Whiting restaurants persevere and expand through COVID-19 pandemic

Whiting restaurants persevere and expand through COVID-19 pandemic

Despite the trials brought about by COVID-19 restrictions, Whiting restaurants have found ways to keep their restaurants afloat while supporting their staff members and the community. Whiting has even had some new restaurants open in the midst of the pandemic! 

“It’s exciting that even during these times, we’re having businesses and restaurants open within the downtown business district. Our businesses and our restaurants are the heart of our community,” said Executive Director of Mascot Hall of Fame Mark Harbin.  

Events Coordinator at Whiting Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce Kristen Shepard said that restaurants have been diligent in keeping people employed and have also expanded their dining options to include carry out, delivery, and even curb-side pickup. She believes that many will continue to offer these dining options in 2021. 

“When they get up to full capacity again, I’m looking forward to seeing the community come alive a little more,” Shepard said. “It has felt quieter because those restaurants can’t be at full capacity. The open-mic nights, band nights, and trivia nights are still happening, but they’ve been smaller. I’m looking forward to that sense of community you get when doing those things in a restaurant.” 

Director of Communications for the City of Whiting Amy Frets also looks forward to restaurants opening to full capacity and encourages residents and visitors alike to support downtown restaurants and businesses. 

“They’ve all worked very hard through the pandemic to adapt to be successful,” Frets said. “They’ve done a great job and gotten creative and working with customers to do delivery, carryout, and curb-side pickup. There are also a number of restaurants that are doing dine-in safely, so people can come in and enjoy their food.” 

To get a better taste of how Whiting restaurants have prevailed through the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, read on to get an insider’s scoop. 

Winey Beach Cafe 

16 years ago, John and Cheryl Sopo started Winey Beach Cafe, which their daughter, Chef and manager Therese Shebish, said was inspired by the food and culture in Key West, Florida. Shebish and her parents have visited Key West annually for about 10 years because of their appreciation for the laid-back lifestyle and unique food flavors present there. 

Shebish believes that the zingy, fun, fresh, and experimental Key West-inspired flavors are one of the features that makes Winey Beach Cafe a hit in Whiting. The cafe also has a relaxed atmosphere where staff and customers interact and grow closer with each visit. Shebish wants the customers to truly enjoy their time and their food at the cafe and encourages customers to ask for any substitutions or alterations they may want.  

“I always say to them, ‘Look. I’m making this for you. If you’re not happy with something, please let me know,’” Shebish said. “This is not one of those places where I’m going to roll my eyes and not listen to what they have to say. They’re paying for it, and they should enjoy it. If there’s something they’re not happy with, I need to make that right.” 

The cafe uses limited ingredients to try and help the flavor shine through, and they prepare every dish per order, making each dish unique. 

“I feel like I’m inviting people over to my house and cooking them individual meals,” Shebish said. “I feel like you come here, and you’re not getting the same thing. If you order chicken and another guy orders chicken, you might order it mild and he might order it hot. There will be little nuances because it’s not all done in the same pot or at the same time.” 

Center Lounge & Restaurant  

For 11 years, Owner and Manager Karen Holmes and her husband Tom have run Center Lounge & Restaurant in downtown Whiting. Since the restaurant’s inception, Holmes and her staff have made it a priority to give back to the community. 

Each Thanksgiving the restaurant opens its doors and offers free dinners to anyone who wants one. In past years, they have pulled together tables so that customers could eat their meals and enjoy each other’s company.  

Naturally, they had to tweak that tradition last Thanksgiving to make sure everyone stayed healthy, so they chose to distribute their Thanksgiving dinners through carry out. While customers and staff do normally appreciate being able to enjoy Thanksgiving together inside the restaurant, Holmes was thrilled that they were able to serve 250 people in the community despite the obstacle that COVID-19 presented. 

In 2020, the restaurant also collected toys for children in Whiting and Robertsdale, and donated over 1000 to Toys for Tots in conjunction with Hogs and Wishes. Hogs and Wishes bikers rode their motorcycles and picked up the toys once the restaurant’s collection period concluded. 

Holmes said that her favorite part of operating her restaurant in Whiting is the people and the strong sense of community.  

“The community has been awesome during this pandemic, which has hit bars and restaurants hard,” Holmes said. “They’ve really been supporting all of us, and we really appreciate that.” 

Hen House 

Hen House owner Juan Serrano made the bold move to open his restaurant during the COVID-19 pandemic, which welcomed its first customers on December 19, 2020. 

Serrano lives in Griffith and grew up in the area, so when he found that there was an open space on the main drive in downtown Whiting, he decided it had to be the spot for his restaurant. 

“I had been looking at spaces for the past year, and I sort of just sat back waiting to pull the trigger on the idea,” Serrano said. “I have had the concept for the past two years. It was just about finding the right space and the right fit. Nothing seemed quite right for me, but then this space was available on 119th Street in the busy area at the middle of the strip. Overall, it was a great-looking space in a good location.” 

Serrano started with a soft opening menu, which is the charcoal-grilled chicken with sides. He looks forward to opening the full menu, which includes items like soup, salad, and sandwiches. He is also excited to finish off the interior with TVs and other features to let customers enjoy the space when the restaurant can take on its full capacity. 

“It’s a dinner you could easily pick up and take home, but we are definitely looking forward to when people can sit and enjoy the space and ambience here.” 

Grindhouse Cafe  

With the success of the Grindhouse Cafe in Griffith, siblings and co-owners Gabe Mauch and Kate Mauch Sheehan decided to open a second location in Whiting. The sibling team encountered numerous obstacles along the way including the COVID-19 pandemic, the pregnancy of Gabe’s wife, and Kate’s broken leg. Despite all of that, they pushed themselves forward and opened their Whiting location late last June. 

They both enjoy the independent businesses downtown, and believe Whiting and Griffith have a similar feel. The duo previously brought their business to Whiting when they hosted an event at the Mascot Hall of Fame and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. When approached by the owner of a Whiting cafe who was preparing to sell her location on 119th Street, they knew it was meant to be. 

“We were actually approached by the head of the Lincoln Park Cafe. She is a friend of mine and she texted me, ‘Hey, I know this is weird, but do you want to run your coffee shop here?’” Gabe Mauch said. “I talked to my sister, and we went and looked at it. It’s like when you’re looking at a house or something, and you just say, ‘Yes. This is it. This is the one I want.’ When we walked in, we knew that was where we wanted our second location to be.” 

Both brother and sister were excited to pour their energy into the new location and put quality at the forefront. They believe their pastry chef, thoughtful sandwich menu, fresh choices, and coffee program contribute to their high-quality standard.  

While they have not yet been able to open their dining room, Gabe Mauch and Kate Mauch Sheehan look forward to hopefully opening to full capacity this summer.