It’s been nine months since restaurants in Georgia, and throughout the country, initially shut down at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Gov. Brian Kemp issued a shelter-in-place order in early April, restaurant owners held out hope that business would return as usual within a few weeks. Then, even after the governor lifted most restrictions on businesses in early May, months dragged on as customers stayed away from risky interactions in dining rooms. Business owners and their workers had little time to cushion themselves from the economic wallop, even once restaurants were able to reopen at a limited capacity.
As they look ahead to 2021, many of Georgia restaurant owners say the future of their businesses remains uncertain, even as Congress approved an additional round of Paycheck Protection Program funding in late December as part of the first COVID-19 relief aid since the spring.
The $900 billion pandemic relief bill allocates $284 billion to reopen the program that kept payrolls alive for many businesses. President Donald Trump signed off on the relief package on Sunday after members of the U.S. House and Senate haggled over details for months.
Businesses that get the targeted assistance can’t have more than 300 employees and have to be able to show a revenue reduction of 25 percent due to the pandemic, according to CNBC.
Congress last replenished the paycheck protection fund with $300 billion in April after creating it in March. In the latest plan, restaurants can get up to 3.5 times their average payroll cost but, in order to qualify for forgiveness, 60 percent of the loans must be spent to retain workers or on similar expenses.
Brian Maloof, owner of Manuel’s Tavern, said he believes it’s imperative that restaurants have the flexibility to spend the loans in other ways. He was on the verge of closing the popular Atlanta hangout for journalists and politicians this month but said he’s hoping a GoFundMe that raised $180,000 will help the restaurant keep the doors open through April. Manuel’s future beyond that remains uncertain.
He set up a few tables in the rear parking lot for outdoor dining after the pandemic spread to supplement his underused space indoors, but with cold weather arriving that’s not much of an option now.
“There’s still a lot to do and business is still incredibly soft,” Maloof said. “If there’s no sales to be had, we’ll end up in the same spot that we’ve been in. Business isn’t just going to turn on like a light switch. A habit has been established for people to stay home and not go out.”
Manuel’s Tavern is one of many Georgia iconic eating and drinking venues struggling to hang on until a vaccine rollout gives customers the confidence to congregate in dining rooms again.
Earlier this month, a supporter of the 94-year-old Atlanta restaurant The Colonnade published a GoFundMe that has since raised more than $100,000.
A study conducted by the National Restaurant Association in September found that nearly 100,000 restaurants across the country had closed permanently or for the foreseeable future.
Professor Soon-Ho Kim, Georgia State University’s graduate program director of master of global hospitality management, said many of the restaurants that have closed had been staples in their communities.
“The average restaurant that is now permanently closed was in business for more than 16 years in the community,” he says.
Georgia Restaurant Association’s CEO Karen Bremer said the coming months for restaurants will continue to be a financial struggle even with a federal lifeline.
“You’re going to average between $40,000 to $60,000 in payments that you have to come up with in the month of December,” she said, noting restaurants incur large fees associated with insurance and permits this time of year. Maloof specified his alcohol permit renewal and other year-end costs after months of lost business as pushing him to the brink of closing the 64-year-old family business.
And, while many restaurants tend to see their business slow down for the first three months of the year, Bremer says Atlanta establishments in particular will have to grapple with losing a significant amount of business as public health officials continue to discourage travel and large gatherings, the lifeblood of Georgia’s hospitality industry.
And it’s uncertain whether the annual gathering of state lawmakers in Atlanta for the General Assembly will generate anywhere near the typical wining and dining. Already organizers of the Wild Hog Supper canceled the yearly feast for politicians and lobbyists that serves as the curtain-raiser for the legislative session.
“January, February and March are the big conventions [and] trade shows,” Bremer said. “You have the Legislature in session and every day is a different city or county day” that draws visitors to the Capitol, she said.
Nearly two-thirds of Georgia’s nearly 19,000 restaurants are located in metro Atlanta. Still, the pandemic misery is widely spread among restaurants elsewhere in the state. Athens-Clarke County settled a lawsuit this fall with restaurant and owners who sued over early closing times. The college town also agreed to reduce liquor license fees by 50%. Savannah has created a plan that will allow businesses to pay for the license in three installments during next year’s first quarter.
Still, Georgia State’s Kim said some restaurants managed to successfully pivot since customers started avoiding dining in when the coronavirus publicly arrived in the state in late spring.
He points to Stone Bowl House in Atlanta, Kang Nam Japanese Restaurant in Doraville and Sushi Misong in Duluth as examples of restaurants surviving by catering their services to businesses.
“These local restaurants reach out to company owners or someone who can control lunch orders and have provided hundreds of lunch boxes each day to sustain their operation,” he says. “It seems to work and it also increases their visibility in those communities.”
Both Bremer and Kim say the restaurants that are doing the best right now tend to be the ones that were already setup for takeout.
Despite their dining room being closed since March, K&K Soul Food in Atlanta has seen a boom in business during the time of the virus. Owner Kimario Smith said the cafeteria-style restaurant already had a glass window separating servers from customers before COVID.
“I was pretty much already set up [to operate during COVID] whereas other businesses had to put things in place or make adjustments,” he said.
Smith said he’s hoping to hire some additional staff after a few employees failed to return once the K&K reopened in May. He credits local and national campaigns geared towards supporting Black and small business owners with boosting business for the restaurant, which opened in 1968.
For the restaurants that are struggling, federal aid and GoFundMe campaigns can only carry them so far.
Bremer said she’s still encouraging restaurant owners to call their members of Congress and lobby for more help in the months to come, adding that every job created in the restaurant industry leads to three other jobs within the state. And, she said, local restaurants contribute something less tangible but perhaps more important.
“I always say that restaurants are the soul of a community,” Bremer said.