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Local restaurants are getting creative in their approaches to business during the coronavirus pandemic—but they need your support.
On a Tuesday morning in March, Christopher Edwards, a server at a popular restaurant in North Hills, stood outside at the corner of Glenwood Avenue and Lead Mine Road, wearing a pressed shirt and tie and holding a sign.
“WAITER, RESTAURANT CLOSED,” the sign stated. And, in smaller letters underneath: “Trying to buy asthma inhaler.”
Edwards says he’s been busking to supplement his income, playing his electric guitar outside of grocery stores to try to raise some cash.
“It’s a way I can keep some integrity,” he says. “Maybe people buying food will see, this is a person who has needs too, who doesn’t have emergency funds or a reliable source of income. That is all I can think to do, I can busk until the job market lets up. Right now, I don’t know where else I can find a job.”
Edwards has applied for unemployment benefits, he says, but the state’s website keeps crashing out due to the volume of applicants. It’s not clear how long he—and thousands of other bar and restaurant workers in Raleigh who have been laid off due to closed dining rooms and services limited to pickup and delivery—will be out of work, even as grocery stores scramble to keep their shelves stocked with food and essential goods.
“Fifty percent of all food consumed in North Carolina is consumed in restaurants,” said Lynn Minges, the president and CEO of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association on the local NC Food and Beverage podcast last month. In Wake County, the hospitality industry represents more than 67,000 local jobs, according to the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau (Visit Raleigh).
“Restaurants will play a big role in solving the food crisis in the long term,” Minges added. “Restaurants may have to shift their thinking to creating foods that may not be on their menu, like trays of lasagna, to serving the public in bulk.”
Local restaurants began shifting their thinking almost immediately, once it was clear the COVID-19 coronavirus was going to be a crisis that would stick around for a while. Indeed, they’ve been forced to, as Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order for all North Carolina bars and restaurants to close their dining rooms in mid-March while his administration worked to expand unemployment insurance benefits for service industry workers and others affected. A week later, the state’s Department of Health and Human Services announced measures to prohibit outdoor seating on restaurants’ patios as well as indoors.
Instead of shutting completely (which some Raleigh restaurants have done, including The Oak, Vidrio, Rosewater and Death and Taxes) many have pivoted to providing curbside takeout and delivery services. The City of Raleigh suspended its parking rules for curbside pickup and created a map linked on its website to show where curbside pickup zones are located across town.
Some restaurants are following Minges’ suggestion and offering pre-made dishes in bulk that will keep well and that customers can make several meals out of.
The Player’s Retreat, for instance, is preparing food and soups available for purchase in quarts or pints, to be frozen or warmed at home.
But it quickly became clear that, for many restaurants and bars, takeout and delivery for a prolonged period—especially without alcohol sales to drive up sales margins—wasn’t going to be enough.
They’ve had to get really creative.
Last month, Drew Schenck and Kevin Barrett, owners of the cocktail bar Dram & Draught, converted their space on the ground floor of One Glenwood into a pop-up grocery store, Dram Grog and Grocery. The full-service market will be open daily from 2 to 8 p.m., selling wine, growlers and cases of beer, toilet paper, produce, ground meat, canned goods and other products at minimally marked-up prices. Shoppers will be limited to four at a time and the grocery will deliver to seniors living within five miles of One Glenwood once a day.
“We want to help people with their basic needs and really support the Boylan neighborhood,” said Barrett. “This is a food desert in this area. We want to help the neighborhood and try to keep some of our employees working.”
Restaurateur Niall Hanley’s Morgan Street Food Hall is also doing its part to help service industry employees, as well as the community at large, during the pandemic. Hanley has waived rent for all of his tenants and the food hall hosted a blood drive through March, where folks who donated blood received a $20 gift card to use at any of the Morgan Street Food Hall restaurants. Additionally, Hanley’s Hibernian Hospitality Group partnered with US Foods to package and distribute food care packages for local hospitality workers, available for them to pick up on the food hall’s patio.
It’s not just bar and restaurant workers that are suffering.
According to numbers from Visit Raleigh, the hotel occupancy rate for the week of March 8-14 clocked in at 54.7 percent, a 25.2 percent decline from the same week’s rate last year of 76.8 percent. The Umstead Hotel and Spa laid off 300 workers and, with more than 50 events and festivals cancelled or postponed, more layoffs are likely to come.
With more than 18,000 North Carolinians having filed for unemployment insurance by late March, state officials have scrambled to make it easier for people to qualify for benefits and to make unemployment less costly to businesses. In an executive order, Gov. Cooper eased restrictions on who can apply, including people who haven’t lost their jobs entirely but have seen their hours reduced. He also lifted the weeklong waiting period for benefits and the requirement that people be actively searching for a new job while collecting benefits. Businesses affected by the coronavirus won’t be required to help supplement their workers’ unemployment benefits and the administration and state lawmakers are looking for other ways to ease the burden on workers and businesses.
Private sector initiatives, too, are popping up to help support service and hospitality industry workers.
Celebrated Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen announced the creation of the Triangle Workers Relief Fund, administered by the Frankie Lemmon School, to raise donations for cooks, servers, bartenders, dishwashers and other restaurant industry workers whose jobs have been impacted by the coronavirus. In the first 24 hours of the fund’s website going live, 3,200 workers registered to apply for financial assistance.
And Let’s Get Offline, which connects its subscribers to restaurant industry events all over the Triangle, launched Take Out for the Triangle. Its members can receive a $5 credit to their monthly subscriptions for ordering takeout from one of Offline’s 40 restaurant partners by texting a photo of their takeout receipt.
As bad as the reduced hours, limited services, closings and layoffs are right now—not to mention the social isolation we’re all experiencing—what’s worse is the uncertainty, the unknown length of time that it will take before things return to normal. It could be months before restaurants are allowed to reopen their dining rooms again; it’s likely that we’ll see some of our beloved local businesses forced to shut their doors for good.
All each of us can do right now is to support the restaurants and other small businesses in our community in the ways we can: Order takeout. Buy gift cards. Donate to the Triangle Workers Relief Fund. Lobby state representatives and those in Washington to pass measures that will assist struggling families.
This pandemic will pass, as all crises do. But there’s no telling what kind of shape Raleigh will be in once it’s over.
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