In the year since the pandemic began, dozens upon dozens of Atlanta-area restaurants have permanently closed, while countless others continue adapting service models with every COVID-19 state regulation change. Even as vaccine distribution in Georgia ramps up, the health crisis has likely changed the Atlanta dining scene forever. After a year of pivots and difficult business decisions, restaurant owners must now take stock of what they’ve learned and decide which pandemic-related changes they’ll keep for good.
When Fred Castellucci, president of Castellucci Hospitality Group, first heard about the novel coronavirus last winter and the challenges it posed in Italy, countries throughout Asia, and cities like Seattle, he started preparing. “There’s no way I could’ve seen this coming or even really prepared us for what we would need to do. But it was that early mindset of just getting us ready,” he says. That entailed signing up all seven of the group’s restaurants, which include Iberian Pig and Bar Mercado, for Uber Eats. “I was like, ‘I don’t care what we have to do. We’re getting on Uber Eats as a backup plan. Hopefully we never have to use it,’” he recalls.
The week the statewide shutdown went into effect in Georgia, Castellucci Hospitality had not only gone live on Uber Eats, but each restaurant in the group had its own ecommerce site to sell family-style meals.
“Life is better now, though, at least on the surface. I think most people are starting to see some optimism and light at the end of the tunnel here,” Castellucci says. He isn’t alone in feeling more positive one year into the pandemic, with an end in sight as vaccines continue to roll out.
The pandemic laid bare a host of ongoing issues in the restaurant industry, including wage and income disparities found among the industry’s workforce. Jen Johnson, co-owner of Rye Restaurants, says the health crisis was an opportunity for her team to address the pay structure at their restaurants, which includes the General Muir, Wood’s Chapel BBQ, and Fred’s Meat and Bread. “We realized, when your business is down 50-plus percent and what’s left of that business is more than 50 percent to go, then obviously a tip structure where a server makes $2.13 an hour plus tips isn’t going to work, because of the decline of tips coming in,” she says. When Rye Restaurants opened back up, its management started paying employees at least $7.25 an hour (not a tipped wage) and began charging a 20 percent gratuity service charge on all in-restaurant dining.
Johnson wants to maintain a high level of service at her restaurants, but doesn’t want an employee’s wage to come down to whether a customer is swayed by certain factors. Rye Restaurants plans on continuing this structure past the pandemic, with hopes of eventually dropping the service charge and instead raising prices due to rising labor costs. It’s something Johnson says the company has been working toward for years. The pandemic made it a priority. “It created this clean slate and provided the right opportunity to change course on compensation,” she says, “something which is hard to do when you can tell yourself that what you are doing currently is ‘working.’ For the last year, nothing has really been ‘working,’ so hopefully this change is something positive to come out of a rough period.”
The U.S. Senate recently voted down an amendment in the COVID-19 relief package that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. Talk of raising the minimum wage isn’t new, but it’s been brought to the forefront as service-industry workers, who typically don’t receive health benefits, have risked their lives to work during a global pandemic. Organizations like the National Restaurant Association argue against raising the federal minimum wage, though more than 100 economists support raising it. “I was disappointed the minimum wage was pulled out of the most recent bill,” says Johnson. “I know that’s not the restaurant industry position on that, but I think what we’re working on is the right direction.”
Despite the fact that food-service employees were some of the first essential workers asked to return to their jobs last spring, Georgia didn’t prioritize them in its vaccine rollout plan. The CDC lists food workers as essential workers who should be prioritized ahead of the general population to receive the vaccine.
While the pandemic brought endless challenges to the restaurant industry, it also highlighted the need to prioritize mental health. Chef Nick Melvin, for example, plans on opening his new restaurant, Poco Loco, with limited hours so he can keep spending time with his family. It’s something he’s been able to do more of since furloughing himself from Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q last March. Melvin hopes to hire two employees to help run the Kirkwood restaurant and allow them paid time off.
“We want it to be where we can close for a week and pay the staff to take the week off for a vacation,” Melvin recently told Eater. “This restaurant doesn’t have to be a machine that has to keep running because we’re forced to. I want to pay people well and give them a chance to take breaks. It’s a luxury I was never afforded in this industry and now I have a chance to provide that.”
Bartender Keyatta Mincey-Parker created a community garden for Atlanta’s bartenders to visit to recharge and relax. At Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours, chef and owner Deborah VanTrece implemented vacation and sick time, as well as wage increases and bonus pay across the board in hopes of improving the quality of life for her staff.
