The spread of the novel coronavirus in the U.S. slammed doors shut on restaurants and bars from coast to coast. Executive orders issued in at least 41 states, Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., and some metropolitan areas banned on-site dining services in local establishments. Thousands of owners are fighting to survive the impact of the pandemic on their businesses. That includes Black restaurateurs such as Greg and Subrina Collier of Charlotte, North Carolina.
“We’re not in this alone — it’s scary and uncertain for everyone right now, not just small business owners,” says Greg Collier, a 2020 James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef: Southeast. “But we’re doing what we can to make sure we’re straight, to make sure our employees are taken care of, and we’ll go from there.”
Chef Collier shared those sentiments on a message he and his partner and wife, Subrina, posted on the homepage of Leah & Louise, their newest venture. The COVID-19 crisis forced them to postpone the March 20 grand opening of the restaurant. “Our employees have had to take a cut in hours and income because the demand is not as high, as people don’t know when their next day of work is, so we have to adjust to that as well,” Subrina says.
Leah & Louise in Charlotte
Eater, a leading source of information for diners, reports that daily restaurant connections for Yelp had dropped 54 percent overall by March 18. The Colliers are among the restaurant owners who have now shifted their operations to takeout and delivery only. “We have utilized curbside service for Leah & Louise to give people some hours and make income,” Subrina says.
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Leah & Louise serves classic southern dishes inspired by Mississippi River Valley foodways. The Memphis-style juke joint in Charlotte is including catfish, cabbage, cookies and other menu choices in the takeout service. The Colliers also own the Uptown Yolk, a popular breakfast, brunch and lunch café at the 7th Street Public Market. “We are trying to figure out logistics for Uptown Yolk as we don’t have the same traffic pattern [as we do] at Camp North End for Leah & Louise,” Subrina says. “But we are trying to figure something out for a few days over there also.”
JuneBaby and Salare in Seattle
On the West Coast, Seattle became one of the first cities impacted by the COVID-19 restrictions on people gathering in restaurants and bars. The first Black chef to win two James Beard Awards saw an immediate decline in revenues at his three restaurants in the Ravenna neighborhood. “We’re technically out of business. We’re re-establishing a direction to go in to make sure we can at least stay afloat and to try to employ and re-employ some of our staff for the time being,” says Edouardo Jordan.
The acclaimed chef’s first restaurant, Salare, won him the James Beard Best Chef: Northwest medal in 2018. “Salare Restaurant is turning into a community kitchen where we’ll hand out meals to those in the industry and those in need. We’re not turning away anyone,” Jordan says.
As the first Black-owned dining destination to win a James Beard Best New Restaurant Award, JuneBaby attracted national praise for Jordan. He is using his second restaurant to offer takeout options. An announcement on the restaurant’s website tells patrons they can enjoy favorites from the menu in their homes. Jordan closed Lucinda Grain Bar, his third venture, and moved the staff to JuneBaby to help out with the takeout service. “Hopefully, I keep people employed and hopefully pay our bills.”
Lucille’s in Houston
Chef Jordan and other restaurateurs around the country are striving to help their employees and communities while shouldering the economic burdens created by the coronavirus pandemic. In Houston, Lucille’s is offering curbside and delivery service to keep the staff employed. “Initially, sales were down to 12% of what they used to be,” says Chris Williams, Lucille’s owner and executive chef. “The silver lining is that we have come together to create a completely new business model, born out of the need to provide an avenue for our staff to sustain themselves and their families.”
The restaurant Williams and his brother opened in August 2012 pays tribute to culinary traditions started by their great-grandmother, Lucille B. Smith. The Southern cuisine with international influences is currently being offered below the regular menu prices. Chef Williams explains that it is about survival at this point. “We have discounted all of our pricing by 20%, in order to give our guest the value and to be transparent in our mission — which is that we are not here for profit. We are here for sustainability, and more importantly, we are here for sustainability for our staff, not ourselves.”
Kith and Kin in D.C.
Staying open was not an option for the executive chef of Kith and Kin in Washington, D.C. The restaurant is located inside the InterContinental’s Wharf Hotel and not suitable for carryout operations. “It has impacted us greatly. We have about 60 plus employees that are now uncertain as to when they would be coming back to work. These are rough times for the restaurant industry,” says Kwame Onwuachi, a James Beard Rising Star Chef.
Washingtonian magazine lists Kith and Kin as one of the 100 Very Best Restaurants in the D.C area. Onwuachi’s food experiences inspire the cuisine in West Africa, the Caribbean, New Orleans and New York. The closing of the restaurant helps protect his culinary team from exposure to COVID-19, but it has also left the employees with no return date on the calendar. The chef and his staff did what they could before shutting down. “We sold dinner packages at cost. It contained all of the Kith/Kin hits for a family of four for 25 dollars. We also made provision packages of the produce and dairy so that the staff could take home.”
Onwuachi does have other interests to keep him busy. His bestselling book, “Notes from a Young Black Chef,” is scheduled to be made into a movie when the film industry gets rolling again. The award-winning chef told the Washington City Paper he is currently offering free virtual cooking classes with healthy recipes on Instagram Live. The series is called “Eat Clean While Quarantined.”
