Business was booming on Easter.
A new kind of business, to be sure, as Medlen’s House of Beef in Oakdale was ‘open’ on a Sunday. Not one of its normal days to be open, the longtime downtown eatery did a special curbside pick-up of pre-ordered holiday meals for Easter Sunday in April. The restaurant has had to change its business model in order to keep the doors open during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Owner Steve Medlen said Easter was a busy day and the community has responded well to the take-out only style of dining the business has had to adapt to in recent weeks. Not only that, he has used the downtime with no customers allowed in the restaurant portion of the North Third Avenue location to do some renovations, changing the lighting and the seating as well as adding a special photo wall featuring famous local cowboys. The retail side of the business has remained open, however, for purchase of cuts of meat, seasonings and rubs, marinades, desserts and more.
The custom meat processing operation started in 1979 and the restaurant came later, though it has been a local favorite in The Cowboy Capital for more than 20 years now as well.
“The (curbside) takeout business was just a spin-off of people coming inside and picking up their meals,” Medlen explained.
Adjusting for the new normal brought on by COVID-19, Medlen’s House of Beef has lunch hours featuring chicken, tri tip or New York steak sandwiches from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and serves full family meals to go for dinner from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. The family dinners feature tri tip or baby back pork ribs, both with chili, corn and garlic bread. Individual dinners are available as well, rib eye steak and breaded shrimp, a half rack of baby back ribs, or filet mignon with breaded shrimp, served with baked potato, vegetable and garlic bread.
They have also made improvements to an outdoor dining area and there are stickers to indicate where people can sit at picnic tables – six feet apart – as well as having a hand washing station on site.
When businesses are able to open up even more, Medlen said he hopes diners will take advantage of a new customer-friendly outdoor area that will include misters for the coming summer heat, along with fans, plants, western décor, some lights and an awning — again, with social distancing in mind.
“Here we’re on two major highways going through Oakdale and we are impacted by tourism,” Medlen added.
The business has social distancing stickers in the curbside pick-up area as well, to keep customers safe.
“It really presents an opportunity and a challenge for the business owner,” he said of adapting.
Medlen started in the business as a custom meat processor and that portion of the business continues to keep him busy most days of the week. He offers a wide variety of meat packs at different price points, serving up a selection that includes baby back pork ribs, sausage, bacon, ground beef patties, marinated chicken, USDA choice New York steaks, country style pork ribs, pork tenderloin and more.
“Right now, we have everybody wanting to stock up on meat,” he explained. “The ‘back room’ is where I started and that side is as busy as we can be.”
They have made some changes there, installing Plexiglas to separate the meat cutters and provide an added layer of protection.
And though it is tougher on businesses the longer the pandemic lasts, the longtime owner said a return to normal needs to be done systematically, making sure the food supply will be able to get to restaurants efficiently. It wouldn’t make sense to open up and not have adequate product for customers, he said.
And despite these challenging times, Medlen said he enjoys all aspects of what he does.
“The custom processing, the retail meat counter, catering, the restaurant, they all kind of complement each other,” he noted.
Like business owners across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic and its ripple effect took him somewhat by surprise.
“Going from a full-blown operation to having handcuffs overnight,” he said of the feeling that went along with the cutbacks.
No catering jobs for a few months but a continued brisk business with the custom meats and a supportive community ordering lunches and dinners has kept his spirits up.
“You read the customer, stay with it and provide some type of service to the public,” Medlen said.
He also was quick to add that he couldn’t do it alone.
“I think the value to me is having some very dedicated employees,” he pointed out. “I’m really thankful for those dedicated employees and our customers.”
Medlen is keeping his eye on the pandemic situation, as are most business owners, looking to see if the supply chain is remaining steady, what restrictions are being loosened and when, and how he will need to adapt further.
“There’s a host of information that we’ll need to put into our thought process but most of all stay safe,” Medlen said. “I get up early, I stay there late … and we’ll see what tomorrow will bring.”