As Shady Maple Farm Market prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary in August, the business is showing no resistance to keeping up with the times.

The latest evolution: Shady Maple Smorgasbord, known for being the largest buffet in the U.S., reopened July 9 with practices designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Dubbed a touchless buffet, the majority of the food on the line will remain self-serve. However, diners are required to wear masks and disposable gloves while also maintaining social distancing during all trips to the buffet and beverage bar.

"Several different ideas were tossed around, but the decision was with hand sanitizer and gloves it would give us an opportunity to welcome customers back," said Karen Newhook, group sales specialist for Shady Maple.

Gloves and sanitizer are provided by the restaurant.

Shady Maple's plan also calls for patrons to wear masks when not at their seats, enhanced sanitation protocols for staff and a reduction of the building's maximum occupancy by 50 percent.

Even at half capacity, there's room for around 1,000 guests inside the Smorgasbord, located in East Earl Township, Lancaster County.

Time would tell what kind of crowds the reopening would draw, said Newhook, but "a sense of safety is what we want to convey."

"We're doing everything we can to make people feel comfortable and safe," she said.

'The best way to open'

Technically, Shady Maple Smorgasbord could've begun welcoming customers when the county moved into the green phase of reopening on June 26.

Rather than rush to throw the doors open at the first available opportunity, time was taken to put processes in place to guard against risks caused by the presence of the coronavirus.

"It had a lot to do with us being an open buffet," Newhook said. "It's a lot of food."

Total buffet space measures 200 feet in length, according to promotional material.

"We wanted the best way to open and wanted to figure that out," Newhook said. "We did some research, really thought through the process, and this is what we came up with."

Despite the amount of care that was put into formulating a plan — which can be viewed in its entirety on Shady Maple's website, www.shady-maple.com, — Newhook realizes some people might choose to stay home.

Still, Shady Maple is excited to invite guests to come "see what we're all about."

"Everyone has to go through the process, and we'll do the same," Newhook said. "I think they trust our judgment in making it a safe experience for their family — but we also understand eating out is optional.

"People have been very inquisitive, and most seem happy we're opening at all. This is kind of their fix."

For those still skeptical of dining out, Shady Maple is continuing its meals to-go promotion that it started during the shutdown, offering diners a taste of the Smorgasbord via takeout.

Going online

Shady Maple has shown its ability to adapt on the Market side as well during the pandemic — though that should come as little surprise after 50 years.

While Shady Maple Farm Market was allowed to operate as a life-sustaining business during the COVID shutdown, the store wanted to reach shoppers who didn't necessarily want to come inside.

Fortunately, online ordering for curbside pick-up was already in the works and was able to be rolled out to customers in April.

"We were planning on doing it anyway, but it wound up kind of coinciding with the pandemic," Newhook said.

Much like the Smorgasbord, the Farm Market also released a detailed plan to keep shoppers and workers safe inside the store.

"The Market has been doing very well and even gained new customers," Newhook said. "Many people are coming in, shopping with masks on and been very positive about the whole experience.

"It's a unique grocery store. People drive for miles and hours to get here."

Shady Maple Farm Market is also planning a two-week celebration from Aug. 5-18 to commemorate its golden anniversary. During the event, there will be specials, food, games and drawings.

Shady Maple still growing

Newhook noted the 50-year celebration is especially remarkable for a company that got its start under two maple trees as a farm stand.

Founded in 1970 by Marvin Weaver, Shady Maple Farm Market has undergone massive change through the years. The store was expanded steadily during its first decade and has underwent two major remodelings, in 1982 and again in 2010.

The Smorgasbord, which celebrated its 35th birthday earlier this year, also grew from its original 300-seat venue into a 110,000-square-foot restaurant, later adding a banquet and conference center.

The Shady Maple complex is also home to a gift shop.

If that immense popularity is any indication, Shady Maple will continue to look ahead and stay in tune with ever-changing consumer preferences.

"There's a charm even the younger generation appreciates, people of all ages," Newhook said. "Moving forward, it's just doing what we've been doing — good product at a great value.

"There's a reason our tagline is, 'Where food is a destination.'"

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