Among the in-house innovations Janesville eatery Luke’s Deli has added during the dark months of the COVID-19 pandemic: an expanded walk-in cooler.
Strike that. It’s actually a “Walken” cooler.
The cooler’s door is embellished with a large black and white mugshot of the famed “More Cowbell!” actor Christopher Walken—a cheeky play on words by Luke’s co-owner Luke Karrels, a lifelong movie buff.
Built out from the side of the Mount Zion Avenue restaurant, the walk-in cooler gives Luke’s more space to deal with a recent jump in takeout lunch orders. Karrels said the cooler on recent days has been filled with hundreds of lunch orders ready for pickup.
The cooler is one example of a slew of innovations the family-owned restaurant has unfurled this year to handle the curve balls COVID-19 has thrown at the restaurant industry. It helped Luke’s Deli land a $15,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. for innovations aimed at weathering the economic vagaries of the pandemic.
Luke’s is one of three businesses locally and 231 statewide that won grant funding through the agency’s “We’re All Innovating” contest. Gov. Tony Evers announced the winners last week.
Timber Hill Winery in Milton also earned an innovation grant. Owners told The Gazette earlier that the winery has added seating under heated plastic domes to extend the outdoor dining season and offers gift wines and wines-of-the-month at local retailers and online.
Chicago-style beef and hot dog diner Brodie’s Beef in Delavan also received a small grant through the state’s program after it expanded its business to include a food truck—an idea similar to Karrels’ retooling of Luke’s Deli from a sit-down lunch counter and teen hangout to a carryout-friendly restaurant.
Brodie’s co-owner Tom McLain said he had a new food trailer built in Florida and recently picked it up himself. He and his spouse, co-owner Catherine McLain, plan to use the food truck to offer socially-distanced dining options to local businesses during the pandemic.
When public events begin to rekindle, McLain said he’ll use the trailer to sell food at private parties, events and festivals.
McLain called his trailer plan “one of the few alternatives right now to the restaurant going under.”
“With grants like that, you’re sure not going to look a gift horse in the face,” he said. “That new food trailer’s steam pans, plates, utensils and stuff like that, it all costs a lot of money. It adds up real quick.”
McLain said he brought Brodie’s back from the financial brink after buying it in 2014, only to see it get knocked flat again by the pandemic.
“It’s hard enough right now to try to absorb the financial loss from much less walk-in customers because of the pandemic. And it’s even harder to try to build new avenues for revenue and drum up new business, like a food trailer. That grant helped us out a lot with that, and we’re real thankful,” McLain said.
Karrels’ upgrades at Luke’s Deli, which also include a new seating arrangement, walk-up window, digital marquee sign and shaved ice truck, have helped the restaurant pivot to a new carryout model.
The diner has earned kudos from food reviewers for its handmade soups and fun vittles, such as olive burgers made with Wisconsin-produced Stump’s Hot Olives. But some of its regular dine-in customers have shifted to curbside pickup during the pandemic.
When Karrels faced a decline in dine-in customers, he was more than leery of shifting to online food orders. In the past, his lunch crowd tended to hit fast and furious at the stroke of 11 a.m.
The shift to a new curbside and carryout model required a full retool of the website and changes to food prep and workflow to handle orders sent in online and via text message.
The move has actually boosted Karrels’ restaurant. He now employs 20 people—up from about 17 before the pandemic hit.
Karrels said Luke’s is seeing the briskest business in its 15-year history. He figures he’ll use the grant to offset the cost of installing the “Christopher Walken” cooler. He believes some other innovations already have partly begun to pay for themselves.
Karrels still looks forward to a future that includes dine-in service, but he said the innovations he’s got in place will move Luke’s into a new age—one in which consumer shifts in dining habits might be permanent.
“Looking back on what I thought a few months ago, I was so against the online ordering. It’s a big change,” he said. “Now, I’m actually embarrassed at how against it I was. I was wrong.”
Inside the Rock County Jail in a cellblock with a few dozen other COVID-19 infected inmates, 26-year-old Deon Smith is scared.
His mother said his chest hurts when he breathes, and it has hurt for days.
The 26-year-old Beloit man is afraid, his mother said, because he tested positive for COVID-19 last week, one of the first 29 inmates red-flagged in a coronavirus outbreak that additional testing late last week showed had mushroomed to at least 86 of 234 inmates in the jail.
On Sunday evening, Rock County Sheriff Troy Knudson told The Gazette a small handful of inmate tests remained pending.
But he said as of Sunday night, nurses at the jail have reported that none of the inmates who have tested positive in the outbreak have been sick enough to require treatment outside the jail.
That might offer some comfort to Deon Smith’s mother, Lakesha Smith.
But Lakesha and families of dozens of other inmates are stuck viewing jail life from outside a bubble that a pandemic has made more difficult to peer into.
Lakesha worries because she said despite Deon telling jail staff and nurses of his chest pain, a symptom her son thinks might be a complication of COVID-19 illness, Deon believes his worries aren’t being taken seriously.
