It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a stressful issue for everyone. With beloved local businesses in danger of shutting down, I began to think more about how Arlington stores and restaurants, and their employees, were being affected. However, I wanted to get the perspective of a business owner to try to understand the unique challenges presented to a business during a pandemic.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Randy Ford, owner of the Arlington staple: J Gilligan’s Bar and Grill. We spoke about everything from how the restaurant/bar came to be, all the way to the difficulties that J Gilligan’s has faced since the beginning of the pandemic. The interview begins below:
I’d like to ask you a bit about yourself before we get into talking about J Gilligan’s. Could you describe your personal connection to the City of Arlington?
I was born in Fort Worth and moved to Arlington when I was like a year or two old. I wasn’t born in Arlington. My joke about that is that the only reason I wasn’t born IN Arlington was because they didn’t have a hospital then. My mom and dad were from Fort Worth. So we moved to Arlington when I was a couple years old. I’ve always gone to all the schools here. Junior high, elementary, everything. I graduated from Arlington High School. In that day and time, there wasn’t much of an option to go off to college somewhere else. UTA was here. Matter of fact, the first semester I went to college it was still Arlington State College. By my second semester it was UTA. That’s my connection. I’ve lived here my whole life, went to school here my whole life and so I’m just a hometown guy.
What are some of your favorite things about Arlington?
Well you know, it’s hometown for me. It’s familiar. When we first moved here there was only about 19,000 people so it had more of a small-town feel. Nowadays it’s more than 400,000. But being between Dallas and Fort Worth makes it a great location. I love Fort Worth. Dallas, I’ve never been to Dallas much, I’ve been over there some, but Arlington has a more personal feel to it, but with the advantages of the big cities on either side of you. You have the best of both worlds, a little small-town feel but with all the amenities of the big cities nearby.
Being from a small town, I felt like I had more opportunities here because there weren’t as many people. The first place I ever opened was in 1974 and it was not too far from here. It was called The Mineshaft. It was just a little bar, I opened it for $12,000 back in the day. The rents weren’t as high, there wasn’t as much competition, you had a little bit more freedom. Arlington’s slogan these days is the “Dream City” and I think that’s pretty appropriate. If you decide you want to do something, you have some opportunities in this area. Not that you don’t have opportunities in other places but rent would be more in Dallas or Fort Worth, it would have been a little bit more difficult to get started in my opinion.
How did J Gilligan’s get its start?
We opened here in 1979. Like I mentioned, we had a little bar in 1974. It was an okay bar but it was all “night” business and no “day” business. So, trying to rectify that, my grandfather helped me open a BBQ place in the Euless/Bedford area. He had owned a barbecue place for 30 years in Fort Worth. So then I go to the barbecue place; it had all day business and no night business. So when I came here in 1979, the goal was to have dinner business and lunch business. I chose this location because of the downtown businesses, the Chamber of Commerce, City Hall and the University of Texas at Arlington right down the street. I felt like I could try to develop a lunch business, a little bit of a dinner crowd, and then the late-night stuff with a college right down the street. I took advantage of my earlier learnings and mistakes when we came down here, we tried to remedy some of those, although we make mistakes every day, that’s still the basic game plan.
Could you describe some of the difficulties J Gilligan’s has had since the start of the pandemic?
It’s a whole new ball game. Being in the restaurant/bar business, one advantage is that, at least, we were essential. At least we got to stay open. With that said, you go from a bar and grill restaurant to basically a drive-through take out overnight.
