Coronavirus is ‘uncharted territory’ for Charlotte restaurants

Coronavirus is ‘uncharted territory’ for Charlotte restaurants
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Nearly all aspects of everyday life in Charlotte have halted because of the coronavirus — from our public schools to the typical 9-to-5 jobs. Now, restaurants and bars are temporarily closed to dine-in customers, too.

In an executive order on Tuesday, Governor Roy Cooper mandated that all bars and restaurants close except for takeout and delivery orders. While necessary to slow the virus’ spread, pausing operations will be financially catastrophic for restaurants and bars.

Some may never be able to open back up.

“You can’t make it a week as a restaurant with labor costs if you don’t have revenue coming in,” says Jamie Brown, who owns Haberdish and Crepe Cellar with her husband, Jeff Tonidandel.

Brown and Tonidandel, like many restaurant owners, had to make the gut-wrenching decision to let almost all employees go yesterday.

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Through tears, Brown tells me her 95-person staff is down to 10, just enough to run the kitchen and get to-go orders out to customers.

“I just keep thinking in my head this is a ship, and we literally got to get the ship through the storm and then meet up with everybody on the other side where it’s clear and calm,” she tells me.

“I’m sorry I’m emotional,” she says. “F**cking storm.”

Brown and Tonidandel have been through storms before — they opened their first restaurant, Crepe Cellar in the middle of the 2008 recession and made it, opening three more food establishments since. One more, Supperland, is on the way.

The recession, restauranteur Frank Scibelli says, was nothing compared to this. “That was like a bruise, and this is like an amputation.”

Scibelli, too, has had to furlough a majority of his staff. He’s kept most of the FS Food Group restaurants open for takeout, except Paco’s Tacos and Midwood Smokehouse in Birkdale and in Columbia, S.C.

Even with takeout orders, Scibelli says, “We are going to lose money. We’re just trying to keep people employed.”

For restaurants to make it, Brown says, it’s up to Charlotteans.

“This kind of thing does require the support of the community or we won’t make it through,” she says. “I’m not saying this is a pity party. This is every restaurant.”


What happens from here?

Unemployment benefits: Cooper’s executive order also included an expansion of unemployment benefits to help service industry employees affected by coronavirus. Those steps include:

  • No waiting period to apply for unemployment benefits.
  • A person does not need to be looking for another job to qualify for unemployment. This is important because once restaurants can reopen, many will want to rehire the same employees back.
  • If an employee retained a job, but had hours cut, he or she would qualify for unemployment benefits on case-by-case basis.
  • All unemployment benefits applications can now be done remotely.
  • Business won’t be responsible to help pay for former employees’ benefits in cases related to coronavirus, as is typical with other unemployment benefits.

Service industry: More than 130,000 people, about nine percent of Charlotte’s workforce, are employed in the accommodation and food service industry, which includes restaurants, bars, and hotels. Thousands of these workers will be affected by coronavirus.

Thin margins: Restaurants already operate on paper-thin margins with little room for a bad weekend, let alone a bad month or two. Even before Cooper’s order, many restaurants and bars had already lost up to 80 percent of their typical business. Many had already decided to close.

“It’s going to be hard on many restaurant owners who have been surviving month to month in a very competitive Charlotte market. I foresee seeing some of your favorite mom-and-pop restaurants not returning,” Stefan Huebner of Dot Dot Dot said in an email Sunday, prior to the Governor’s executive order.

Fixed costs: Even as restaurants lay off staff and come up with creative ways to generate revenue through drive-thru services and takeout menus, owners are faced with the same looming fixed costs — rent and loan payments, for example.

How to support: With dining rooms closed, we’re limited in how we can support. Here are a few things we can do:

  • Order takeout food. Hundreds of restaurants and breweries are getting creative with how they serve customers. Fonta Flora at Optimist Hall is sell curb-side packs of beer. Many others are doing the same. For restaurants, order through them directly versus Grubhub or Uber Eats.
  • Buy gift cards to use once your favorite restaurants reopen.
  • Once restaurants reopen, go back in droves. They’re relying on you.
  • “Be safe and look out for your fellow mankind. Make sure no one goes hungry at this crucial time in our lives,” says Jon Dressler of Rare Roots Hospitality (Dressler’s, Fin & Fino, Dogwood, The Porter’s House).

