Fans of Mel’s Hard Luck Diner wondered if the diner itself was falling on hard luck in some way when management announced they would be closing on Sundays to allow their staff to have time to rest.
Instead, manager Brandon Norris told Branson Tri-Lakes News the real reason is because they’ve been blessed beyond expectations.
“Basically, what we’re seeing, it’s not that we don’t have enough people to run,” Norris said. “It’s the number of people coming through the door.”
He said the staff has been working so hard they need a day off for everyone to regroup and fight burnout. While he acknowledged more people are coming to Branson because of the lifting of COVID-19 protocols, Norris said he believes the biggest reason for Mel’s leap in customers can be attributed to an eight-legged cephalopod and his friends living across the street.
“In restaurants, you follow trends,” Norris said. “You follow the trends of the business, and between 3 and 5 p.m. you have a lull. Since the aquarium (Aquarium at the Boardwalk) was built, we don’t have a lull anymore.”
Norris said even other times in the day their business is seeing an “unprecedented” increase because of the aquarium.
“The moment we open the door, we almost have to put a wait list out,” he said. “Prior to 2019, we could say ‘this is what our budget is going to be’ and would hit it or a little more. We’ve never done numbers like this before.”
Norris said one of the post-COVID-19 changes is many of the groups coming in are not a typical family of four like they saw pre-COVID-19.
“There’s an elevated number of people coming into town in large parties,” he said. “Used to be a family of four would come to Branson, they’d get a room for people at a hotel on the strip. Now, with the explosion of AirBnB, multiple families go on vacation together. We’ll have parties of 20 come to the door and act like it’s no big deal they’re a party of 20. We seat only 170.”
The challenges for the restaurant in providing their menu has also been a challenge because of the increased customers and issues with the supply chain.
“Memorial Day weekend our normal burger patty we used was gone,” Norris said. “We had to come up with something new, with something different. All the companies are able to use COVID as their excuse or reason, either one. We had to switch up our operation. Every couple days we have something new we have to change to maintain what we’re doing.”
Norris said while some may look at their situation and say they should just hire more employees, it’s not that simple of a solution. He said by the time he would hire 15 more staff and get them fully trained for their positions, it would be later in the tourist season, and they may not need the extra staff.
“If I bring in 15 new people, by the time I got them trained and ready to go, summer is going to be over,” Norris said. “And we used to be able to train someone in three days and now it’s at least a week because of the volume (of customers.)”
Still, Norris said they have increased their staff.
“We expanded our server areas from seven to eight because of the large parties,” Norris said. “We have food runners whose job it is to take the food to the table because when a server goes to sing they’re away from their table for about ten minutes. We’re making sure we have the coverage and the things that we need to be taken care of.”
Norris said he and the staff have been very appreciative of the understanding of many of their customers for the wait times to get a table and for their food.
Mel’s Hard Luck Diner is located in the Grand Village, 2800 76 Country Boulevard in Branson.