The last two weeks saw several established Atlanta area restaurants close due to COVID-19, including La Fonda and Fellini’s Pizza, Ford Fry’s restaurants, chef Anne Quatrano’s restaurants and Star Provisions market, Yeah Burger, Nakato, Chai Pani, and the Vortex. For most, the meager profits from takeout and delivery weren’t worth the risk to the health and safety of staff. But the decision to close comes with uncertainty about the future, despite the $2 trillion CARES stimulus package meant to provide $377 billion to small businesses in the U.S.
It’s hardly a bailout for independent restaurants struggling to survive on even slimmer margins than before the pandemic.
For Chai Pani owner chef Meherwan Irani, the decision to close his Decatur Indian street-food restaurant came only after Congress passed the CARES bill and provided some guaranteed financial support for his staff.
Irani says he kept Chai Pani open for takeout throughout March because most of his staff can’t afford to live off the maximum unemployment benefits in Georgia, which is approximately $350 per week. Employees volunteered to pick up shifts to earn what little they could, and Irani made sure at least one meal a day was offered to his entire staff.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 12 million people work in restaurants across the United States. 500,000 of those people work in Georgia’s restaurant industry.
He realizes the bill isn’t perfect, nor does it solve the myriad of financial issues area restaurants continue to face, as the virus forces Atlantans to remain at home for the foreseeable future.
“The decision to stay open was purely to help our staff survive — as a business our revenues were down by 75 percent, and we were losing money every day we were open,” Irani tells Eater Atlanta. People who file for unemployment under the new Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation in Georgia now receive an additional $600 per week, and benefits are extended by another 13 weeks.
With fatigue, stress, and safety concerns wearing on his staff, Irani furloughed Chai Pani’s employees so they could keep their health insurance and begin collecting unemployment. All of this comes after the restaurant closed for 10 days in early March to undergo a quick renovation to the dining room and a revamp of the menu.
“Our staff no longer has to make the difficult choice between risking their health or not earning enough to pay their bills,” Irani says. “My responsibility in this time of crisis is to make sure that each and every one on our team is safe, healthy, and not facing any financial hardships.”
Chai Pani continues to lose money every day it’s not open, even as the federal Payroll Protection Program, or PPP, should help cover rent and utilities during the shutdown. Navigating that process comes with its own set of challenges. The PPP offers $350 billion in loans to small businesses, including restaurants, with fewer than 500 employees; loans are capped at $10 million. But complaints about sites crashing due to the overwhelming number of people trying to apply and banks like Wells Fargo appearing to cap their lending to small businesses are rampant.
Irani says he’s grateful for understanding landlords and vendors who continue to allow Chai Pani to “weather the storm” while the restaurant remains closed.
For Banshee chef and partner Nolan Wynn, the decision to close the East Atlanta Village restaurant came after realizing they’d sold all of the perishable food and would need to place a large order to continue serving takeout. The financial reality didn’t make sense, despite placing the non-salaried staff on partial unemployment and operating at a bare minimum, nor did the health realities.
“We had been keeping up with the news and heard that a mandatory lockdown would go into effect,” Wynn explains. “We collectively decided that it was the responsible choice to practice social distancing, even at the expense of shutting down our business.”
Wynn, along with his Banshee partners Peter Chvala, Faielle Stocco, and Katie McDonald, now spend their days applying for small business loans and grants to help supplement their employees’ incomes and still cover the rent on the Glenwood Avenue restaurant.
Monday brought still another big temporary closure announcement, from Atlanta’s oldest Japanese restaurant, Nakato, which has been in business for 48 years. It’s already been a difficult year for the family, which lost its patriarch and one of the restaurant’s proprietors, Kiyoshi Takahara “Kiyo” Nakato, on New Year’s Day. He was 69.
In a statement sent to the press Monday, Sachi Nakato Takahara says the “steep increase in COVID-19 related illness and death” in Georgia lead to the “painful” decision to close Nakato, after nearly five decades in Buckhead.
“The health of our team and our community is of the highest importance. We want to do everything we can possibly do to help flatten this curve, and if that means having ourselves and our employees self-isolate, then that is what we need to do,” Takahara says.
She thanks customers for supporting Nakato by ordering takeout over the last month, and asks people to donate to the GoFundMe campaign set up to support the restaurant’s employees. Now Takahara and her family are trying to determine their next move for the future of Nakato.
Georgia’s shelter-in-place order expires at 11:59 p.m. on Monday, April 13. The likelihood it will be extended until at least the end of April is high, given the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in the state. As of 12 p.m. on April 7, 8,818 confirmed cases were reported in Georgia, with 329 deaths. COVID-19 cases and deaths in the state are expected to peak by April 21.
For restaurants around Atlanta, whether currently open for takeout only or temporarily closed, it’s simply about holding on for as long as possible.
Check the Georgia Department of Public Health website for guidance and twice-daily updates on the latest number of reported COVID-19 cases.