Students’ return offers relief, more sales to local businesses

A neon open sign glows inside Girls Girl Girls Burritos near campus on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Callie Justice

Local businesses of Lexington are pleased to see the return of University of Kentucky students bringing back steady business, following the first rocky months of the pandemic.

In the wake of COVID-19, small businesses – who rely on the support of their community – were forced to close for the safety of all. March was a time of uncertainty as family businesses were left to wonder when they could reopen. Most were able to survive, though changes in operation and new safety guidelines were necessary to comply with Kentucky’s COVID-19 plans and to protect both owners and customers.

Beyond the uncertainties of COVID-19, business owners also had to contend with the annual – although early – exodus of students from Lexington, as undergraduates went back to their hometowns for the summer. For restaurants close to UK’s campus, students returning for in-person instruction this fall meant sales and revenue could pick back up and recover from closures in the spring.

Sara Wood, co-owner of girlsgirlsgirls Burritos on South Limestone, said they have seen a boost in business right from the start; according to Wood, move-in week in August was the busiest week girlsgirlsgirls has had since March.

“We have had a great experience with the students, everyone is being super respectful, masked up and sweet. Everyone we had has been respectful and supportive, we even see this on the sidewalks around campus too,” Wood said.

Since the pandemic, girlsgirlsgirls has returned to their original service model – delivery.

““It felt like we were back to day one when we opened in 2016 because we were all takeout and delivery back then,” said Wood. “We knew exactly what to do.”

girlsgirlsgirls is available for delivery both through the restaurant itself and other apps like Grubhub and Doordash; the restaurant hasn’t missed a day of service since the shutdown on March 13.

Wood said their bike delivery service, which ranges from 6th Street to Chevy Chase, has done around 1,600 orders since March, also implementing no contact service.

And although girlsgirlsgirls has not reopened their indoor dining area, the restaurant has a patio with free WiFi so students can work on homework and social distance.

“We started utilizing this take-out window that we have out front. So, that has helped us big time in the excellent Kentucky weather,” Wood said. “We have three beautiful patios out front, so there is plenty of space.”

Bourbon and Toulouse, located on Euclid Ave in the Chevy Chase Center, also changed their business model to continue to provide for the community.

“It was really interesting because you can kind of see it coming,” said Kevin Heathcoat, co-owner of Bourbon and Toulouse. “Overnight we were getting new regulations and had to quickly pivot and change the way we operated. We went from 60 percent in-house and 40 percent carryout to 100 percent carryout.”

Bourbon and Toulouse is currently open for carryout and delivery after closing for around two months due to road work. They are utilizing their new online ordering service to provide a no-contact experience.

“The amount of deliveries has gone through the roof,” Heachcoat said. “We had to pivot and do an online ordering system that we had just installed. It wasn’t the most fluid thing, but we turned to a curbside only concept.”

After 16 years of business, Bourbon and Toulouse has a steady customer base and appreciates college-aged customers.

“Every year you get a new crop of freshmen coming in but you lose seniors, so you have to teach everyone to come down here. Students are always an added bonus,” Heathcoat said.

Customers can order from the restaurant at for pick-up and also Grubhub or Doordash, though delivery orders made through the website ensure all profits go directly to Bourbon and Toulouse.

For family-owned small businesses, extra considerations had to be in reopening. Ginger Wasabi Sushi + Grill, which opened in 2018, is run by multiple members of the family.

This is something they took into consideration when deciding how to operate during the pandemic.

“We are a small family business, everybody works here. We decided not to open dine-in for the kids at home and the safety of our family and everyone,” said Cai Eong, owner of Ginger Wasabi.

Located on W Maxwell near campus, Ginger Wasabi is currently open for takeout and delivery.

The restaurant did notice a spike in sales when University of Kentucky students returned, Eong said, especially during move-in week, which reaffirmed their decision to remain carryout and delivery only.

Many restaurants around campus have reopened dine-in with social distancing and limited capacity policies.

During the summer peak of COVID-19, The Local Taco, located on South Limestone, was only accepting pickup and delivery orders. The restaurant asked customers to order over the phone or online and utilized their back-parking lot as a pick-up location.

“It was okay, but it was a little bit rough,” said Kia Roberts, manager of the Local Taco. “We only had three staff members, so it wasn’t our normal operation.”

The Local Taco recently partnered with Doordash for delivery and is currently reopened for dine-in, although as a smaller restaurant some challenges have arisen with social distancing policies.

“We are not at full capacity and our restaurant is kind of small, so we don’t have a lot of room anyways,” said Roberts. “We see a lot of people come and sit down at tables and take tables.”

Despite the challenges, The Local Taco is working hard to keep everyone safe, even if that means making adaptations to their menu. Although they are open for Brunch, the restaurant is not serving mimosas to prevent tables from staying too long and serve as many customers as possible.

“A lot of people are upset because we don’t have mimosas, but because they are so cheap, we can’t have people buy them and get so drunk and sit here for hours. We just don’t have the table space,” Roberts, said.

The Local Taco has always been a hotspot for UK students and locals. Although students returning has increased their sales amongst a younger crowd, the restaurant remained busy throughout the summer with business from Lexington residents.

“When the students are not here, a lot of parents take advantage of that because there are not a bunch of college kids that they have to deal with,” Roberts said. “During the day adults can complete their work and come here and college kids can’t really come here at lunch hour, so they usually come at night.”.

Tolly Ho, located on S Broadway, is another locally-owned restaurant that has reopened their dinner room. Operating at 50 percent dining capacity, Tolly Ho is still seeing most of their orders placed as takeout or delivery. Unlike many other local businesses, the return of UK students did not boost their sales.

Nathan Rader, the manager of Tolly Ho, said sales have actually decreased since students came back to campus.

But for most businesses, students returning to Lexington has meant an uptick in sales and revenue, especially those on the streets surrounding campus. Local businesses have also had a chance to increase sales on campus, now that students can use meal swipes at some food trucks and dining locations.