Brian and Tanya Poag, owners of Jake’s Restaurant in Lynden, Washington have navigated restaurants through 9/11 and the 2008 financial meltdown. Now they are forging their way through a global pandemic and finding it to be the most challenging time to operate a restaurant so far.
Like many restaurants in Whatcom County, Jake’s had to shift from primarily serving customers onsite to a business model that relied solely on to-go orders. Their current operation is a blend of both.
“Unlike other market disruptions, change is occurring at such a rapid pace. Industry guidance, health department requirements and state laws keep evolving. Plus, customer preferences — how people want to interact with local restaurants — are changing daily,” said Brian Poag.
Responding to shifting consumer preferences is a big part of how the Poags plan and deliver in the business now. Online orders and curbside pick-ups have been essential to operations from the start of the pandemic, and now the restaurant is managing public safety while offering indoor and outdoor seating.
“Thankfully, we had experience, not to mention systems and procedures in place that have helped us stay on top of business operations,” Brian Poag said. “There is less margin for error than ever before. A single misstep could really set us back.”
The industry experience, systems and procedures that Brian refers to come from more than a dozen years of restaurant ownership in addition to recent time spent working in a larger restaurant operation out of state.
Returning to Lynden with new insight and experience
The Poags were the original owner-operators of Jake’s in Lynden for 10 years before selling the restaurant in 2017 as part of a decision to move to a warmer climate.
They spent time in Southern California and Arizona, where Brian worked as part of the management team for a family-owned restaurant chain, Lucille’s Smokehouse Bar-B-Que.
“They had great people and culture, and they were incredibly good to me,” he said. “I learned a lot by working within a larger franchise!”
When the Poags decided to return to Lynden in 2019 (they missed their family and friends!), they had a unique opportunity to reopen the restaurant they had sold two years earlier — compiling their experiences owning and managing restaurants into a refreshed business in a familiar location.
“We completely remodeled our old restaurant and partnered with Andy Nguyen, an extremely talented chef in the Lynden community,” Brian Poag said. “His passion for barbecue, paired with Tanya’s and my restaurant management experience, has really elevated the customer experience at Jake’s.”
For example, technology improvements that were made during the relaunch of the business in late 2019 made the customer experience easier during COVID-19. Having an easy, user-friendly way to facilitate online orders up and running before the pandemic hit helped Jake’s continue to serve their customers during the months the restaurant was only allowed to offer curbside pickup.
Teamwork and passion for food and people drives Jake’s forward amidst COVID-19
Jake’s reopened in Lynden just four months before COVID-19 started to impact people and businesses in Whatcom County.
“Working closely with Brian and Tanya during the relaunch of their business and through the pandemic has been incredible,” said chef Nguyen. “I love the relationship we have as a team — the good, the bad, the grit, the ugly. We all go through it together, and we all support each other and push ourselves to be better.”
In the end, through all the COVID-19 challenges Jake’s Restaurant has been faced with, they are determined and excited about the future. Why? Because of the food and the customers.
“I love barbecue, and I love the look on new guests’ faces when they eat our barbecue for the first time and can’t believe barbecue is this good in Lynden, which is about as far from the south as you can get in the lower 48,” said Brian Poag.
Despite being faced with adversity, passion for the food and the customers who love it energizes Brian, Tanya and Andy.
The team’s spirit and business acumen were recently recognized in a Business of the Week feature by Cambro Manufacturing — a leader in providing supplies to the food service industry.
Customers also have noted and appreciated the efforts of those who own and work at Jake’s. Even in the midst of COVID-19 chaos, people continue to turn to Jake’s when they are hungry and rave about the food and service they receive.
Who says you can’t go home?
Brian Poag says he and his family are glad to be back home in Lynden — rebuilding a business they love while being supported by family, friends and a community that is loyal to the Jake’s brand.
“I am sure it has happened before, but I have not heard of anyone selling, moving away, moving back and reopening one of their old restaurants in the exact same spot,” he said. “It seems kind of crazy, but we’re glad we did it. We’re glad to be home, and we’re looking at the future with optimism.”