JANESVILLE

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.”

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