The coronavirus pandemic took hold in Georgia over nine months ago, and the toll on the restaurant industry continues to be devastating. Since March, dozens of Atlanta restaurants have closed permanently, and several more — including stalwarts like the Colonnade and Manuel’s Tavern — kicked off fundraisers to ensure survival through the winter dining months. According to a recent state-by-state survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association, nearly 40 percent of Georgia restaurant owners don’t expect their business to survive another six months without federal aid.
Despite the uncertainties and turmoil caused by the ongoing health crisis, people across Atlanta’s dining scene have proven creative and industrious in the face of adversity this year. As 2020 comes to a close, Eater checked in with several Atlanta chefs and bartenders to gain insight into the positive takeaways from the year and the future of Atlanta’s restaurant industry. Here’s what they had to say.
The following responses were cut, pasted, and lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Pastry chef and owner, The Little Tart Bakeshop and Big Softie; co-founder, Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice
As the sole owner of Little Tart and Big Softie, I have often felt in the past that I have to figure out everything myself, and that all of the bakery’s problems are mine alone to solve. This year blew that faulty notion wide open for me, as my team and I — especially my all female management team — worked together to react to every curveball 2020 threw at us. I have always been incredibly grateful for my team, but this year taught me the true strength in the chorus of voices around me. We don’t always agree, but I’ll go forward from this year knowing that my bakery is full of resilient, problem-solving, forward-thinking humans who won’t go down without a fight.
I hope and believe that the focus on the quality of the employment in our industry will not fade after the upheaval of this year. Folks in this business deserve to earn a truly living wage, to have health insurance, retirement, sustainable schedules, and paid time off. This industry attracts creative, hard-working people. I’ve worked for years to make Little Tart a place where incredible people can stay and grow. I don’t have all the answers here. I grapple a lot with how to keep my food affordable, while paying my team what they deserve. These are not problems I can solve on my own: Universal healthcare would help, as would an end to exorbitant rents, both commercial and residential. In any case, my team deserves to be able to make a living and a life out of working in this industry, and perhaps more folks in the restaurant industry and beyond are waking up to that fact after this year.
Chef Todd Richards
Co-owner, Lake & Oak Barbecue and Soul: Food & Culture
Soul food as a cuisine has really come into its own this year, not only in Atlanta, but beyond state lines. The heightened desire for comfort food has opened the door for more and more people to bring soul food recipes into their own kitchens. For me personally, it has been quite the year. After having COVID-19 for nine weeks, and still suffering some post-symptoms, I opened Lake & Oak Neighborhood BBQ with my business partner, chef Josh Lee. Together we created jobs within our communities and a new place for our neighbors to engage each other in a socially distant way. We also worked with the YMCA of Metro Atlanta to feed 150 families per week for several weeks.
My hope is that we all continue to be flexible diners, and that the to-go model for fine dining restaurants will stick around. It’s such a great way to dine at home, while still supporting your favorite chefs and their hard working teams. I hope to see more restaurant groups take advantage of real estate pricing during this pandemic. There are many second generation restaurants available that the infrastructure is in place; that can easily cost $80-$100K that doesn’t have to be paid for. It’s important that we take advantage of existing infrastructure in order to lower the capital investment; lowering the amount of time that it takes to actual restaurant and real estate ownership.
Keyatta Mincey Parker
Bartender; founder, A Sip of Paradise Garden
The best thing about this year was re-getting to know my kids and my husband. Being forced together was hard, but it was a chance to say, “So, why have I killed myself working like a nut case all these years?” It forced me to focus on my faith, my health, and my family. I definitely got to build my brand Pictures and Cocktails, as well and my nonprofit, A Sip of Paradise Garden, and my foundation, The Jim Project.
I hope that life will eventually go back to some kind of normal. That we will allow each other grace, and understand that we are all humans affected by this and that we grow, rebuild, and heal together. I feel this was the breaking point for our industry. I feel like we will lose great people and it will never be the same.
Chef Nick Melvin
Works for Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q; founder, Poco Loco pop-up
One positive note to come out of 2020 was that I was presented with the opportunity around nine months ago to take a much more “hands on” roll with the boys. This wasn’t always seen as an “opportunity”, and there were several days where I would end up crying on the floor. I was dealing with bouts of depression and anxiety on top of not knowing what the hell I was going to do with the kids all day long or my life. We pushed through it, and now looking back at everything we did do together, I’m so proud that I ended up seeing it for what it was — an opportunity that honestly I never probably would have achieved under “normal circumstances.” We also started a really fun breakfast burrito pop-up out of the Lake Claire neighborhood! Our guests have become family, and it’s really been amazing sharing this year with them!
