A GoFundMe campaign in hopes of raising $100,000 launched this week on behalf of Atlanta restaurant institution the Colonnade. The venerable Southern restaurant on Cheshire Bridge Road has been serving up meat-and-three favorites, like tomato aspic and its famous fried chicken, paired with Randy Ritas and strong martinis for nearly 94 years.
But with emergency funding from the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) depleted, pivoting a portion of the business to takeout, and cutting operating expenses to the bone, owner Jodi Stallings could face the possibility of closing the Colonnade if the restaurant’s financial situation doesn’t improve soon.
Native Atlantan Suzi Sheffield, founder of Grant Park-based sugar and salt company Beautiful Briny Sea, says she can’t remember a time when the Colonnade wasn’t a part of her life. Prior to the pandemic, she and her family met up every other Sunday at the restaurant for aspic and fried chicken. Sheffield says her 82-year-old mother masked up and drove over with a few friends to grab fried chicken to-go on the first day the Colonnade reopened for business in July following a three-month shutdown.
After a recent conversation with Stallings and hearing the stress in her voice, Sheffield says she had to do something to help the Colonnade and its 36 remaining employees weather the winter. Sheffield launched “Save the Colonnade” Wednesday to assist the restaurant in covering rent, utilities, and other expenses over the next few months.
“The Colonnade is part of people’s personal histories in Atlanta, whether they’ve been going for 30 years or just started visiting the restaurant. It’s a welcoming place,” Sheffield says. “The perfect snapshot of Atlanta is a Friday night at the Colonnade. You have everyone and of all walks of life in there enjoying each other’s company and the food. It’s an experience. I just can’t imagine Atlanta without the Colonnade.”
Stallings, whose family has owned the restaurant since 1979 and last year purchased the restaurant from her father, Paul Jones, says business at the Colonnade is down by over 50 percent compared to last December. When the restaurant reopened in July, she cut capacity in the 165-seat dining room by half and created a patio in the parking lot. The restaurant serves an abbreviated dine-in and curbside takeout menu to keep costs low. With weather turning colder, Stallings now worries people who previously dined on the makeshift patio will be hesitant to dine indoors and simply opt to stay home.
A large percentage of the Colonnade’s customer base, many of whom are over 60 years old, are also considered the most at-risk group for developing serious complications from the virus. “We are a volume restaurant that’s now using about a third of our seating capacity because we’re trying to keep everyone safe. Without that volume right now, we simply can’t survive on takeout,” Stallings tells Eater.
Stallings made the tough decision to close the restaurant for Thanksgiving this year — a day the Colonnade typically serves close to 1,400 people. She says she couldn’t put her employees and her customers at risk and become the next “COVID hotspot.” For many restaurants like the Colonnade, the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day provide a much-needed financial cushion to buoy business through the slower winter months.
According to a recent COVID-19 impact survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association, 52 percent of Georgia restaurant owners expect sales to continue to decrease over the next quarter. Nearly 40 percent of Georgia restaurant owners don’t expect their business to survive another six months without federal aid.
Being a single restaurant location, Stallings says, means every dollar counts. The pandemic hasn’t decreased the price of the restaurant’s insurance. Rent and the power bill still need to be paid every month. The Colonnade’s water bill increased over the course of the year due to the extra cleaning necessary during the health crisis. There are also added costs related to the pandemic not typically factored into a restaurant’s overall budget. For the Colonnade, this includes installing Plexiglass dividers, printing batches of single-use menus each week, and purchasing PPE for staff.
In just 24 hours, the GoFundMe campaign raised over $27,000 on behalf of the Colonnade and its employees. This includes a personal donation from Manuel’s Tavern owner Brian Maloof. His 64-year-old Poncey-Highland neighborhood bar was spared earlier this month by a similar fundraiser kicked off by longtime regulars. However, these grassroots fundraisers based on the generosity of diners aren’t longterm solutions and won’t ultimately save the restaurant industry.
Delays to pass a new round of stimulus relief funding began with President Donald Trump in September. He asked his “representatives” to stop negotiations between parties, tweeting that talks would resume “immediately after I win” the election. Despite a proposed bill gaining bipartisan support in November, delays to pass a second federal relief package continue over Republican-back liability protection for businesses, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said was necessary for him to allow the bill’s passage, and state aid, a priority backed by congressional Democrats.
It appears a compromise may have been reached late Thursday night on these two sticking points. Negotiations in Congress are ongoing in hopes of passing the $900 billion Covid relief package by the end of the year. While it does infuse an additional $300 billion into the Payroll Protection Program, the proposed bill falls short in addressing the specific needs of the floundering restaurant industry and its workers.
“We have so many longterm employees, some who’ve been with us since the 70s. We want to retain everyone. They are part of the Colonnade,” says Stallings.
“I will do everything I can to keep people safe and get the Colonnade to 100 years. We’ve got a lot of dedicated employees and customers who want that, too. We’re just trying to stay afloat. We aren’t closing yet. We will go down swinging.”
Click here for more information on the “Save the Colonnade” campaign.
Update, December 18, 7:00 a.m.: This story has been updated to reflect a possible compromise in Congress on the proposed stimulus relief bill.