As the coronavirus pandemic continues, a number of independent restaurant operators that had pivoted to takeout and delivery operations are making a difficult decision:
To close completely, with hopes of reopening once the crisis passes.
For some, it’s purely a business decision, the result of an inability to bring in enough revenue solely via off-premise means. For others, the tough choice to shutter is based on health and safety concerns for employees.
What is unknown, however, is how long these closures will be in effect and whether these independent operators will be able to reopen.
The pressure on independent operators amid this pandemic is enormous, as many do not have cash reserves or the ability to assume large amounts of additional debt. Independent restaurants around the country have already shuttered permanently in the wake of COVID-19.
The James Beard Foundation announced $15,000 emergency grants for small restaurants Monday afternoon. The application process was suspended within hours of opening after the JBF Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund was flooded with “an overwhelming response.”
William Mills, general manager of The Joint at 1710 Main, a jazz bar and restaurant in Columbia, S.C., said the restaurant had just started running delivery and takeout a few weeks before the virus became an issue. Mills talked with the restaurant’s owner about their options after business slowed to almost nothing in recent days.
“I wanted to keep working because this is my only source of income,” Mills said. “I was basically begging him to keep the restaurant open. The last two days we were open, we didn’t have a single person come in or call. He said, ‘I’d rather just shut it down now, let’s save up our money.’”
Mills, who has worked in restaurants for nearly two decades, has filed for unemployment.
“Already a lot of restaurants have closed their doors for good, whether they know it or not,” he said.
The Choc-O-Pain French Bakery & Cafe, with several locations in New Jersey, closed Monday after offering delivery and takeout for two weeks.
“At first, people were not taking it very seriously,” owner Clemence Danko said of calls for people to stay home to avoid spreading the coronavirus. “We still had some foot traffic, which is really the base of our business. But then as things become more serious and there were more restrictions imposed … we decided last week to implement no walk-ins in our stores. That was tough. That’s what finished the whole thing.”
Danko closed her bakery to walk-in business after fearing for the health and safety of her employees.
She sold off all of the store’s frozen croissants, for customers to bake at home, in the days before closing her 8-year-old business.
She plans to reopen, but admits the future is uncertain.
“It’s all about cash flow,” she said. “How long can we survive without compromising everything?”
In Chicago, Honey Butter Fried Chicken opted to temporarily close Monday after running curbside pickup and delivery for the past couple of weeks.
“It is extremely difficult to articulate that after much consideration, conversations and reflection with our team—we have decided to temporarily close HBFC,” the owners wrote on social media. “While we have taken great steps to ensure safety during curbside pickup and delivery services, we feel that the most responsible decision is to stay home as much as possible to keep our family, staff team and guests safe from COVID-19.”
Kim Bruton, who has owned the 18-table Runaway Train Cafe in Brownwood, Texas, for 15 years, said the decision whether to close entirely or continue with takeout and delivery is so stressful, she can’t sleep.
“I’m just sick about it,” she said Monday. “Would I rather live with financial ruin or the fact that someone got sick in my area as a result?”
Her restaurant is one of the very few that serves her community of 20,000 people, she said. She’s been sending out 80 to-go orders a day during the crisis, along with a free item, such as a roll of toilet paper, some oatmeal or a pound of beans. Each order also comes with a scripture passage, she said.
“It’s all about relationships,” Bruton said. “We’re sharing real life and serving good food. We are in community with the people who come in here. I feel very responsible for my people who work alongside me and also the community, and I want to do right by both. And I just am struggling with where the greater good is in all of it.”
As of Tuesday morning, Bruton had decided to keep Runaway Train Cafe open and serving off-premise meals.
“The bottom line is we are considered an essential business,” she said. “We’re right behind healthcare and first responders. And I believe with every bit of me we have an obligation to keep our doors open as long as possible.”