I believe we need to relook at the entire structure that we as the hospitality industry have been operating on for the past years. The instability of the restaurant model has proven that we need to have real action and conversation on topics such as wage disparity among employees, increasing rents, razor-thin margins, and the fact restaurants aren’t just feeding halls for people, but are really banks that don’t charge interest. There’s so much money that flows through the hospitality industry to various professions and industries outside our circle that our impact on society and the business of this country can’t go unnoticed any longer.
Bartender; founder, Sippn at Home
My positive takeaway from this year is being able to connect again to myself and my home. I am beyond fortunate to have a place to live and rest my head each night, but for many years I believe I really took that for granted. Working in restaurants for most of my life, your home is just a place to sleep and wash up before doing it all over again the very next day. I think being pushed to stay in place for a moment has made me appreciate my own space. I think this realization is what gave me the confidence to pursue Sippn at Home.
My hope is we get through this, plain and simple. What I see as the reality for the future of the Atlanta restaurant scene is the strength and the vulnerability to be more engaged for social reform. I think many of us were raised in the house of anything deemed “political” was untouchable in a business sense. Oftentimes, this umbrella was mistakenly cast over fundamental principles, safeties, and inclusions. This always bothered me, but worse, I stood complicit. I had to reckon with my own behavior during this time and I have seen it mirrored within our community. The fact is, there are politics and there are human rights. The Atlanta restaurant scene is powerful. We can choose to use that power, like many have done for years, to protect and support our most vulnerable: the very people who built this industry we love so dearly. I know our community is one of love and courage, so I can only see this growing in our future.
Chef and owner, Hen Mother Cookhouse
I honestly thought we had the best team there is, but after this year, I know it to be one hundred percent accurate. We have been lucky to be able to employ 100 percent of our staff (those who wanted to work during these times,) but that didn’t come with a little extra effort and flexibility on their part. This year we have had to change our concept slightly with every punch thrown our way, but our staff has been incredible at adapting positively and with such grace.
I believe grit, empathy, passion, adaptability, and humility is what it takes to make something work and thrive. I think this year those characteristics have proven to stand up to the ravaging that COVID-19 has ensued on the restaurant community. I think this tenacity is going to be the driving force of all restaurants across Atlanta.
Chef and co-owner, Talat Market
In the beginning of this, we didn’t really know what we were doing. We kind of worked out all the kinks ourselves before bringing people in, not knowing the equipment, not knowing the POS system, and now we have those things in place. Everybody understands, and we are better equipped to pass that on when we hire a full staff next year. Also, we heard things were getting dire out there before we opened, so we didn’t hire staff or buy more tables, and we pivoted and made to-go work.
I hope that our diners will start feeling more comfortable and desire to have an experience of eating in a restaurant so they can support small businesses again, and we can make food we want to make, no holds barred.
Co-founder, Second Self Beer Company
For me, the best thing is growing stronger relationships with our best partners. Being a shoulder to cry on or being the one doing the crying. We’ve all had it rough this year, but we’ve gotten through it together. I think customers have realized we are more than gathering spots, but small businesses that live, work, and depend on our community. I hope this continues because we’re not through this yet.
Longterm, I’ve enjoyed the ability to get almost anything to-go or delivered and I think that it is something we’ll probably see for a while. Even though breweries are excluded from alcohol delivery, I hope that changes in the future, because it would be a huge help for us.
Creative director at Hampton + Hudson and Nina and Rafi
This year, I put my mental health at the top of the list. I recently got one year of sobriety under my belt, so that was a huge (and scary) step for myself, but has ultimately given me my life back. I was very blessed to have the support of not only my amazing family and friends, but also that of my workplace, in order to take care of myself and return when I was in a better place. For most though, these types of situations are few and far between.
This industry can be very grueling, mentally exhausting, and just plain hard work when things are normal. So, in times like these, it can be extremely difficult to cope with life’s issues when you’re doing everything you can to survive. With that being said, the hospitality industry has one of the highest rates of alcoholism, drug use, and a heritage of masking mental health. In an industry that is severely lacking in healthcare benefits for its employees, much less ones that even cover mental health, it makes sense that the hard working individuals who deal with these issues often look to alternative forms of relief. I know so many others suffer from the same issues that I do and my hope is that our industry can continue to make strides in the direction of providing the resources that should be readily available to all employees. I know in this upcoming new year, I will definitely be putting my free time into helping those in need and looking more into what we can do to offer these resources.