Chef Deborah VanTrece, owner of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours on Atlanta’s west side, has spent the last 20 years exploring the meaning behind “Soul” in Southern cooking. For the classically trained chef, her restaurant showcases the foods she grew up with in Kansas City, Missouri — first brought to Atlanta through her former catering business, and then on the menu at Twisted Soul. The restaurant has garnered plenty of national attention since opening in 2016, landing on several “best of” lists, including a perennial spot on Eater Atlanta’s 38 Essential restaurants.
As the dining room sits empty on Huff Road, VanTrece has pivoted to offering takeout a few days a week and fish frys on Fridays. She wonders what the future holds for the restaurant, especially now that funding from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — part of the federal COVID-19 small business stimulus package — has run out.
“We applied early on for PPP,” VanTrece says, who was concerned from the start that federal funds would run dry. “PPP is just a bandaid and not necessarily a bandaid that will stop the bleeding, but at least [it could] slow the bleeding down.”
Like so many of her colleagues in Atlanta and across the nation, VanTrece fears takeout and delivery won’t be enough to save the restaurant industry, which is fighting to survive the steep economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
Of the 25 people she once employed at Twisted Soul, only four remain on a part-time basis. VanTrece says the restaurant’s sales are down by nearly 90 percent, and there’s simply not enough income from takeout to rehire more staff. The chef is holding out hope one of the grants or loans she applied for will come through soon to provide some temporary financial relief.
Currently, VanTrece and her small staff work a couple of days a week serving takeout food. She’s implemented a “pay what you can” option for customers facing financial difficulties due to layoffs or a reduction in pay or hours at their job.
“We are trying to ensure that the pricing is affordable for those on a limited budget because of layoffs. We probably give away as much as we sell,” she says. “We have just implemented delivery as well as curbside pickup, but can’t afford the extreme fees charged by most [food delivery] companies, so we employed our own staff to do the deliveries.”
Staff must wear masks and gloves at all times. She staggers her cooks’ days to minimize the number of people in the kitchen, allowing employees to work safely and at least six feet apart. Temperatures are taken daily, and surfaces are wiped down constantly.
“We live a daily life of unknown, and I am physically and mental fatigued because of it,” says VanTrece. “I wake up in the morning feeling blessed to see another day and praying for all those who have lost loved ones or who are fighting to stay alive. I spend hours asking myself what can I do to make the situation better.”
Twisted Soul recently partnered with car dealership Mercedes Benz of Buckhead to help prepare meals for healthcare workers in the Grady Healthcare system assisting COVID-19 patients. The restaurant is also offering free meals to service industry workers who find themselves unemployed.
Cooking food for people in her restaurant kitchen has been her solace and a source of comfort throughout the dining room shutdown over the last month.
As for the future, VanTrece worries about reopening dining rooms in Atlanta and what that involves. Will staff be required to wear masks and gloves, what does service look like post-pandemic at restaurants, and will she be able to rehire her employees are questions she continues to ask herself each day. Despite all of the uncertainties surrounding the future, VanTrece clings to the initial purpose behind Twisted Soul.
“I don’t know that Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours, in its present location, will weather the storm,” says VanTrece. “What I do know is that the foundation of Twisted Soul was built on love, comfort, and the food that makes us who we are. The space may change, but our ‘Soul’ will always find a home.”
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.