Lakesha Smith fears for her son and other inmates in his unit, who she claims have just one wireless tablet to share to make calls to the outside world. She’s grown more anxious over Deon’s condition, which she said doesn’t seem to be changing and isn’t improving, despite jail nurses telling her son he’s “fine.”
As of late afternoon on Sunday, Smith said, jail staff had repeatedly denied Deon’s pleas to be taken to a local hospital for evaluation and a second opinion as he rides out COVID-19 alongside other infected inmates in an outbreak that sheriff’s administrators said last week put the facility into an “emergency phase.”
“Nothing’s changed in days, and they just keep telling him that his chest doesn’t hurt. How do they even know if his chest hurts? They keep telling him it’s nothing,” Lakesha Smith told The Gazette in a phone interview Sunday.
As of late last week, the jail reported just two of the 86 known infected inmates at the time had been taken to a hospital for evaluation of COVID-19 symptoms, and Knudson said one of those inmates was later returned to the jail.
Smith’s mother said she’s repeatedly called jail supervisors and contract jail nurses to advocate for her son, who is in the jail’s RECAP work program.
She said her son’s public defender also has been speaking with jail officials and nurses.
Lakesha Smith said she’s worried her son’s health could take a nosedive and she might not know about his condition quickly enough to continue pressing the jail over his well-being.
Smith said she knows two others whose son and brother are among the COVID-19-positive inmates in the jail.
“We are just very concerned about our loved ones being in there being mistreated or not treated,” she said.
The jail late last week implemented an infection control response that among other measures involved moving inmates into “cohort” groups in different units.
That measure, the jail’s administration has said, is aimed at fire-walling off inmates who’ve tested positive from those who’ve tested negative or are asymptomatic.
Knudson said Sunday the jail plans an upcoming wave of additional testing that would be offered to inmates who tested negative for COVID, part of a continued canvassing for any additional infections that might not have showed up in earlier tests.
“I do plan to make another (testing) round,” Knudson said. “I just want to make sure that somebody who tested (earlier) wasn’t in an incubation mode.”
Knudson said the sheriff’s office also is monitoring jail staff for signs of COVID-19, and the contract nurses who work at the jail have their own protocol for testing.
As of last week, 219 inmates had submitted to testing, and 128 inmates tested negative for the virus, the sheriff’s office said.
The sheriff’s office said all work previously handled by jail inmates, such as kitchen, laundry and sanitation details had been temporarily handed to jail staff in an attempt to avoid further spread of COVID-19.
The sheriff’s office has not shared what criteria the jail and its nurses are using to decide if some inmates would require treatment at a hospital or further evaluation of symptoms by doctors outside the jail.
But Knudson said last week the jail has two cells with special air handling units geared for inmates with tuberculosis. He said Sunday both those cells are being used by inmates who now have COVID-19.
The jail earlier this year had thinned the inmate population from about 430 inmates to 234, a move aimed at creating more space and minimizing the risk of COVID-19 spreading among inmates and jail staff.
Knudson said the jail has since the pandemic’s start stepped up cleaning of spaces, using multiple disinfection methods, including a robotic cleaning unit he said runs nearly constantly.
The sheriff’s office initially tested a fraction of inmates but ramped up testing to offer it to all inmates after it was able to access more test kits.
Sheriff’s officials said infections initially spread among inmates in multiple cellblocks in the jail. It’s not clear if particular cellblocks or units were hit harder by the virus than others.
Knudson said nurses on call around the clock have been checking on infected inmates twice daily, answering their questions and discussing any symptoms they might have.
He said family and friends of inmates are still allowed at the jail to make personal visits to inmates, but all those visits are still being conducted virtually using electronic tablets.
Nancy A. (Wooddell) Fetting
Jona “Jo” Freeman
Sally Kelley Heineke
Kenneth E. Hollenbach
Kenneth Robert Keller
Ronald L. Koebernick
Lynne Elizabeth (Milleson) Kreisman
Marian E. Kumlien
Michael C. Logterman
Robert M. “Bob” Luchitz
Dr. Henry R. Mol M.D.
Mr. Ernest C. Mowers
Peggy Lea (Budde) O’Leary
David Lee Riese
Elaine M. Snyder
Duane L. “Duey” Thompson
Jacquelyn Sue “Jackie” Trawicki
Jonathan R. Turner
Penny J. Warren
Claudia J. Williams
One of the things that drew Patti Viertel to her future husband was his kiss.
Joe and Patti had known each other for years. Joe’s older brother Claire married her older sister Sally. They saw each other at many family functions and at dances where Joe’s father played concertina in a band.
“Joe was not only the best kisser in the world, but the best dancer, too,” Patti recalled.
“I guess he set off the fireworks when he kissed me. He was an artistic man, and there must have been something artistic in his smooching.”
When he proposed, she didn’t hesitate.
They were together 44 years before she kissed him for the last time. It was the night of Sept. 21.
They had both been extremely tired and were sleeping long hours over the weekend. That Monday night, she kissed him on the forehead.
He was burning up. The retired nurse knew something was wrong. She took his temperature: 103.
“I knew immediately when I kissed him that this was dreadful,” Patti said. “Most people don’t do well with high temperatures. It’s not something you want an elderly person to get.