We do a big, big deal every Saint Patrick’s Day. It’s a block party so we block off the street, we pull permits, the city allows us to do it all. This year, no Saint Patrick’s Day celebration. We set up everything. Tents, porta potties, stages, all different kinds of equipment, all the permits with the City of Arlington, the fire department, et cetera. We have to set that up a couple days in advance and it looked like we would be able to have a thousand people over the weekend, something like that. We typically get three or four thousand. Then they say maybe we can only have 250 inside and 250 outside. And then on Sunday they say something else. It just kept changing. How did the pandemic affect us? Every day was a new day. Every time you walked out there was a new challenge. Whether you could have people, how many people you could have, all the way down to “boom you can have nothing”, back to takeout only. We went from a dine-in restaurant to a take-out in a matter of a week. And then of course no sales. We are literally 75% to 80% down of what we normally do because people are, rightfully so, concerned. Nobody wants to go out and get sick. And of course, the lockdown, the shelter in place. So the only thing we can do is our little drive through there. You go from $4,000 or $5,000 a day to maybe a $1,000.
We were really fortunate that we were able to get a payroll protection plan from a local bank. That allowed me to keep people working. But there wasn’t that much work for them to do because there wasn’t that much business. We got a couple of guys here that are handy. On the bar side, we took it all apart, cleaned, repaired, put a new floor in, a new ceiling in, painted to keep those people working. The bar people came over and cleaned until we had little bit of footing, open for 25% capacity. Although, even though it was 25% and we could open, people didn’t really come in. When it got to 50%, people started showing up a little bit more. We started to get back to our original business. And then after this latest wave, we had to shut it all off again. One step forward, two steps back. That’s the biggest challenge of it. Trying to deal with the day-by-day changes while trying to keep the staff safe, keep the customers safe. Every day is a new day. You just have to do the best you can with what you have to work with.
How are your employees doing during this time?
The employees have been great. We’ve been really fortunate that we haven’t had any issues. Every day they came in we take everybody’s temperature, we have a form everybody has to fill out, every day, every shift. They put their face masks on. So we’ve been fortunate in that area so far. It’s a challenge for them because they’re certainly not making the money they were making before. They need the work, need the money Our sales are down by over 50% and they make a lot of their money off tips. So it’s been a challenge for them and their families. It’s a challenge for everybody.
How has J Gilligan’s adapted to the new business environment?
Well we’ve taken a little portion of our parking lot and made it into a drive thru. A long, long time ago, in that barbecue place, we had a drive thru. So I had a little background, knowing the convenience of a drive-thru. So when we were taking down all the equipment from St. Patricks Day, we had a little tent out there already. We just set the tent up where people can actually drive through it and get their food, we’ve adapted like that. We put more focus onto our takeout stuff, family meals, individual meals, specials. That’s one thing. We’ve always been cleaning the restaurant. We clean tables with the same solution that we were using, we just have to make sure we’re being more precise with it.
Now we’re not a Jimmy Johns. But do we deliver? Yes. I’ve been able to feed lots of public services. Waste management, I was able to take 400 sandwiches to them. We’ve fed 255 people at Arlington Memorial Hospital. 155 at another hospital. Every single day for the last 3 months, I’ve had a delivery to AT&T stadium. I need more of that. But at least I have a couple of accounts. It’s a new revenue source. But it’s hard. You can’t just go knocking on somebody’s door with a mask on and say “Hey, can I bring you some sandwiches.”
What do you think the City of Arlington could be doing to help businesses?
The city, our city, has done a great job. The Chamber of Commerce got together with the City when this first started, and they gave out free masks. You went out to Globe Life Field, they had an area set up in the parking lot, we got about a hundred free masks. Then the other day, they had a deal at the library where we were able to get another 200 masks. The Chamber of Commerce made me aware that if you have a business in the Tarrant County area, there was a grant for businesses. So we applied for it. They’ve made that opportunity available.
They worked with me really well with this drive thru. The communication I got from the city, that was the key thing. The mayor and city manager came over here after a council meeting once and explained to me what was going on. Making information available about loans or grants. It’s been positive. The Downtown Arlington Management Corporation have been really helpful. They set up a Restaurant Rally. They encouraged people to support local businesses. That’s a big deal.
Any closing thoughts?
I’d just like everyone to be safe. Wear your masks. Be safe. Eventually we will get through this, we just have to be smart.
J Gilligan’s hours of operation, menu, and more can be found at http://www.jgilligans.com/