Gary Marbut’s family started The Rocket in Jacksonville, Alabama in 1958. The Rocket initially operated as a drive-in like Sonic today. This Mom-and-Pop barbecue-and-burger joint has a loyal following and old-timers fondly view the restaurant as something straight out of “Happy Days.” Besides barbeque sandwiches and salads, The Rocket also serves other all-American food such as chicken fingers, French fries, cheeseburgers, and onion rings. The Rocket is a throw-back to times gone by where the staff calls most customers by their first name and delivers excellent food with even better customer service. The barbeque joint has been a staple to the people of Calhoun County since 1958. The Marbut family is now serving the fourth generation of the same families that have traded with them for years.
Although The Rocket has stood the test of time, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the restaurant. Gary Marbut said, “I must admit this COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our business more than the recession of 2008-2009, the high interest rates of the late 70’s, and the turbulent times of the 60’s combined.” Before the pandemic, the business was based on dine-in customers seated in its petite dining room in addition to take-out orders. These orders were also picked up inside the small dining area. When Alabama Governor Kay Ivy announced Alabama’s Stay-at-Home order would take effect April 4, 2020, and indoor dining would be closed, Gary knew he had to act. “We had employees that count on their jobs to feed their families,” Gary stated.
The Rocket did not shut down like many businesses during this time. Instead, to keep his employees paid, Gary opened a small window on the side of his building for pick-up orders. However, this window had no covering from the elements, so customers had to wait during the rain, cold, and heat for their order. Gary was able to open his dining room once the Stay-at-Home order was revised, but the new mandate reduced his already limited seating capacity by 50%. Pick up orders were still directed to the outside window.
The business model that had been in place since 1958 was evolving at a rapid pace. Gary Marbut reached out to the SBDC for guidance as he navigated this unprecedented time. Gary expressed interest in any grants that might be available to help him address the many changes taking place.
Business advisors at the Alabama SBDC at JSU researched different grants the business could apply for. After applying for numerous grants with JSU SBDC’s help, Gary was awarded the Community Foundation Grant for $3,000. These funds were used to help the business renovate their dining area to reduce seating capacity, and to streamline operations to make the takeout window more efficient. Gary Marbut states,
The JSU team really helped us evaluate our operations to remain open during this challenging time. The amount of the grant may seem like a small amount, but I assure you, it was big for us.”