COVID-19, the Essential Warrior Team, and TikTok: A conversation with Casey's owner Casey Harris

From business meetings to lunch dates, Friday night dinners with the family to catching the game on Sunday afternoons, Casey’s in Port Huron is one of the city’s favorite gathering places. But in these days of COVID-19, what becomes of a gathering place when you’re not allowed to gather?

Though challenging, the owner of the restaurant Casey Harris has taken the shutdown and stay-at-home orders head-on.

Business has been brisk and sometimes overwhelmingly busy. So much so, in fact, that he’s had to hire several new employees. Casey has invested back in the restaurant, including the construction of a new open-air patio. And videos on social media have been viewed and shared several thousand times over.

Casey has also taken to social media to celebrate his staff. His Essential Warrior Team photo series puts a spotlight on his hard-working employees.

We wanted to know how he’s doing it. But for Casey Harris, it’s not about how he’s doing it, but how they’re doing it.

Q: How’s business been?

A: Those first few years we were open, it seemed like it was mostly take-out. It was over the years that we added a bar and liquor license and became more of a sit-down, family atmosphere restaurant.

With the shutdown, we moved to carry-out again. At first business lulled but it seemed like when those stimulus checks started coming in April, business picked up. Since then, it’s been crazy. We’ve added online ordering, curbside pick-up. We’ve hired eight new employees since this started.

It has been crazy. This is a once-in-a-hundred-years event. But we’ve had crazy fun, too, and the workers have stuck with us. We’re grateful for that.

Of the five hardest days of my life, three of them have been doing this. The amount of orders coming in at once can be overwhelming.

Q: What do you attribute to that success?

A: 100 percent of our success is due to our staff. If it wasn’t for them, we would have to close. We’re super thankful and grateful. And I think with us being as fast and accurate as we possibly can brings customers back sooner. And the hospitals and doctors, the city, the EDA, all of them have helped us out.

Q: Tell us about the Essential Warrior Team.

A: It all started when we started working on Sundays. We were never open on Sundays. But with us closing earlier on the weekends because there’s no bar, the staff lost hours. They brought it up. I said, "If you wanna do it, do it." I look at my team, some are at school and still working every day. These guys are really showing up.

"Chooch"There’s people like Chad. We call him Chooch. He takes over when I leave. He’s like a machine. And then there’s Sydney. Putting their photos on social media let us spotlight them.

Sometimes the emotions get to me. One morning I just thought to myself, these guys are my Warrior Team.

And the photos put a name to the face. We built this place with an open kitchen so people can see us and we can see them. As people come in, we can give them a wave. People know the faces that smile and wave at them every time that they come in, but we don’t wear name tags. But if a customer learns someone on staff’s name, it means that we’re doing our job.

Q: I saw on Facebook that Chad has worked something like 50-plus days in a row.

A: He read that online and even he didn’t realize it. He told me that he wants to keep it going. I said I worked some 1,100 days straight when we first opened and he said he wants to beat it.

Anybody that wants to work in this day and age, they have a job with me.

Q: How do you keep up employee morale and especially in times like this?

A: One of the things that I do is overstaff a little bit. It makes people’s jobs easier. It’s a little more expensive for me, but it’s less stressful for them and then they want to come back. It’s only a couple bucks less in my pocket. It’s worth it, in my book.

And we have fun. Because on Fridays and Saturdays, their butts get put to work. They’re great. I get emotional about it sometimes. They help us pay the bills which helps us pay them.

Q: Facebook, Instagram, TikTok. It looks like your social media posts have become pretty popular.

A: The videos we do are a nice distraction. And coming to work is a distraction from the news. That’s great.

We were doing Facebook and everyone is telling us that Facebook is for the older generations. But that’s where we have the most followers. Then we got into Instagram to post photos of the food. And now TikTok, that’s the real young person-thing. Now we’re reaching high schoolers, college kids, and adults through all three for free.

It’s something to keep it light. And my kids get a kick out of it. My 11-year-old son says he’s our TikTok manager. My daughter is an expert. We shoot the videos and they tell me what to say.

Q: What’s the future hold for Casey’s?

A: We’ve done a lot of work during all this. We’ve redone the restrooms. They look great. We added a curbside delivery door. We took out the bocce ball court, cemented it over, and put up a roof for an open-air patio. During the last 30 days, we’ve spent a lot of money up front to hopefully make it back.

We had the concept drawings for the bathrooms last winter. They turned out awesome. When we had the curbside door put in, it was essential because we needed to get outside fast. It’s been a great investment. We’re spending money but hopefully it will bring people back. And with social distancing, we won’t be limited to seven tables inside, we can have full occupancy by adding the outdoor seating.

I joke with my wife that I have to wear a retainer because of the stress, from clenching my teeth and we can’t go to the dentist. But it’s a gamble I’m willing to take. You hope it’s the right move. And I do believe it will only help, especially in the summer with the open-air patio.

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