Travel Center Chains Are Reopening Their Restaurants With Lots of Modifications

TA forecourt

NATIONAL REPORT — As states begin to plan for and begin the reopening process months after widespread shutdowns due to stay-at-home orders caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, travel centers are likewise reopening their full-service restaurants.

However, the professional drivers and highway travelers who visit them will encounter numerous changes to their usual operations, as operators make changes to ensure customer safety and comply with a variety of state and local guidelines.

Westlake, Ohio-based TravelCenters of America (TA) has cut down its occupancy to 25 to 50 percent, is separating its tables by at least six feet and is only making every other booth unavailable for use, reported FreightWaves.

TA is also making use of seating space inside its quick-service restaurants, which typically see little dine-in use, and offering outdoor seating where possible.

Knoxville, Tenn.-based Pilot Co. is also limiting seating inside the restaurants it has reopened, and many of its 630-plus restaurants remain closed. CEO Jimmy Haslam expects a long-term effect on its prepared food business.

"I think there will be less dine-in, so we've got to shift our business that way," he told theKnoxville News Sentinel.

Oklahoma City-based Love's Travel Stops & Country Sstores has also begun the reopening process in accordance with state guidelines for occupancy limits.

Diners who visited the reopened restaurants can expect smaller menus, but that may not result in the loss of their favorite items.

"We're limiting our menu choices and I think that's a good discipline going forward," Jon Pertchik, CEO of TA, told FreightWaves. "We have menus at our Country Pride and Iron Skillet [restaurants] that have something like 67 and 72 or 77 items. A lot of the items just never sell, and we need to have the prep. We need to have the storage."

This is the same approach that the company takes to merchandising in the company's convenience stores, according to Pertchik.

"It's driven by what has historically been in demand," he said. "I'm hopeful that we're still able to fully serve our guests and make them happy but do so in a way that's much more efficient."

As openings continue, social distancing guidelines and potential resistance to the use of masks could slow the return to full-service restaurants, particularly for professional drivers who have grown accustomed to feeding themselves inside their cabs.

Food trucks may also present competition for a period of time. Lisa Mullings, CEO of NATSO, stated that while the trade association would typically have opposed their presence at state-run rest stops, it understood the need for drivers to meet their needs during the pandemic. However, some operators don't view them as a threat, noting drivers also care about service, amenities and other attributes that restaurants can offer.