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Local restauranteurs grapple with whether to stay open or close completely during the coronavirus outbreak.
When Gov. Roy Cooper ordered North Carolina’s restaurants to close their dining rooms and patios in mid-March, local responses about how to go forward were mixed.
Some of the bigger names in Raleigh’s culinary industry, such as Garland owner Cheetie Kumar, shut down all operations right away. Some restauranteurs, including Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana owner Van Nolintha and AC Restaurants’ Ashley Christensen, experimented with offering curbside pickup and delivery services, but ultimately decided to close their doors as well.
But the majority of Raleigh’s independent chefs and restaurant owners decided to continue operating, tweaking or paring their menus for curbside pickup and/or delivery and pivoting to new service models such as grocery markets.
While none kid themselves that they’ll turn a profit during the shutdown due to a number of factors, restaurant owners and chefs say their reasons for deciding to continue operating hinge on hopes of being able to save at least some of their employees’ jobs and being able to continue to serve, nourish and care for the community.
“Closing restaurants, whether to do takeout only or closing completely, is the hardest thing any of these professionals have had to do,” says Jennifer Noble Kelly, founder of JNK Public Relations, who works with restaurateurs and businesses across the Triangle. “This is an industry of survivors already adapted to existing on the smallest margins and literally working their fingers and feet to the bone. What impresses me is how seriously I see them all take each decision they have had to make, from high end restaurants down to food trucks. No one is doing anything flippantly.”
Messages from Industry Leaders
While the CDC has determined that coronavirus is not food-borne and restaurants can continue to operate safely as long they observe health and safety guidelines and practice social distancing, many industry leaders, local and nationally, say they just don’t feel that is the reality.
“I sat in an office and had conversations for over five hours straight with the dozens of managers and more than 200 hourly employees to tell them I could no longer offer them employment,” wrote Ashley Christensen, a Raleigh luminary and the reigning James Beard award winner for Outstanding Chef, in an editorial in the News and Observer on April 15.
“And I’d do it again in order to prioritize public health,” Christensen continued. “I’d do it again to keep my team safe from harm … to prevent even one person from contracting coronavirus in one of my restaurants. But just because it was the right thing to do didn’t make it any less traumatic or any less devastating … didn’t make the consequences any less severe or real for the employees out of work, or the farmers without clients.”
“The right thing to do.”
Christensen doesn’t mince words. She doesn’t say it was the right thing to do for her organization or the right thing to do at this stage of the pandemic. She says it was the right thing to do, full-stop, and it’s a message that has been consistent for her in public forums and on social media channels since she closed Beasley’s, Poole’s Diner and Poole’side Pies, along with Death and Taxes and Chuck’s, at the end of March.
So what does that mean for other chefs and business owners when someone like Christensen takes such a strong stance right off the bat?
“We have felt pressure,” says Tom Mukoyama, the corporate general manager for the Triangle’s three Kanki locations and their sister restaurant, Tonbo, located in downtown Raleigh. Kanki locations at Crabtree Valley Mall, in north Raleigh and in Durham are still offering curbside pickup. Tonbo has stopped operating completely during the shutdown.
“I talk with my team every week and we try to evaluate what’s the best goal,” Mukoyama continues. “As far as feeling pressure to close, some of that is more internal. More and more people have come to me saying, ‘I want to cut back my hours, I am getting more afraid because I have elderly relatives living with me and people who are susceptible.’ We are providing masks and gloves for everybody and putting sanitizers by the door. So we are trying to balance our cash flow with the staff we have because we don’t know how long this will last. We took that into consideration.”
Closing Not an Option
For chef Teddy Diggs, who owns Coronato, a Roman-style pizza restaurant in Carrboro, closing completely, he says, was never an option.
“The reason we are in this industry is to be able to provide comfort and joy for people, no matter what is going on in the world,” Diggs says. Coronato is offering both curbside pickup and limited delivery and Diggs says he is pleased with how well that strategy has been working in terms of sales volume.
“We want to keep people happy and healthy, so when we were faced with this challenge, it was never an option for us to say we are not going to do this, because that is our whole mission of being a restaurant. We have an opportunity here to make an impact and do what we want to do that gives us joy.”
