It has served as a decades-long gathering spot for regulars, local journalists, politicians, and even a few former presidents to rub elbows, drink beer, and watch political debates and election returns, but the ongoing health crisis threatens to close the 64-year-old Manuel’s Tavern in Poncey-Highland for good. In a Herculean effort to stave off the closure, longtime regulars kicked off a fundraiser to save Manuel’s, raising over $78,000 in less than 24 hours.
With business down an average 62 percent and the bar losing around $25,000 per month since April, owner Brian Maloof told Saporta Report Wednesday the “likelihood of closing Manuel’s is significant” and possibly “permanent.” Add limited seating capacity, a dwindling crew of employees, cold weather making outdoor dining less feasible, and $45,000 in insurance and liquor licensing fees coming due, and the situation becomes a powder keg.
“We’ve gone from 340 chairs inside to 40 chairs outside,” Maloof said in the Saporta Report interview. “We’ve got about 70 percent of our tables blocked off. We normally have 22 bar stools, and we reduced that down to eight.”
A typical December sees Manuel’s generating $310,000 in sales due to the holidays. Maloof expects that figure to total just $75,000 this year. Despite the bar’s precarious financial state, Maloof raised the hourly rate for his wait staff to compensate for the dramatic drop in tips and food and drinks sales.
After learning the bar might close, longtime patron Angelo Fuster, along with other regulars, launched a “Save Manuel’s Tavern” campaign via GoFundMe Wednesday to raise $75,000 — the estimated amount needed to pay for the 2021 liquor license and cover insurance and payroll for the next two months. In less than 24 hours, the campaign exceeded the $75,000 goal set by Fuster, with more donations coming in by the hour. Fuster plans to leave the GoFundMe page active to continue supporting the bar for as long as possible.
Maloof shared the link to the GoFundMe campaign with followers in a frank Facebook post discussing the bar’s financial situation early Thursday morning.
“We are in financial trouble. For 8 months Manuel’s has taken every course of action known and attempted everything we have been advised to do to save this business,” he writes. “The operational plan put in place in March was to make Manuel’s super COVID safe, cut all costs, expand the to-go business, be open only during our most profitable hours, reduce labor costs, retain employees, and get to the end of the pandemic.”
According to Maloof, property owner Selig Enterprises did adjust the rent on Manuel’s. Maloof also received funding from the Payroll Protection Program (PPP). He used the loan to keep the bar afloat through the summer and fall. That money is now gone.
But in trying to keep Manuel’s staff and patrons safe from the virus, Maloof also risks the possibility of losing his business; a business his late father founded in 1956, and ran until his death in 2004. It’s an unimaginable choice restaurant and bar owners, like Maloof, should never have been forced to make in the first place.
Like so many small business owners reeling from the financial crisis caused by the pandemic, Maloof counted on another round of stimulus money from Congress. “I was certain additional funding would be available in time. I was wrong,” he says in the Facebook post.
Without this federal relief or city officials postponing or even staggering liquor license renewals for Atlanta’s bars and restaurants, Maloof fears Manuel’s will close by the end of the year.
Bipartisan support for a new stimulus bill that would pump more than $900 billion into the economy finally came this week. However, the majority of the money will be directed to industries other than hospitality. And while it does infuse an additional $300 billion into the PPP and provides rental assistance for families facing eviction, the proposed bill falls short in addressing the needs of the floundering restaurant industry and its workers.
When negotiations on the relief bill between parties fell apart in October, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made it clear he would refuse to pass any bill that didn’t include protections from liability for employers if staff became sick while working during the pandemic. It’s a stance that leaves the restaurant industry’s workforce vulnerable. Negotiations continue to take place in hopes of reaching a compromise to pass a bill by the end of the year.
Now regular citizens, some struggling themselves financially, are chipping in $10, $25, or $50 out of their own pockets to help save a small business like Manuel’s from closing, essentially doing the job Congress and the Trump administration should have done months ago. But these grassroots fundraising campaigns and cobbling together payroll and rent based on the generosity of loyal diners aren’t longterm solutions and won’t save the restaurant industry. These efforts are merely temporary Band-Aides until a federal relief bill passes Congress.
“We were counting on additional small business stimulus coming,” Maloof says in the Facebook post. “The need for stimulus has been obvious to everyone in Congress, a new stimulus package has been on the lips of everyone in Congress but as they say ‘words are cheap’”.
Eater reached out to Maloof Thursday morning for comment.
Check out the “Save Manuel’s” GoFundMe page.
Update, Dec. 3, 12:45 p.m.: This story has been updated with new information regarding the GoFundMe campaigning hitting its $75,000 goal.