“I couldn’t get him in the car fast enough,” she said, regretting now that she hadn’t connected their sleepiness to COVID-19.
“I don’t recall fatigue was a big thing to watch for,” she said.
Patti got a call the next day, saying one healthy family member could visit Joe. Patti, who always expected Joe to get better and come home, offered the visit to their only child, Jess Rinehart.
Doctors had diagnosed pneumonia, Rinehart said, but something made her go: “It was almost like I knew it was the last time I was going to see him. … I had this intense, gut feeling I needed to go.”
She went on her lunch break. As she was helping her dad with his lunch, a nurse came to the room: “Oh, honey, you have to go. His test switched to positive.”
Positive for COVID-19, that is.
Rinehart kissed him on the forehead and left. Neither she nor Patti would see him again.
Joe’s condition worsened. He was taken to SSM Health St. Mary’s in Madison that Friday. Eventually, he was on a ventilator, then he seemed to improve, said Patti, who kept in touch by phone.
Patti would test positive, too, but her symptoms were mild. They had been careful, so she doesn’t know where they got it.
Joe died Oct. 7.
He was 75.
“It came as a terrible shock, and we’re still trying to grapple with that,” Patti said.
At the same time, the family is remembering an exceptional man. “People person” doesn’t even begin to describe his ability to enchant total strangers. He made friends at work, at church, at Rotary Gardens, where he volunteered, and everywhere else he went.
“I don’t think he ever met anybody he couldn’t be friends with. He always made people feel special. He had a way of bringing out their stories, not just his own,” Patti said.
Joe not only made lots of friends. He worked hard to keep them. He was always looking for an excuse to plan a party. It’s what made him happiest, Patti said.
Joe had started a tradition of making his grandmother’s pffernusse cookies during Christmastime, inviting friends to join in. He also invented a Christmas tree tour, in which friends would go from house to house to admire each other’s decorations.
“He’s the type of guy that just gives you permission to have fun,” said a friend, Jim Allen, who found himself speaking of Joe as if he was still alive. “If he notices there’s beginning to be a little lull, he just jabs you in the ribs and says something funny. I learned so much about having a good time being with Joe.”
“His energy seemed really inexhaustible,” said Jim’s wife, Ann. “It seemed to be fueled by joy. I’m sure he had dark days, and yet his ebullience was just unerring. He always was helping to energize the gathering, whatever it might be.”
Joe worked most of his life for JC Penny as a store visual merchandising manager.
“He absolutely loved it,” Patti said of the job. “I don’t recall him hardly ever missing a day. He liked to help customers on the floor. He was always delighted when somebody asked him a question and he could help. “He just really enjoyed people, getting to know them.”
Joe helped plan the Nativity of St. Mary Church’s annual fall festival each year and was known for his ability to recruit helpers. Patti said she couldn’t recall anyone ever being able to say “no” to him.
That included strangers sometimes. Joe liked driving country roads, and if he saw a garden he admired Joe would stop to tell the owner about his admiration, Patti said. The chat would lead to donations of pumpkins, apples or bales of hay to fall festival.
Joe found time and energy for his family, as well.
“The sun rose and set on his daughter, and it rose and set twice on those granddaughters,” Patti said.
Rinehart said he would do anything for her girls at the drop of a hat.
Grace, 8, and Natalie, 7, called him “Bumpa” and were always asking if he could come over and play.
He took them on nature hikes, teaching them to skip stones. He would also play Barbie dolls with them, something he did with his daughter when she was a child, Rinehart said.
Patti remembers how hoarse Joe’s voice was toward the end, almost a whisper.
“I got to talk to him and tell him how much we loved him, and even people in Australia were praying for him, and hundreds of cousins all over the place,” Patti said of their last conversation.
Then she got the call. It was 11 p.m. She thought it was Joe calling to say goodnight. It was a doctor asking for permission to stop CPR.
“Somewhere along the line I guess I had to tell them yes, it was OK to stop, but I don’t know. I don’t remember talking very much,” she said.
Rinehart had brought a family photo, and nurses placed it in front of him, which gives Patti some comfort.
Rinehart is remembering a man who taught her by example: “He was so compassionate and so caring, and I think it made me realize I want to be even more like that, especially now. 2020 has been a hell of a year, and I think people need that, just to be good to each other.”
“I can’t thank them enough, the nurses and respiratory therapists and doctors,” Patti said. “They were very, very generous with their time for me.”
Patti wants to write a letter to the hospital staffs at SSM Health St. Mary’s in Janesville and Madison. She wants to tell them they would have liked him. He would have made them laugh. He would have thrown a big party with lots of food and drink.
“They would’ve been happy to know who he was and how appreciative of all they did for him,” Patti said. “I can’t get through the crying enough to write the letter yet.”
Patti still feels bad she never got to say a proper goodbye.
“I figured in old age I’d be the one taking care of him,” said Patti, who is younger than Joe. “I’d be able to show him how much I loved him,” she said, sniffling through tears. “I had it all planned out where his hospital bed would be and privacy screens.
“I knew he’d have a ton of company.”