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On Sunday, before Cooper’s executive order, we asked restaurant, bar, and brewery owners how coronavirus is affecting their business. Here’s what they said, in their own words.

Note: Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity. Again, these responses were written before restaurants and bars were forced to temporarily close for dine-in customers.


James Yoder

Not Just Coffee

Business impact: “It’s been wild. We’ve seen a steady drop across most locations over the last week — but on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, the drop went to almost 60%, especially in Uptown. Our industry is challenging. We deal with really tight margins as it is and any disruptions in sales, especially to this extent, is incredibly impactful.”

Future: “The food and beverage industry is made up mostly by hourly employees and the immediate impact is going to hit hard as businesses need to bring expenses down to keep things afloat.”


Bonnie Warford

Carpe Diem, Earl’s Grocery

Business impact: “Our business took a nose dive on Thursday and reduced by 75% at Carpe Diem. All private rooms and large parties we had scheduled in the coming month have canceled. We normally do 125 guests on a Saturday night and last night we had 30 guests.”

How to support: “They can order takeout and purchase gift certificates. The service industry will be hit especially hard by this situation. We ask that you support your local businesses.”


Stefan Huebner

Dot Dot Dot

Business impact: “We’ve seen about 20% drop since Wednesday. Thankfully we have seen many regulars coming out and being supportive to our staff monetarily. Thank you.”

Future: “It’s going to be hard on many restaurant owners who have been surviving month to month in a very competitive Charlotte market. I foresee seeing some of your favorite mom-and-pop restaurants not returning.”

How to support: “Gift cards — this will give the restaurant owners cash flow and capital to stay open. Order to-go food through the restaurants instead of Uber Eats, Postmates, or Doordash. These services actually cost the restaurants money. Go pick up your own food and TIP BIG. Many service industry people will need your help. That extra $10 might not mean much to you but it will add up for them and keep them fed and housed. Just remember we can’t work from home.”


Frank Scibelli

Mama Ricottas, Midwood Smokehouse, Paco’s Tacos, Yafo

Business impact: “Mama Ricottas down roughly 15%. Others down more. Weekend particularly slower.”

Community: “We would love to get support however possible from the community. Order to-go. Everyone will be going through a difficult next few weeks. We’re a financial city. It’s going to have a big impact on us. … It’s unconceivable. I was talking about it with my kids last night; they’ll be telling their kids 50 years from now they went through this.”


Bruce Moffett

Barrington’s, Stagioni, Good Food on Montford

Business impact: “The past week was pretty busy. We didn’t see much of a slow down. March is traditionally one of our slowest months of the year so it will be difficult to assess what is virus and what is the month of March. I have a feeling things are going to get a whole lot worse.”

Uncertain times: “I’m not sure how the city can help. I know some chefs are asking people to buy gift cards and get takeout but that feels like it will be just a drop in the bucket. I guess when all this is over people need to flood independent restaurants and help us get back on our feet. We will probably lose some great places and some talented people will be forced to leave the city. Lifetimes of sacrifice and risk will be in jeopardy.”

Community: “Some people take restaurants for granted. We are often treated like community property and bullied into giving away or food in order not to be destroyed on social media. The truth is we are businesses working on small margins trying to support our families just like everyone else. All my team will be deeply affected by a slowdown and their ability to support themselves will be strained.”


Justin Brigham

Sycamore Brewing

Business impact: “This time of year is historically our most profitable in the taproom. By closing the taproom we are leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table. After SARS of 2000, every insurance policy put an exclusion to business interruption due to bacterial/viral communicable diseases. This is a true loss that we are willing to take for what we believe is the only responsible thing to do.”

