-go orders.”
In subsequent phases, as restaurants were allowed to offer on-site dining, both restaurants began to provide outside and indoor seating and service.
Taylor noted that both of their restaurants are physically suited to outside dining. The Trail House has a spacious outdoor deck, while the Freight Yard Pub is within a complex that includes a courtyard where seating is set up.
While indoor dining has been allowed with more limited capacity and other requirements for social distancing, many people have been reluctant to choose that option due to concerns over COVID.
Taylor estimated that 90 percent of her restaurants’ business this summer has been for outdoor dining. However, she said it is difficult to speculate on the willingness of people to dine indoors based on that.
“The weather for most of the summer has been glorious, so it is natural for people to choose to eat outside,” she said. “I think we’ll only be able to see how many will want to eat indoors when it becomes colder.”
Like other restaurants, the Freight Yard Pub and Trail House have had to limit their indoor seating capacity to 50 percent. Also, bar seating is not allowed.
Under normal conditions, the Trail House has the capacity to seat 80 people at tables and its bar. The Freight Yard has three dining rooms with a total capacity of seating 150, including bar seats.
Taylor said they have developed strategies to serve as many people as possible within the current limitations. This includes installing Plexiglas separators between tables.
They will be encouraging customers to reserve tables at different times, rather than only traditional peak dining hours. That will enable each table to be used more often, to somewhat make up for the seating limitations.
“We’ll be aiming to increase the number of people we can serve by encouraging staggered reservations, “ she explained.
She noted that people will also still be able to visit spontaneously without a reservation.
They are also changing their use of space at the Freight Yard Pub.
“At the Freight Yard we have two additional dining rooms, including an upstairs area, that were open less often or have been used primarily for private events,” she said. “Now, we’re opening them for regular public use. This will allow us to increase our capacity on a more spread out basis within the requirements for social distancing.”
In terms of employment, Taylor said their staff is currently back to their former pre-COVID level of about 40 people. They initially had to lay off some staff temporarily during the early phases of the state’s emergency orders, but subsequently restored positions as more activity was allowed.
“We rehired people and gave all of our employees the option to return,” she said. “Some people could not return because they had gotten other jobs or had other personal commitments, so we hired replacements for those positions.”
She noted that, with the opening of the Craft Food Barn, they expect to add another six to seven employees.
Taylor said that she has discussed the current business situation with many of her colleagues in the restaurant industry.
“They have been doing various things, based on their own situation,” she said. “For example, some made the decision to only be open at the times when they are busiest. Their ability to adjust depends on their specific circumstances.”
She added that one beneficial effect has been on the attitudes of customers.
“After not being able to go out, people seem to appreciate being able to dine out more than they used to,” she said. “It’s become more of an occasion. Also, with so many performances and other activities closed, people have turned to dining out more because there’s not a lot of other things to do.”
Taylor said it is difficult to predict how restaurants will fare when the weather turns.
“A lot of it will depend on what happens in the number of COVID cases,” she said. “If that remains fairly low here, I think people will feel more comfortable about dining indoors. But that could change if there is an increase in cases. That will also drive what the government allows if we see a second wave.”
In any event, she said, restaurants will continue to face challenges for the foreseeable future.
“This has been a difficult time for all restaurants,” she said. “I think it’s important for these businesses and their employees to continue to receive public and government support, including more programs like PPP(the federal Paycheck Protection Program)as necessary.”
Taylor also recommended that people do their best to be understanding about the circumstances for restaurants.
“There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes at restaurants that the public doesn’t see,” she said. “The changes imposed by COVID have made it more difficult to prepare and serve food efficiently. So, I hope that people will be patient about any delays, and recognize that restaurants and their staffs are doing the best they can under difficult circumstances.”