HIGH POINT, N.C. (WGHP) — In the early days of 2020, when no one was quite sure what COVID-19 had in store, Fagg Nowlan knew he had some work to do with his business, J&S Cafeteria, but he saw a path to success.

“We were still making money and we were doing a service,” says Nowlan about 2019 and early 2020 – and service is the key. The business his father-in-law, Grady Allred started in the early 1980s was very much one in the service of feeding the masses. Cafeterias were very popular, particularly in the south, doing just that.

But the pandemic added a layer his business just couldn’t handle. When they moved J&S Cafeteria from the Guilford College area to what’s now, “The Palladium,” near the intersection of Eastchester Drive and Wendover Avenue in High Point, they were just about the only restaurant in the area. Now, there are at least 30 choices within a mile of the big, J&S Cafeteria.

Even with the popularity of cafeteria-style restaurants in the south, decades ago, Nowlan ran into skepticism about what he was doing as he built a 9-restaurant chain.

“My first loan, to build the second (J&S Cafeteria) in Asheville, the banker looked at me and said, ‘I’d rather you use the money to buy a used car rather than open a restaurant.’ And I was like, ‘Well, that was great,’” Nowlan says.

Over the years, they served more than 65-million meals and had between 1,200 and 3,000 customers a day come through their lines. And – like pretty much everyone else – Nowlan and his team thought we might be able to get through the Covid infections in a few weeks or so.

“We were thinking, okay, I quarantined 14 days at home – all our employees did – and we all came back thinking, okay, now we can all get going but it just didn’t, didn’t happen,” he says. “I don’t think there was a rock we didn’t turn to try to get people in here.”

It wasn’t a problem with staffing, even though they had at one point as many as 137 employees in a restaurant that has no wait staff.

“That’s because we did everything from scratch,” says Nowlan. “It was a manufacturing plant, is what it was, basically.”

So, those employees stuck with him.

“Most of them have been with us 12 to 18 years, very little turnover – it’s a family business,” he says.

But, in the end, it was a numbers game and they weren’t adding up.

“This business needs a whole lot of customers,” Nowlan says. “We’re a volume business, we keep our prices low. Without it, we have to start charging what everybody else does and that’s what’s basically happened to us. We’re charging $9.50 for that same 8-ounce piece of salmon that’s blackened sitting beside asparagus or broccoli, and our competitors are getting $25 to $30 for it. As long as I was feeding 30 people that same dish that same day along with everybody else, it worked. But the cafeteria business is numbers, it truly is.”

“I will be serving food to somebody until the day I fall over, probably, with a spoon in my hand,” he says with a smile.

See more on the challenges faced by restaurants like J&S Cafeteria in this Project 2021 Report.