Clinton diner built a drive-thru to boost business amid COVID limits
CLINTON TOWNSHIP — The Clinton Station Diner has a prominent location alongside Route 78 in Hunterdon County but that hasn't been of much use for the past year, with indoor dining severely restricted due to COVID-19 protocols.
Even now at 35% of capacity, or at the next logical step of 50%, Mike Zambas, whose family has run the diner for decades, said he can't come close to breaking even. He's already poured $325,000 of his personal funds into keeping the lights on.
Add to that, he said, that much of the eatery's clientele skews older, a segment of the population that may not be eager to eat indoors due to higher COVID risk.
Yet in driving around during the fall and early winter, Mike and his son Nick noticed something: Fast-food joints with drive-thru windows were doing well, some seemingly better than before the pandemic.
So they decided to build a drive-thru of their own, which they said has been an unqualified success early in the new year.
It wasn't cheap; Mike estimates he spent as much as $8,000 just on communications equipment, including the customary two-way speaker.
Plus, there are new jackets and caps for staff, and new containers and to-go packaging, for ease of portability.
But the biggest issue was what to actually offer on the drive-thru menu. Mike and Nick brainstormed with their chefs, paring down from an initial list of 35 items, and settled on choices that could be prepared the fastest while keeping them fresh and cooked to order, keeping in mind that there was still a full-service restaurant running inside.
Then the question became where to put each carload while it waited for an order, and that necessitated a reconfiguration of the parking lot.
"We can't obviously give something to someone as quick as McDonald's, in a minute and a half, so we had to figure out, OK, then this person is going to have to get an assigned parking spot," Nick said. "When someone comes, from the beginning, how are they going to know that the drive-thru is there? How are they going to see it, and how is it going to operate once they finally pull in? So it took a little bit of time to figure out, OK, this is where the speaker is going to go, this is where the booth is going to go."
Mike built that booth, and though it is meant to process orders quickly, he said this is still a diner — and special requests are never off-limits.
"If it's not busy, 9 out of 10 times if it's not something that's going to take a really long time, we make the exception and let them have it," Mike said.
The menu does manage to squeeze in as much as can be easily transported: breakfast, soups and salads, burgers, sandwiches and chicken fingers, fries, drinks, and even dessert.
Mike said patrons love it, so when pandemic restrictions are fully lifted, even though it was built to be temporary, the drive-thru will likely stick around.
"They are really thrilled about the idea," he said. "Some of them seem to be happier than we are about it. It's really positive feedback that we're getting."