Community: “This is about making sacrifices for the greater good of our community. Those on the frontlines — firemen, nurses, physicians, police, etc. — do not have a choice about doing their jobs. The private sector has an obligation to minimize the risk to those public servants just as it has an obligation to protect employees and customers. As it relates to our business, we believe the way the beer community ignores or confronts the COVID-19 risk in an ineffective way, the downstream effects, although somewhat hidden, are most certainly worsened.”


Steve Palmer

Sukoshi, O-Ku, Oak Steakhouse, Indaco

Business impact: “With Sukoshi being a business district concept heavily reliant on lunch, our sales are down 80%. O-ku Charlotte went from a record breaking night last Saturday to 25% down this week. Oak 25% down. Indaco 25% down.”

Future: “All of us, we operate at such low margins already, and most of my peers are trying to figure out how to survive. We will be rolling out to-go programs. Starting tomorrow we’ll be offering 10% off of all to-go orders (sushi happy hour not included) so please keep our staff employed.”


Sara Zanitsch

Fig Tree

Business impact: “On Saturday we had 91 cancellations on Open Table but ended up with a close to normal Saturday night. We were feeling very optimistic but this coming week looks pretty dismal. We have lost almost all of our business dinners scheduled for the next three weeks.”

Future: “The community will support the food and beverage industry when they are ready. For some people that may be tonight and for others it could be a month from now. Everyone is different and will determine their own tolerance for being in public settings. We will be open until we are told we have close. We know that we have a special place in the hearts of many Charlotteans who have celebrated with us through the years.”


Jeff Tonidandel

Haberdish, Crepe Cellar, Reigning Doughnuts

Business impact: “We have been very fortunate that our restaurant group is comprised of small and medium sized places in an amazingly supportive neighborhood. We have managed to only drop off by 15% this week versus last year. This is typically our busiest time of the year and the spring accounts for the majority of profits for the year so any losses right now do have larger ramifications. It will impact how we can reinvest in our places in the course of the next couple of years.”

Responsibility: “Uncertainty is our biggest challenge right now… We have 95 people on our block in NoDa, and we know they are counting on us to have a place to work. Jamie (co-owner and wife) and I see it as our responsibility to create business opportunities so that we can all stay afloat. Our team started in the recession, and we are a resilient crew. ”


Jim Noble

Rooster’s, Noble Smoke, King’s Kitchen

Business impact: “Sales were pretty normal until the last couple of days. We did notice a slow down over the weekend, however.”

Giving back: “We’re going to partner with our sister restaurant The King’s Kitchen and Noble Food and Pursuits’ partner, The Charlotte Mecklenburg Dream Center, to feed our city’s homeless, children, and those in need of food during any shortfalls due to economic downturns. Our restaurants can provide food and labor to meet these needs while our ministries will appeal to Charlotte area and beyond for financial support to cover these needs. These donations can be made online through either ministry: The King’s Kitchen or the Charlotte Mecklenburg Dream Center.”


Andrew Wilen

Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen

Business impact: “We’ve seen nearly every scheduled event and corporate catering opportunity ask to rebook over the next 10 weeks. Events of $500 to $5,000. We are grateful for our partners. Companies and individuals small and large have been making a great effort to reschedule with us far enough in advance.”

How to support: “We already have our Family Table Meal dinner service in place. We’ve accelerated our in-home delivery plan that is now available starting Monday, March 16th for everywhere in Charlotte. Chef Alyssa is now available for in-your-home private plated dinners for those who would like to book. And of course any gift cards for future cooking class help us greatly right now.”


William Dissen

Haymaker

Business impact: “At Haymaker Restaurant, we are a neighborhood restaurant and bar, and depend directly upon our neighbors who live and work in and around Uptown. Dinner bookings and large group events have seen the biggest decline with most corporate events cancelled or rescheduled over the next few weeks. This has a direct effect of nearly $100,000 in projected event revenue over the next 6 weeks, not to mention the deposits we will have to refund. Dinner traffic was down more than 65% over the weekend. Our brunch has maintained a strong crowd, but was down about 45% this weekend. This severe decline in revenue is not sustainable for a small business.”

