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Jay’s Drive-In opens with new system amid COVID-19

“I think it’s been a welcome relief for people, having somewhere to go.”

The sign at Jay’s Drive-In in Oregon reads “Social isolation party here, 11-8 p.m.”

The owner of the historic restaurant business says he isn’t making light of the situation, but wants to bring some normalcy back to the community during the current COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I think it’s been a welcome relief for people, having somewhere to go,” Jay’s Drive-In Owner Terry Wilken said of the drive-in’s opening day on Wednesday. 

The dining room of the drive-in is closed just like every other restaurant and bar and in the area and abroad. Many area restaurants have created carry out and curbside pickup services to maximize possible business until the state allows them to reopen completely. 

But the drive-in’s throwback carhop system from the 1950s and 1960s is tailor made for the current situation. Customers stay in their cars and call in their orders remotely while workers prepare the food and bring it out to them.

“I don’t think it was their plan back then, but it works for the situation we’re in right now,” Wilken said. “It’s perfect for us. You sit in your car and you’re isolated.”

Wilken has changed the system in an effort to combat the possible spread of COVID-19. He’s had the past two weeks to sit back and watch other businesses and to consider the best way to serve customers. 

Jay’s has added parking spots where customers can call in orders on their phones. The time was also taken to make sure all of the traditional carhop menus are working correctly. Around 90 orders were placed on opening day as of Wednesday afternoon. 

“It’s been very good,” Wilken said. “It’s been busy and we’re working out the bugs on our new system.”

Jay’s Drive-In also now offers delivery through local delivery service ChowDown OTown. Wilken said delivery is something customers have asked about for the past few years and he’s happy to finally be able to offer it.

Employees at the drive-in are having their body temperatures checked before starting to make sure everyone is healthy. Extra cleaning of surfaces is being done and employees are wearing rubber gloves and changing them often. The new cleaning policies and delivery system has actually resulted in Wilken having to hire more employees, rather than using less due to not being open for dining.

Students not currently being in school helps fill those positions and hours. 

“It gives us staff," Wilken said. "A lot are students out of college and high school. And it helps with business. Kids have to eat lunch somewhere.”

The Drive-In has been open since 1965 and open under the name Jay’s since 1983. Historically, it has always opened for the season on the last Wednesday in March. That hasn’t changed. The hours have changed for now. 

The current plan is for the drive-in to be open 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. rather than closing at 9 p.m. in years past. Many restaurants and businesses have been closing earlier during the COVID-19 situation. 

Despite having a business model more built for it, the COVID-19 situation will still take a toll on Jay’s. Wilken estimates that at least half its business in the past has come from the currently-closed dining room, especially when temperatures are cooler as they are now. 

But, regardless of the situation, Oregon and area residents can still go to Jay’s on the last Wednesday in March and get a burger and a shake, as they always have.

“I think they need that right now,” Wilken said. "Everyone is taking it seriously, but they don’t want their lives to stop. They want an escape.”

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