WAVERLY – HoneyCreek Restaurant was packed on its last full day of business. The wait for seating neared an hour at the height of the dinner rush, and it took just as long for customers to get their meals, even with last-minute server reinforcements called in.
The Waverly dining staple had been open since 1976, but, like many other casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic, the owners struggled to staff its full-time positions. It closed for good after the first of the year.
A Facebook post announcing HoneyCreek’s fate was shared almost 1,000 times and generated more than 50 comments, and a few lamented that the restaurant’s closing would leave just a few eateries still in Waverly.
You can count the local establishments on one hand: Vike’s Corner Cafe, Trackside Bar and Grill and Great Wall. Then there are the chains: McDonald’s, Runza. Subway closed its location on Highway 6 last June. Casey’s General Store and Mammoth Station both have quick options, too.
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Abbey Pascoe, Waverly City Council member and chair of the city’s Fiscal and Economic Development Committee, understands the need for more dining options in Waverly, but it’s not as easy as putting up a “For Lease” sign and waiting for the phone to ring. Particularly in the midst of a pandemic that has caused supply chain issues and staff shortages.
“We do have options,” Pascoe said, “but we do need more.”
To survive the pandemic, Vike’s had to cut their hours considerably, to 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Friday. Owner Rae Fraley said that was the only way they could make it work – with those hours, she and her husband Nick are the only staff needed.
“In the best of times, with no labor shortages, it’s very difficult to find people that will mesh with your team and can perform the duties that you need them to perform,” Fraley said.
She said she knows the new hours don’t work with a lot of people’s schedules. But it’s been necessary, especially as their food costs have risen 30 to 40% in the past two years, she said.
“We feel bad about that. But we are actually making more profits without the added labor.”
Prospective business owners face those burdens, but Waverly has a unique set of challenges, too. Chief among Waverly’s limitations is its lack of vacant commercial space. Mike Palm, Waverly’s building and zoning administrator, said there are very few openings in Waverly’s strip malls and in areas zoned for commercial use.
“We would like to see more commercial growth here, I think, but we can’t really force the (property) owners to create more buildings for small businesses and whatnot,” Palm said. “We’re just a little limited right now.”
Another problem, Pascoe said, is Waverly’s proximity to Lincoln. When a business owner is thinking of opening a new restaurant and is considering Waverly for the location, they have to decide whether it would make more sense to open where the potential for customers is greater.
“We're, you know, five to seven miles away, on a quick-access street,” she said. “So of course that's going to come into play.”
And when a business does open in Waverly, Pascoe said it’s important that Waverly citizens hold up their end of the bargain.
“We have to make sure that we’re patronizing their establishment to make sure that they’re successful,” she said. “Because if they bet on Waverly, we have to reciprocate, as well.”
Natasha Hoyer bet on Waverly in April of 2021, opening her hybrid women’s clothing store and coffee shop Patina Joe.
She originally opened her store in Eagle, but as a Waverly resident, leasing a space with a shorter commute made more sense. And, so far, the bet has paid off.
“It was definitely the right move,” she said. “It’s been really good for my business. The community’s been awesome and very supportive.”
But opening in Waverly wasn’t without its hurdles. She hoped to lease a space in a building with a drive-thru window, but because of the limited retail and commercial space in Waverly, she compromised with two bays next to the former Subway location. Customers can place their coffee orders on an app and stop by for quick pick-up.
“I feel like we have accommodated as best as we can,” Hoyer said.
Supply chain issues were a struggle at first, too – Hoyer said her shop had to use yellow Subway lids for their coffee cups more than once in the first couple months. But despite the obstacles standing in front of a new business owner, she said she’s had people contact her asking if the former Subway space was available for lease.
It’s not. Hoyer would know, as she inquired about the space, too. After all, it has a drive-thru window. But as soon as she heard about Subway’s closing, another business had already jumped on the opportunity.
El Portal Mexican Restaurant, which has not officially made an announcement, plans to open in the former Subway space sometime this year. But delays in acquiring heavy-duty kitchen equipment have pushed their opening back. According to Pascoe, the owners are moving forward with interior construction. The restaurant also has locations in Auburn and Nebraska City.
Pascoe thinks El Portal could cause a domino effect and serve as a vote of confidence for business owners to open in Waverly.
“I think that will show not just that business, but also other businesses, that, you know, this is something Waverly asked for,” she said. “I anticipate lines forever when they get here.”
Pascoe said conversations are ongoing to lure business owners to Waverly, which has an easy selling point: exponential population growth. But with that growth, it’s also important for the city to offer the restaurants and shops that citizens want and need.
“It’s crucial for our continued growth to be able to have more businesses and restaurants come into our community,” she said.
She’s confident Waverly citizens would support more restaurants and small businesses, but it’s tricky to create the perfect set of circumstances for business owners to take a chance on the city, whether it’s finding the right location or hiring enough staff.
“We’re doing as much as we can to try to bring these (businesses) in for the community,” Pascoe said. “But with the current (economic) climate, the lack of vacant buildings, it’s just slower than I would want and what most people want.”
Sam Crisler is a reporter for The Waverly News. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.