Staff: “What’s more important to convey is that this revenue impacts the following: consistent employment and staff needs, which affects their livelihood; our ability to support local farmers and purveyors; the future of your favorite restaurants and our exciting and growing food culture in Charlotte.”

Local: “It is now more important than ever to support your local restaurants, small businesses, and entrepreneurs. As an industry in Charlotte, we employ thousands of amazing and hardworking people, and this will have a direct impact on more than just the restaurants themselves. We have made a pledge to you and our guests to create a safe environment… We are asking you, Charlotte, to support your local restaurants!”


Grant Aarons

Inizio Pizza

Business impact: “Some stores were flat or even and others were down about 10%. Our expectations are that this trend will continue and likely worsen until our community and country feel like the worst is behind us. If we look to cities like Seattle, many prominent restaurants saw declines of more than 75% and chose to close for months.”

Pizza: “Cooked foods are unlikely to be contaminated as temperatures above 150 degrees kill most viruses. Pizza makes an excellent safe meal because it can be picked up or delivered, and reheated in the oven if there is any question about it possibly being contaminated after the cooking process. When receiving takeout food into your home, dispose of the containers, clean and sanitize the space you received the food, and reheat to above 150 degrees.”


Joe Huang

Bang Bang Burgers

Business impact: “We were seeing normal sales this week at our 7th street location until Friday, which was slower than normal. Our sales at the Tremont location was normal all week including Friday, but Saturday was a little slower than usual, maybe 10% slower than we would have expected on a typical Saturday.”

Difficult times: “At first, I thought my wife was overreacting to the whole situation, but I’ve started to realize, although my life may not be threatened if I were to get sick, there are others that might die if I were to contract and spread the virus. My choices and decisions today, as a person that is responsible for other people’s lives, should not be for myself, but for the greater good. That’s how I plan to approach things in this difficult time.”


Rob Rondelez

Rhino Market

Business impact: “Between all stores, we are down 20%. And will probably be down more as more closings happen. We’ll keep going like business as usual. Know that we want and have a safe environment to relax and enjoy or come in for a quick pick-up of something.”

How to support: “We are here to support our communities and provide a service. We need your support as well through these times. We do not plan on closing unless someone tells us to.”


Dalton Espaillat

Sabor Latin Street Grill, Three Amigos Mexican Grill & Cantina

Business impact: “The first day we saw impact was Friday. Saturday we saw a 25% decline in sales.”

How to support: “Charlotteans can support their favorite restaurants by ordering online for to-go and delivery. We just launched — this week — online ordering for Three Amigos Mexican Grill & Cantina. If/when you do order, please be patient. At Sabor and Three Amigos, you can order to-go and call the restaurant, and we can bring it to your car.”

Community: “We will be operating with reduced staff, especially now that schools are closed. We have no intentions of laying off staff or closing restaurants unless we are required. We are encouraging staff to use their PTO if their hours are reduced due to slow sales. I am extremely concerned for the financial well-being of our staff during this uncertain time. We hope people continue eating in restaurants in our city since we operate on thin margins. I’m concerned that this decrease in sales will put a lot of families out of business.”


A.J. Klenk

The Goodyear House

Business impact: “Over the last few days, The Goodyear House has expedited a number of previously scheduled business plans: GYH curbside pick-up, GYH takeout, and the full-service GYH delivery program will all launch in the coming week, two months earlier than initially planned.”

Community: “We are all in this together. GYH has great confidence in Charlotte, we’re both a tough and caring group. We won’t let this hurdle define us — instead let’s use this as an opportunity to all buckle down, pitch in, lend a hand, and make a difference. Spend some extra time with your family, and we will all come out stronger in the end.”


Todd Huber

Undercurrent Coffee

Business impact: “Sales at our Optimist Hall location are down 57% as of Sunday afternoon, and were down approximately 30% each of the three days before that. Sales at our Plaza Midwood location have been down 10% to 15%, and we expect these numbers to continue to decline. We have already begun to scale back ordering, pare down shifts, and adjust hours. Given the low-margin nature of our business, this is very difficult for us to sustain, and it will be very hard on our staff as hours and tips are impacted.”

