On a recent evening Esther Wood looked around the dining room at her restaurant, Zander’s Woodfired Pizza in downtown Dickson.
The scene of many guests munching on pepperoni or sausage pies, calzones and salads hardly resembled the bleak spring when she had to close the dining room over COVID-19 concerns and lost 60 to 70 percent of her usual annual revenue.
Then there was the partial reopening, with multiple state guidelines to go along with it, such as restrictions on capacity.
She was always allowed to do takeout orders, something that remains an important part of her business.
But many customers were — and are — hungry for more than just the pizza, the salads and the ice cream.
According to Wood, people want the dine-in experience, the service and the atmosphere.
“Human beings are social creatures,” she said.
As Wood sees it, there’s a harmony involving health, families, friends and what she refers to as “social eating.”
According to Wood, studies have shown that when people dine together — whether in a home or a restaurant — they usually choose healthier and tastier food than when they dine by themselves.
And in a restaurant setting, she said, they get something more than at home. They get a sense of community.
“I have a very special place in my heart for Tennessee,” said Wood, who has lived in many states and earned a degree in English literature from Colorado Christian University in 2005.
She met her husband, Zack, in college. The information-technology professional had ties to Tennessee, and the couple decided to settle in Dickson. They have three children.
“I think the best compliment you can say about a place is, ‘This is where I want my kids to grow up,’ ” Wood said.
Wood is more than a successful small-business owner. As the founder and coordinator of the Downtown Dickson Association, she represents the many shops and restaurants on and near Main Street that also had to cope with the economic fallout of the pandemic.
But downtown is thriving, and some new establishments opened this year, during the pandemic. The business association went forward with its annual celebrations — BooFest on Halloween and Christmas in Downtown — which were both big draws.
Also appreciative were Tim Spann, owner of Fussell’s Shop, and his family, who help run the men’s and boy’s clothing store he purchased from the Fussell family.
“Esther has been a great leader for our downtown association group,” said Tim Spann, the owner of Fussell’s Shop which sells men’s and boys’ clothes. “She works tirelessly on events throughout the year. We appreciate the time and effort she puts forth in helping make downtown what it is.”
Faith in the family
‘Tis the season, and in the corner of the Zander’s dining room near the window stands a lit-up Christmas tree. Christmas lights are strung from the high ceiling.
What restaurant guests don’t see anywhere in the dining room is a television hanging on either of the brick walls. There’s simply the artwork.
Wood said she believes the dining experience should be about family members having an opportunity to interact with each other, and she said a TV would be a distraction.
However, if a child is playing on a handheld electronic device during dinner, that’s fine because it’s the parents’ choice to allow that, and it doesn’t affect the whole dining room, Wood said.
Wood chooses not to have a TV at home, though the family sometimes streams movies through laptops. She homeschools her children. She emphasized that she supports public schools, but she said their reach can go too far.
“I feel that our society has moved away from parents being responsible for our children,” she said. “Children are blessings bestowed by God — not the government, not the state.”
When a government agency or official says something, or enacts a policy, or issues an advisory or mandate, Wood processes the information through her lens of faith.
Faith is central to Wood’s life. She certainly agrees with the COVID-19 protocols for her restaurant, emphasizing the routine deep cleanings and other anti-virus measures.
For her, though, health is a holistic matter that goes beyond COVID-19. Good health has to do with avoiding stress, for example. And the disruptions to people’s lives in the pandemic have stressed out many people, she said.
“I know people whose children are taking anti-anxiety medication, specifically because of the pandemic,” she said.
Better days for business
Hopefully this year will be better than 2020, Wood said. She anticipates the business association will ramp up its slate of events in 2021.
Ever since she opened Zander’s in 2016, she’s worked hard to improve the business climate downtown — and it’s working. Wood certainly doesn’t take credit for others’ success in any way, but her leadership has been effective.
“When I think of Esther, the first words that come to mind are ‘strong leader,’ ” said Brooke Breese, owner of boutique and gift shop At Home on Main. “We always know if we need advice or encouragement, we go to Esther.”
Last spring, during the early days of the pandemic upheaval, “(Esther) went after all the information she could in order to help us with our businesses,” Breese said. “With COVID, things changed so quickly. She always kept us up to date on the latest information,” on the state rules.
The virus is not going to beat Dickson, if Wood has any say in the matter.
“We’re wired to be social,” she said.