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Wright’s has found success switching to takeout only, but the new method can’t replicate the unique experience of dining in.

Written by WVUA 23 Digital Reporter Ben Stansell

Every morning, George Pate wakes up around 6:30 a.m., gets in his car and drives to the powder-blue restaurant that sits next to Hopewell Baptist on University Boulevard. By the time he arrives at the restaurant, it’s been open for nearly two hours. Some people arrived before the doors were unlocked and have already left. Some are still there, sipping coffee and chatting.

Upon entering the building, Pate makes his way to the only round table in the front of the house. Even though the table is almost full at all times, there’s always a seat open for Pate. The many men who sit there each morning refer to it as the “liar’s table.” It’s the place where they gather to eat and swap stories, some of which may not be completely true.

“We all jab each other pretty good,” Pate said, chuckling. “There will be six or seven of us sitting there and, if one leaves, another one takes their place. If one leaves, you don’t know the difference. The lying just keeps on going.”

Pate doesn’t need to order his breakfast. The servers already know that he’ll want the same thing he wanted the day before, and the day before that. After eating and telling tales with the other people at the round table, Pate leaves around 7:45 a.m. to take his grandchild to school. This is his routine every morning, for as long as he can remember. 

Or at least, it used to be.

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, causing restaurants to shut down their dining areas and transition to takeout-only, Pate’s morning routine has been disrupted.

“It messes my whole day up when I don’t get to go every morning and eat breakfast,” Pate said. “When you don’t get to go, you don’t know what to do.”

Pate has been a regular at Wright’s Restaurant for over 20 years. He started frequenting the restaurant when it was located in the now-demolished Leland strip mall about a mile down the road. When Pate started eating breakfast at Wright’s, Barbara Deerman was one of the restaurant’s servers. But, after waiting tables since 1981, Deerman bought the restaurant in 2008. Three years into her ownership, the EF-4 tornado that tore through Tuscaloosa on April 27 busted the restaurant’s windows out. Somehow, the interior of the establishment remained untouched.

“It had sucked our windows out, but our menus, the salt and pepper shakers and everything was still sitting on our booths and tables,” Deerman said.

After Deerman’s sons came and boarded up the windows, Wright’s reopened. It remained open for 18 months until the owner of the strip mall refused to renovate and the entire building was demolished. 

Wright’s survived an EF-4, and so far, it’s surviving a global pandemic as well. 

Deerman was forced to temporarily furlough many of her employees, dropping her staff down to two servers and a few cooks.

“We went into our savings the first couple of weeks, but now we’re kind of holding our own,” Deerman said. “I haven’t gotten any help from anybody.”

Although Deerman attempted to seek financial relief from the Small Business Administration, she had trouble accessing the proper forms on the organization’s website. After two days of phone calls and exasperation, Deerman decided it wasn’t worth it.

“I just said, ‘To heck with it, my nerves are bad enough as it is, we’re just going to cope and deal with this,’” Deerman said. “And we are.”

The restaurant is surviving, like most eateries similar to its kind, by leaning into its takeout operation. The kitchen staff and servers were used to pumping out to-go order after to-go order while the dining room overfilled on Saturday mornings, so the transition was smooth.

Pate, along with numerous other regulars, still gets up every morning and drives to Wright’s to get his breakfast. Only now, it’s brought to him in a Styrofoam container while he waits in his car. He’s no longer able to sit at the liar’s table and tell exaggerated stories or rib the men he’s been eating breakfast with for years. There’s still breakfast, but that’s all there is.

“I talk to them on the phone occasionally, but you don’t see everybody anymore,” Pate said. “We’ve got one of them that used to come in all of the time, his name was Steve, he’s got some sort of kidney issue and he’s looking for a transplant right now. I haven’t heard from him in two or three weeks.”

Since the dining room closed, it’s been difficult for Pate to maintain relationships with some of his closest friends. However, he may be able to sit down with his fellow liars sooner rather than later.

On April 28, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox will deliver his plan for safely reopening to the city council. It’s unclear what exactly that plan will look like, when it will begin or how it’ll impact restaurants specifically, but it is a step toward regaining normalcy. In the meantime, Pate is waiting.

“I’m sitting on ready,” Pate said. “I don’t know. It just does something for you. It gets you woke up and gets your spirits going. Us old guys have to keep us going. You look forward to seeing everybody.”

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