Similarly, chef Andre Gomez of Porch Light Latin Kitchen found the pandemic has allowed him to be more open with his wife and present with his kids. He’s even started going on daily walks. “It’s tiring on every level and, at the end of the day, I’ve been able to survive this, but now I need to thrive. I can’t just keep trying to survive. That was the kind of mentality when COVID first hit,” says Gomez. “I can’t keep waiting on the hope that I’m going to have a packed restaurant again. Plus, having the time for this gives you time to reflect and think about other things you want to do.”
The pandemic also pushed restaurant owners to change up their revenue streams. Gomez says he asked himself early on in the pandemic, “How do I diversify and stop relying on ‘butts in seats?’” He closed his dining room last March and hasn’t reopened it since, offering takeout a few nights a week and occasional patio seating. As much as he doesn’t love cooking food for takeout, he doesn’t think it’s going away anytime soon. “At the end of the day, it’s more cost effective than paying a server, paying a dishwasher, paying a washer,” he says. “I put everything in a box, go. And takeout, I think, that’s going to be the norm.” In addition to continuing to offer takeout, Gomez is making adjustments to Porch Light’s dining room and is considering offering in-house delivery (as opposed to using a third-party service).
At El Ponce, where the dining room has been closed for a year, co-owner Rosa Thurnher made a couple of changes she plans to keep. The first is the conversion from a sit-down restaurant to counter service for patio diners. It’s efficient, and even the customers like it more, says Thurnher. She also repurposed the downstairs dance club into a retail space where she sells packaged goods like salsas, frozen tamales, and hibiscus syrup. In May, El Ponce will open La Palapa, a members-only patio concept with a separate menu from El Ponce.
Refuge Coffee Co. in Clarkston started using the company’s coffee truck as a drive-thru during the pandemic. “Our team just did a phenomenal job doing that and we eventually built out a trailer and now we have a drive-thru that will be there forever,” says founder Kitti Murray. “The drive-thru really enabled us to keep open in Clarkston, but also we did events that were drive-thru events. Every part of that was great because it enabled us to engage people.” She credits Ahmad Alzoukani, general manager, and Walt Anderson, president, with the innovative ways Refuge Coffee stayed afloat during the pandemic, such as delivering coffee to neighborhoods. “It was like we don’t want people to forget about us, but we also want people to be encouraged,” says Murray. “And so we just advertised that we would do a neighborhood visit with our truck and we relied on the neighborhoods to enforce the social distancing and it was just a really amazing idea.”
Of course, some pivots will get left behind as relics of the pandemic. Johnson implemented reservations at West Egg Cafe but doesn’t plan on keeping that format. Grindhouse Killer Burgers offered family-style meals when the restaurants were doing takeout only, but owner Alex Brounstein says those meals went away once the dining rooms reopened. “I think something that might stick around are to-go blood orange margaritas [the “Large Marge”]. We might package them up,” says Brounstein.
A bill that would make to-go cocktails from restaurants permanently legal in Georgia is under consideration in the state House of Representatives. If passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by the governor, Georgia would join states like Pennsylvania and Michigan which permanently legalized to-go cocktails in an effort to continue supporting the restaurant industry during and after the pandemic.
At Twisted Soul, VanTrece offered takeout because it was imperative for the Huff Road restaurant’s survival. “The menu and the experience at Twisted Soul simply do not translate well to delivery or takeout,” says VanTrece. “We did it because we had to, but we want you to enjoy our food in the dining room while being serviced by a professional waitstaff.” Her chicken pop-up, A Different Kind of Chick, was designed specifically for takeout and was successful. “I do plan on bringing it back, perhaps as a brick-and-mortar concept,” she says.
Despite the pivots and loss of sales, a common sentiment shared among those interviewed for this story is the prevailing sense of community they found within Atlanta and throughout the country during the health crisis. “I learned that a community can really rally around changes you have to make due to external challenges,” says VanTrece. “When the pandemic started, we decided to start feeding our neighbors and hospitality workers and then our frontline workers. Our community supported us. They bought gift cards and ordered takeaway meals when we offered it.”
Thurnher found community in Let’s Talk Womxn, an initiative started by Chicago restaurateur Rohini Dey that connects women business owners in the food and beverage industry. “We started a Zoom call that was more therapy and conversation and just trying to help each other out with resources or ideas of what’s been working and not,” says Thurner. The calls started last July as monthly check-ins and have grown to allow the participants to collaborate now and beyond the health crisis.
“I have just seen incredible resilience from our teams. And I’ve seen incredible kindness from our customers,” says Castellucci. “It’s been really amazing to see the support from the community, our people, and that’s been, I think the biggest silver lining. You don’t take things for granted anymore. Like dining in a restaurant or hanging out with friends.”