Hit hard by coronavirus, restaurants still provide community support


Source: Atlanta Journal Constitution

The restaurant industry has absorbed some of the largest, most immediate impacts from the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Atlanta, Brookhaven and other cities have banned in-person dining, drastically restricting the flow of customers and revenue to restaurants, one of the most popular small business types and a massive source of employment.

Yet even in the face of financial loss, restaurants have become a rallying point and support system for communities reeling with the prospect of long-term quarantine.

The first concern of many restaurant operators has been the welfare of their waitstaff and part-time employees, who often work on contract or receive most of their earnings in tips. In reference to his staff, chef and restaurateur Hugh Acheson tweeted, “On my watch, they will never go hungry, but they have rents and mortgages to answer to, student loans to pay, families to feed and lives to live.” His tweet included a link to his staff’s GoFundMe page

The owners of Nakato, the Japanese steakhouse, have already pledged to pay all 50 of their employees their full wages for the next month. In addition, ownership will match all donations to their employees’ GoFundMe page up to $50,000. 

Some restaurants are getting creative to drum up extra funds to pay their hourly employees in the near future. The Mexican restaurant El Ponce is using revenue from the sale of gift certificates and restaurant merchandise to pay its staff, while the West Midtown French restaurant AIX is selling fresh bread daily at 1 p.m. and giving the proceeds directly to staff. Recent James Beard Award semi-finalist Claudia Martinez, the pastry chef at Tiny Lou’s, sold and hand-delivered a selection of her acclaimed baked goods, including brown butter blondies with PBR caramel sauce, within 15 miles of the restaurant. She sold out quickly, with all proceeds from her personal bake sale going to support Tiny Lou’s staff. The restaurant has since temporarily closed, but Martinez has offered an in-home, three-course dessert tasting with wine pairings for up to six people to the first person who donates $1,000 to the staff’s GoFundMe.

A brown butter blondie with PBR caramel sauce made by Tiny Lou's pastry chef Claudia Martinez, who sold her baked goods to benefit her restaurant's staff fund in response to the coronavirus shutdown. 

Other restaurants are keeping their staff busy by focusing on external charitable works.

With three Atlanta locations, Red Pepper Taqueria’s operators planned to stay open as long as they could. After Brookhaven became the first local city to shut down in-person dining, chef Mimmo Alboumeh kept his kitchen staff in place. On Wednesday, March 18, the Brookhaven location of Red Pepper Taqueria served meals to 150 young people from Lost and Found Youth, then delivered 100 more meals to Action Ministries Women’s Community Kitchen on Thursday. “We’ve been blessed for so many years, now I feel like I owe a little bit,” said Alboumeh. “I have to do whatever I can to support the community.”

In a similar vein, Chuck’s Famous in Midtown’s Tech Square, is working to provide meals for Crossroads Community Ministry, which had to shut down its kitchen that provides meals for the homeless. Chuck’s Famous relies on regular business from Georgia Tech students, and manager Doug Cleary says that business is off 90% since the institute canceled in-person classes. He plans to keep his staff employed while providing around 200 meals a day to Crossroads, and has set up a GoFundMe campaign and a Square page to raise money to cover food costs - approximately $2.70 per meal.

“I’m pretty frugal, and we already have to plan for slow times with Georgia Tech like summer and spring break, so I think I’ll be fine,” said Doug Cleary, owner of Chuck’s Famous. “I’m just worried about my employees. So I’ll keep paying them, but figured I could donate meals as long as we could cover the food cost.” Cleary has already raised more than $2,000, enough to cover several days’ worth of meals at Crossroads, though the organization informed Cleary that it has seen higher demand during the coronavirus outbreak.

Many restaurants are selling food at much lower costs to those most affected by the pandemic, keeping kitchen staff at work while helping other hard-hit communities.

Local burger chain Grindhouse Killer Burgers is giving a significant 30% discount to all health care workers who dine at one of the restaurant’s locations. Hawkers Asian Street Fare is discounting orders by 50% for restaurant industry workers, as well as first responders, health care providers and military members.

By far the most popular method for helping restaurant workers is staff GoFundMe pages, a comprehensive list of which can be found at the website Relief Atlanta.

While restaurant owners are doing what they can, they are financially squeezed between a sudden drop in revenue and a poorly-timed payroll tax deadline.

Relief for small businesses has been included in talks about the federal economic stimulus response to the coronavirus in Washington, but many in the restaurant community feel that their industry in particular needs more attention and specific assurances. Governor Brian Kemp has not yet made any promises specific to the restaurant industry, and today’s payroll tax deadline remains in effect. For now, restaurants are doing what they can to support each other and asking their immediate communities for support in return.