Vulnerability: “Most local small businesses have very little cushion to withstand a significant decline in revenue, or perhaps even a compete halt of sales. Especially when fixed costs will have to be paid regardless of sales. Just as concerning is the vulnerability of our employees, most of who live paycheck to paycheck. They are already being impacted.”


Suzie Ford

NoDa Brewing

Business impact: “We’ve had fair attendance at the tap room over the past few days but definitely less than what we normally would have expected for this time of year and weather. As for sales to retail establishments, we’ve had a few accounts that are going to wait and see how the week progresses before placing an order.”

How to support: “Continue to support by purchasing four packs to-go at grocery stores and other locations that have to-go options. If you choose to eat and drink out, please order local (as always) and make sure to tip your server or bartender to the greatest extent possible. They are being hit pretty hard as well. Gift cards are always a great option to support the food and beverage community.”


Jon Dressler

Dressler’s, Fin & Fino, Dogwood, The Porter’s House

Business impact: “Business has slowed throughout the week, culminating in about a 40% drop Saturday night.

How to support: “We are offering discounted curbside pickup as well as discounted gift cards. Go out if you feel comfortable and support your favorites. Be safe and look out for your fellow mankind. Make sure no one goes hungry at this crucial time in our lives.”


Jamie Barnes

What The Fries

Business impact: “We have created a program to reduce contact and long wait times in close proximity to others by offering a Grab-&-Go meal for $11 that includes a turkey and pimento cheese sandwich or turkey sandwich, house-made mustard green slaw, house-made chips, and a drink.”


Bruce Willette

Capishe

Business impact: “We had a very good Thursday, especially at Morehead. Since then, at both locations, it has dropped off 30-40%. Luckily our pizza and pasta travel well so our pick-up and delivery have driven the business. What’s difficult is talking about scaling back hours for our team. It’s getting scary and we all hope and pray this is gone in a few weeks.”

How to support: “Our team depends on sales, not only for the bottom line but for tips. We understand the hesitancy to dine in, but we have great to-go items. Please remember to tip as this income helps support a great group of people. Tips make up for 25-30% of their income.”


Joe Lariscy

Queen Park Social, El Thrifty

Business impact: “Our weekend sales around St. Patty’s day were down about 40% compared to each of the last couple of years. Corporate and event sales are a meaningful piece of our business. Going back a few weeks, we have already lost a number of group events due specifically to coronavirus-related cancellations.”


Rob Duckworth

Duckworth’s, Link & Pin, The Cellar

Business impact: “Our sales are down quite significantly when compared year over year. The lack of sports to watch, especially during this month of normally heavy programming, has made that even more impactful.”

Washing hands: “Restaurants are some of the most sanitized and cleanest places in the community. They’re programmed to practice the highest sanitation standards, by state and federal mandate. Any restaurant employee will tell you that, while everyone else has recently been learning how to properly wash their hands, they have been trained on it and have been doing it as normal practice for years.”


Rich Moyer

Hoppin’, Pinhouse, Two Scoops Creamery

Business impact: “All corporate events have been canceled or postponed. We hope all of them are rebooked as they are a huge part of our financial stability. We ask that all canceled corporate events rebook with us and new corporate events book for the coming months. This loss in revenue is crucial for us to regain.”


Andy Henson

Angry Ale’s

Business impact: “During this time of uncertainty facing Charlotte and the country, the well-being of our staff, customers and the general public has taken precedent over sales at this point. With that being said, the cancellation of March Madness is hurting everyone right now. Between St. Patrick’s Day and the NCAA Tournament, historically March is our busiest month of the year. Our employees count on these few weeks.”

Support local: “Our team of approximately 50 employees are doing to everything they can to make a living during these trying times. During this time (and after this is over), please support local businesses. It may be convenient to support national chains but local, small businesses employ your friends and families and the money stays in the Charlotte community. Now, more than ever, we have to support each other.”


Agenda related coronavirus coverage: current status of coronavirus in Charlotte, here’s what employers are doing, latest on school closings, and grocery stores’ status.

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