CASPER, Wyo. – In March, Casper restauranteur Johnathan Tieszen knew almost immediately that the world in which he operated his successful restaurants was forever changed.
Over the past five years, Tieszen became the biggest tenant in the Eastridge Mall’s food court, starting with the ice cream and dessert shop Serendipity Cafe. Soon he expanded and dominated the court by operating different brands that served Mexican, burgers and fried chicken.
It all worked, at least until the COVID-19 global pandemic came to Casper. Even after restaurants were eventually allowed to reopen with restrictions, being located inside the mall with its severely limited hours and reduced retail traffic put him in a unique disadvantage.
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“When coronavirus started it became apparent that restaurants with drive-throughs are still successful, and if you were a dine-in operation you were going to be really handicapped by the hours or the mandates that you were allowed to operate under,” said Tieszen.
He started his search for a new location, and recently was able to secure the former Chipotle Mexican Grill building on the corner of Home Depot’s parking lot.
After that, everything moved at breakneck speed. With a heavy heart, he shut down his Eastridge Mall restaurants, and just 12 days later he’s opening Craves.
“In case the community gets shut down because of the pandemic again, I’m still in a position where I can serve my customers quality food at a good rate, and that way they have something familiar and they enjoy, and I don’t have to worry about being shut down,” he said.
Craves takes all the best features from the food court restaurants and condenses them under one roof, where Tieszen can set his own hours, offer drive-through and easily cater to food delivery services. The dining space can accommodate more than 40 people properly socially distanced, along with several more on the outdoor patio.
“The whole point is this business is what Casper craves,” he said. “We’ve got burgers, wings, chicken strips, all the side items, healthy salads, ice cream, coffee…if you’ve got a craving our goal is to satisfy those cravings.”
“It’s the most focused, best versions of what we’ve done.”
Even before vacating the mall, Tieszen says the evolution of retail was already becoming apparent. Since his restaurants opened, he said two major anchor tenants closed and 16 inline retailers had left.
“We watched it dwindle down, but the biggest shift is in accessibility and drive-through, and being able to take care of customers as quickly as possible,” he said.
Flaming Wok continues as the last restaurant currently in the Eastridge Mall’s food court. The Hibachi Supreme Buffet in the mall’s south side has recently reopened with health codes in place for the buffet. A mall representative was unavailable for comment on Friday.
Tieszen is taking full advantage of his newfound freedom at Craves, particularly with operating hours. No longer tethered to the mall’s limited hours, he can offer early breakfast and late night dinner.
“There’s a gap in town right now, if you drive around after 9 p.m. there’s nowhere to go, and one of the biggest things we’re excited about is serving customers all day and all night.”
Tieszen says he employs around 22 full- and part-time employees, and will likely have up to 30 to help handle the additional hours.
At some point he may pursue a liquor license, but for now he’s focused on a family-friendly, fast-casual atmosphere.
After two weeks of 17-hour days putting the new restaurant together, Tieszen says he’s excited to get it started. Craves soft-opened on Saturday. Full service starts later next week, and a grand opening is planned.
Tieszen says his wife, Ashleigh, was the encouraging force behind the move and the new concept.
“With the big changes and transition, it’s scary changing business models, but my wife supports me through the process,” he said.
“It’s nice when a person believes in you even when you don’t believe in yourself sometimes.”
Craves is located at 4910 E. Second St., and is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Their Facebook page is here.