When chef Jarrett Stieber opened Little Bear in Summerhill at the end of February, the novel coronavirus had yet to reach global pandemic status. Just three weeks later as COVID-19 began spreading throughout Georgia, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms ordered restaurant dining rooms closed across the city. Then, on April 3, a statewide shelter-in-place order went into effect in Georgia. Last week, Governor Brian Kemp extended the order through April 30.
Like so many Atlanta restaurant owners, Stieber faced two choices in March: close Little Bear or shift focus to takeout only. For Stieber, who ran the successful pop-up Eat Me Speak Me for years, closing his first restaurant was out of the question. This was just another bump in the road, another adjustment or pivot to be made in how he serves his customers. Thinking on one’s feet and getting creative is just part of the pop-up restaurant game, and Stieber knows that game all too well.
“[I am] definitely not going to let anything ruin this restaurant before we can get up and running like normal again,” he tells Eater Atlanta. “So far, we’ve been able to stay busy enough to keep paying our expenses and retain our full staff at full pay — very proud of that.”
Stieber credits regulars from his pop-up days and the Summerhilll and Grant Park residents for keeping his fledgling restaurant and takeout business sold out nearly every night.
After closing the dining room in mid-March, Stieber continues to make Little Bear’s takeout menus as interesting as those he created for dine-in service at the restaurant and for Eat Me Speak Me. Each week, Stieber and his crew develop themed menus filled with dishes from countries hardest hit by COVID-19, like China, Spain, and Italy. Menus for the week are posted to Instagram. Next up is Germany.
Since the city’s restaurants are temporarily permitted to sell unopened beer and wine to go until May 20, Little Bear also sells bottles and cans of wine, beer, and cider, as well as spritz-making kits.
Orders ready for pickup are paced out in intervals, allowing the restaurant to control the number of people coming into Little Bear, beyond its staff. Hand-washing and sanitizing surfaces and other regularly used objects, like pens, is constant.
“It sucks to keep having to run a to-go restaurant because it’s not the model we set out to do, or what we want to do, nor do I want to be spending $650 to $1,000 per week in to-go products to keep up with the demand, but if this is what we have to do to survive, we’ll do it for as long as we need to.”
Little Bear’s takeout business has allowed Stieber to continue paying his small staff at the 30-seat restaurant, which includes both salaried and hourly employees. For the latter, that income also includes tips added to to-go orders. Stieber rotates his front of house staff through between prep shifts, while he, his two cooks, and general manager Kate Flowe work full time to keep Little Bear up and running. He and his staff are even finding time to prepare meals for local healthcare workers battling COVID-19 at hospitals around Atlanta.
Regular staff mental and physical health check-ins are happening, too. No one is asked to work if they do not feel comfortable or feel unsafe. Temperatures are taken frequently, and anyone exhibiting potential novel coronavirus symptoms must remain home.
“We’ve been very thankful and grateful for the support we’ve received,” Stieber says of the takeout business at Little Bear. “We’ll keep pushing and making the most interesting to-go food we can for as long as need to.”
Little Bear is currently open for takeout and beer and wine to go, Wednesday through Sunday, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Orders must be preordered between 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Call 404-500-5396 to order and pay in advance.
Stay home if sick. Check the Georgia Department of Public Health website for guidance and twice-daily updates on the latest number of reported COVID-19 cases.