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Hiring a challenge as new Texas Roadhouse prepares to open
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Hiring a challenge as new Texas Roadhouse prepares to open

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BRISTOL, Va. — With less than one month remaining before his new Texas Roadhouse opens, managing partner Craig Phelps balances working with contractors to complete the building with hiring a staff of 250 plus a hundred smaller details.

While the building appears to be days away from completion, Phelps said he and his management team have hired about half of the employees needed to operate it. The new restaurant is scheduled to open Oct. 25 at The Falls, just off Interstate 81’s Exit 5.

“My goal is to hire about 250 and I’m about halfway there,” Phelps told the Herald Courier last week standing outside the trailer that has served as a temporary field office. “I feel the applicant flow has had a slight uptick in the last three weeks. I understand changing jobs can also define changing your life. We’ve been hiring for the last month I feel like a lot of people are just now ready to make that change.”

Help wanted signs are prominent at many restaurants, stores and other businesses across this region and Phelps acknowledges this has been challenging, but he believes they’ll find the right employees. The biggest needs right now are people to work in the kitchen and the carryout service that has become an important part of the restaurant business.

“I have a lot of jobs perfect for first-timers, someone getting out into the industry and looking for a place to start. I also have jobs that require quite a bit of experience and skill,” Phelps said. “Turnover is extremely low for our concept. The store I came from [Kingsport] was top 10 in the company on (low) turnover. That gets back to your culture. You put pride in your people.”

Phelps is an example of that culture. Now 38, he was worked in the food service and hospitality industry for 20 years including more than 10 for Texas Roadhouse. His longtime goal has been to own and operate a restaurant.

“I’ve had to invest in this. My title is managing partner. That means I’m an owner-operator,” he said. “Although we may have a corporate badge hanging on the building, there are no other corporate concepts that are independently, locally owned. Man it is so surreal to come back and open a restaurant in your hometown. I was born and raised in Abingdon and started my journey in this area. I have to pinch myself sometimes because the dream did happen.”

Phelps and his six-member management team have a combined 50 years working for Texas Roadhouse.

“My priorities line up with the company. The way we treat our people — our staff, our vendors, our guests, people in our community. People is a big word in our mindset,” he said.

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Building nearly complete

The exterior the restaurant appears nearly complete with signage, LED lighting and other touches installed and operating. Phelps said everything is on schedule for the planned Oct. 25 opening.

He calls the restaurant the “castle on the hill” because of its prominent location overlooking Lee Highway and visible from the interstate.

Last Thursday a number of contractors worked busily to finish the interior of the new 330-seat location — largest of the Tri-Cities. Much of the seating is installed, decorations are going up, and work is progressing in the bar and kitchen areas. Much of the work was performed by local subcontractors.

A prominent feature is the carryout business which has a separate entrance near the main doors.

“We want customers to come visit our brand new dining room, but we have integrated a brand new to-go system that is really going to make our process so much easier,” Phelps said. “We’ll have our own to-go room that you can use and not have to fight a crowd at the front. I think that will help us execute those orders more rapidly and help with accuracy.”

In this age of COVID-19, carryout represents a large share of the business.

“It was less than 5% but our Kingsport location, before I left, we were doing 25% to-go,” Phelps said. “You’ve got your crowd that is eating on the run, playing it safe, or don’t want to come in. The dining rooms are still packed. It didn’t change our flow there but, if anything, the pandemic forced us to build a to-go business. … We will have a special team trained for to-go orders and that will improve efficiency.”

The Bristol location will also be this region’s first — and among the first in the nation — Roadhouse to offer patio seating. The space comes complete with heaters and fans, but may not be available on opening day.

Inside, diners can expect to see some familiar imagery. All Roadhouse locations are known for mural artwork, and this store will showcase Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol’s downtown and the birthplace of country music heritage plus University of Tennessee and Virginia Tech sports.

“We have an awesome showpiece — the biggest mural in the store — will be dedicated to Bristol Motor Speedway. I feel that’s who we are. I happen to be a huge race fan, but I just feel that working with our community is everything, and that sets us apart from everybody else,” he said.

dmcgee@bristolnews.com | 276-645-2532 | Twitter: @DMcGeeBHC 

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