Diggs says he looks at other chefs’ decisions to close as a matter of personal opinion, to be taken in the context of where they’re operating—in the Triangle versus New York City, for instance—or how large their businesses are.
“There are mixed messages from the industry,” Diggs says. “There are industry leaders saying it is not responsible for us to open and serve food and there are industry leaders who say that it is our responsibility to be as safe as possible and be a sense of normalcy and joy right now, when people need it most. I tend to agree with the latter. I believe mental health connects with the physical health and whatever we can do to uplift spirits will, in turn, strengthen the immune system.”
New Business Models
Drew Smith, the executive chef at the 6 month-old kō•än in Cary, shares Diggs’ commitment to continuing to serve the community in a practical way during the shutdown. Smith says following a trip to the grocery store in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, he was shocked to find the shelves bare—sold out of mealtime staples such as chicken, pork, beef and bread. Around the same time, in a conversation with one of his restaurant’s distributors, Smith learned that the supplier was sitting on $36 million in inventory that would spoil within two weeks.
“I woke up like from a dream at 4 o’clock in the morning realizing there were all these people who have tons of food and all these people who can’t find food,” Smith says. “We needed to be the connection, the link that is broken.”
So kō•än launched an online grocery market stocked with products from local and national purveyors as well as specialty items made in the restaurant and household essentials such as toilet paper. People can order items online, as well as meals from a limited restaurant menu, and pick up their goods or have them delivered to their front doors.
The community response, especially to the online market, according to Smith, has been overwhelming.
“It just seemed like an obvious solution,” Smith says. “I messaged pretty much everyone I know at the top of the food world in Raleigh, like ‘Guys, this could really save jobs, it could save restaurants and food purveyors.’ But they seemed kind of to brush it off.”
Elsewhere in the country, it’s an idea that’s gaining traction. In some areas, people can go to a website to search pop-up markets for the items they need and because that food is coming from a different supply chain, it relieves some of the burden on grocery stores, provides another option for those who don’t want to go to the store and creates opportunities to diversify revenues from food sales.
Adjusting in an Outbreak
The country (and the world) have never experienced anything like the COVID-19 outbreak in modern times and most of us are left scrambling for the best information on how we should respond in our own everyday lives. While there is mixed messaging, pressure, and, occasionally, judgement, coming from our peers and contemporaries about how we should be behaving, most of us are just trying make the best decisions we can with the information we have—including businesses.
“Most people have said this is a very personal decision, a decision that everyone needs to make for themselves and ask that hard question [of whether to close],” says chef Scott Crawford, owner of downtown restaurants Crawford & Son and Jolie. Crawford and four other members of his team are operating curbside pickup services with a repurposed menu offering comforting dishes.
“I definitely have not felt pressure [to close] but I can see why people are making that decision,” Crawford says. “I have certainly considered that option.”
“I think most people are just staying in their own lanes right now,” says Kristen Baughman Taber, the founder of Tabletop Media Group, who also works extensively with local chefs and culinary businesses. “For restaurants staying open, health and safety is really important to them, for their staff and customers, and, of course, they are following CDC and local health departments’ guidelines and taking huge precautions.”
Kelly of JNK Public Relations adds that, for those who aren’t staying open, they are finding other ways to serve and care for their communities.
Christensen, for instance, has been advocating tirelessly for restaurant workers across the board. She launched the Triangle Restaurant Workers Relief Fund in partnership with the Frankie Lemmon Foundation and convened the Independent Restaurant Coalition to lobby politicians to provide substantial assistance to restaurant workers in the federal CARES bill and to create a $100 billion stabilization fund for restaurants—the vast majority of which are independently owned—that generate $1 trillion annually to the U.S. economy. Other restaurant owners that have decided to close their doors are preparing meals for their employees and helping them out with their rent, healthcare and other needs while they’re out of work.
“The way I see it is, everyone is trying to figure out, ‘What role do I play in this, how do I do it in a way that resonates with me and my business and how I can make a difference?’” Kelly says. “Everybody has had to find a way to use their energy towards contributing to this devastating situation.”
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