Chicken + Beer in Atlanta
Independent restaurants located in city and suburban neighborhoods are not the only ones seeing layoffs as a result of COVID-19. Chef Todd Richards is operating with a skeleton staff at the two restaurants Jackmont Hospitality manages at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. “With our restaurants being in the airport, it affects us a little different than most. We have to take even more precautions with travelers from foreign places coming in,” says Richards.
By March 17, businesses in the food and drink sector had seen a 40 percent drop in the total number of hours worked by employees, according to the Homebase research shared with Eater. At the Chicken + Beer and One Flew South restaurants Richards oversees, employees were given the option to stay home without any definite return date. “I would say not in the foreseeable future. We are working on a 30-day plan and we adjust that every single day,” says Richards, the culinary director of Jackmont Hospitality.
Bigger Impact on Black-Owned
The longer restaurants and bars are closed to patrons dining in, the greater the risk of some establishments never reopening. Not surprisingly, the restaurateurs interviewed for this article expect Black-owned businesses to have a more difficult time recovering from the financial hit.
Major news and food publications are sounding the alarm about the need for cash-strapped restaurants to receive immediate assistance. Leah & Louise’s co-owner sees the possibility that the number of Black-owned restaurants will shrink. “Most small businesses, specifically Black-owned restaurants, weren’t given loans and reserves of cash to have capital. So many of us are moving day by day or week by week,” says Greg.
Owners of other independent black restaurants share concerns about the shortage of capital and thin operating margins making survival and recovery more challenging. “Of course it will because we don’t have access to any buffer capital,” says Lucille’s Williams. “People are just starting to see the viability of the black model. Most of us are self-sustained with no cushions, no investors and no lending to support us. The appreciation of black viability is still new.”
JuneBaby’s owner considers knowledge as another crucial factor in a restaurant’s ability to weather the financial storm created by the coronavirus shutdowns. “There are a lot of small mom and pop restaurants, no matter what your race is, that are uninformed. They don’t know what the next step is,” Jordan says. “Those who are not able to grab resources or get informed about the resources are going to be the ones most impacted by this.”
Government and Patrons Can Help
The National Restaurant Association estimates the industry as a whole will suffer a $225 billion loss in 2020. There are already warnings that passage of the $2 trillion coronavirus federal relief bill in late March will not do enough to save restaurateurs on the brink of closing down for good. “In just a matter of days, millions of restaurant industry workers in America lost their jobs. How will these workers, who did nothing wrong themselves, pay rent, care for children, and feed themselves and their families?” asks Onwuachi, Kit and Kin’s executive chef. “And what will happen to the independent businesses — the diners, bars, cafes and restaurants — that make our towns and cities the places we love?”
Seattle’s Edouardo Jordan also warns that a failure to provide enough assistance in time could change the restaurant landscape in America. “Every city is going to lose its identity because we’re going to be left with, sadly, franchise restaurants that do have the working capital to last the next six or seven months without any effect.”
Before the pandemic struck, industry experts expected restaurants to generate as much as $899 million in sales in 2020. Revenue losses could prevent many independent restaurateurs from reopening even with the $350 billion for small business loans included in the stimulus package. The Washington Post reports those loans used for payroll, mortgages, rents or other COVID-19-related expenses will not have to be repaid. However, restaurant owners forced to lay off or fire their employees are uncertain whether they will qualify for the loans.
Lucille’s executive chef echoes what other industry insiders are saying about restaurants being the economic backbone of many cities and towns. “The hospitality business was the first sector to be shut down. We are also the ones that support the economy all the way through. The restaurant business supports all small businesses — from farmers to plumbers to carpenters to electricians; and everybody in between,” Williams says.
Black owners are just as concerned about adequate unemployment benefits being provided for out-of-work restaurant employees. The National Restaurant Association estimates 5 to 7 million of those workers could lose their jobs within the next three months. Patrons and other supporters can do their part to help local establishments stay in business. “The biggest thing is to continue putting resources into the restaurants. That means supporting their merchandise online, buying gift cards or writing a beautiful email to the restaurants,” says Jordan. “Also, take the time to write to representatives and legislators who are making the policies.”
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Greg Collier recommends people show their support for Black-owned restaurants through social media posts, ordering curbside or delivery service and purchasing merchandise. “Also, patronizing those businesses when we get back to normal.”
The author of the acclaimed cookbook, “SOUL: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes,” suggests another way to support struggling restaurants. “If you have a party or something you are planning six months and out, go ahead and book it and pay for the catering in advance,” Richards says.
The Atlanta restaurateur also recommends that people consider the resources restaurant workers need by not stockpiling such necessities as disposable gloves. Williams in Houston offers what might be the most important recommendation: skipping the fast-food drive-through and ordering from local Black restaurants as much as possible. “If you really think about the breadth of Black restaurant capabilities, we can do whatever you want. So instead of going to the obvious choice, make the effort to seek our restaurants from your own people that represent multiple culinary genres. They are producing a product that’s honest that is born out of passion and necessity.”
Follow these Black restaurateurs on their websites and social media for updates on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.