What lies beyond the pandemic? MassForward is MassLive’s series examining the journey of Massachusetts’ businesses through and beyond the coronavirus pandemic.
There are not many instances where Annie Jenkins, who has owned Annie’s Clark Brunch on Main Street in Worcester for 34 years, is not busy busting her butt attending to everyone around her — mainly customers and family.
The award-winning short-order cook has an uncommon talent of churning out breakfast and lunch staples at an incredibly fast rate, all the while remaining jovial and unflustered, for the most part. If you ask her daughter Megan Zawalich, who is a server at the diner, she might give you a different answer.
But Annie’s work, like her grill, is swift and relentless and it took a global pandemic to force her to slow down. And, admittedly, she enjoyed having some time off.
She did something she had never done in her life: she binge-watched a television show.
“I spent the first six weeks watching ‘E.R,’ she said. “From six in the morning until noon time. Monday through Friday. I watched it from George Clooney all the way up to the last episode … It was something I did every morning with my coffee.”
Jenkins’ lifestyle is not one that leaves much time in the day for watching television. Prior to the pandemic, she’d typically run the diner from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m., close up shop and run to a grocery store to stock up on all the items needed for the next day.
She decided to shut the diner down on March 14 and, luckily, had not gone grocery shopping the day before. Most of the food had been used up, so there wasn’t much left to go to waste, she said.
Jenkins and Zawalich thought they’d be closed for about a month. It actually turned out to be five months.
“We understand why it happened and we’re doing the best we can to follow all these new rules,” said Zawalich. “We’re just happy to be back. People missed us and we missed our people.”
Throughout the pandemic, there were moments where Jenkins thought the diner might not re-open, but she claims a modest lifestyle and smart savings put her in a good position to be able to survive the five-month period the diner was closed.
It turns out Worcester had her back, too.
The city of Worcester gifted Annie’s Clark Brunch a grant worth $10k as part of the city’s coronavirus relief funding, which granted 189 small businesses $1.4 million . She received a personal phone call from mayor Joesph Petty to inform her of the award. On top of that, her landlord, Clark University, gave her a break on rent for the three months of April, May and June.
“That saved us,” said Zawalich. “We had so many people that were behind us. We really felt supported.”
And there was one other thing Jenkins did during the pandemic that she had never done before that helped: she sold gift certificates.
Zawalich put a post up on the diner’s Facebook page announcing customers would be able to purchase gift certificates or “Annie bucks.” But instead of being mailed to your inbox, these gift certificates would be sent to your mailbox.
As most businesses across the country turned to online ordering to conduct sales, Annie’s Clark Brunch took a more personal approach instead: snail mail.
Customers wishing to order a gift certificate were to send a check with their desired amount to Annie’s personal home address in North Oxford.
Jenkins was surprised by the overwhelming amount of people that mailed checks, which totaled $4,000, she says. In return, she made it a point to send each customer a handwritten thank you note.
After the outpouring of support from both the city and her customers, Jenkins says she had to re-open.
“I had to come back just to give my people their thank you,” she said. “People were so, so generous. I can’t get over how generous people are.”
Jenkins received gift certificate orders from people all across the country including California, Washington, Oregon, Texas, Illinois and Atlanta, she said.
“People we know we’re never going to see, but they bought gift certificates anyways,” said Zawalich.
Annie’s Clark Brunch re-opened on Sept. 3. For now, the restaurant is focused on takeout and doing limited seating at booths and tables spaced six feet apart.
One day they’ll have to close for good, Jenkins and Zawalich reflected. But, not now.
“There are so many good people out there,” said Jenkins. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”