Tuesday, April 16, 2024

‘When we get through this’: Voices from Wilmington’s restaurant industry [Free read]

From left: Food writer Jason Frye, server Jay Edge, and restaurant manager Lara Bair (and her son).

WILMINGTON — On Monday evening, Governor Roy Cooper’s latest and most restrictive executive order so far takes effect, shuttering businesses, banning public gatherings, and ordering all residents to stay home as much as possible. But restaurant workers and owners have already had their world turned upside down — they were essentially the first collateral damage in the efforts to stem the spread of Covid-19.

On Tuesday, March 17, Cooper closed dining rooms and bars. Some restaurants closed their doors completely — a few had actually called for closures before Cooper’s order — but others tried to shift gears, offering curbside pickup and delivery.

Over the next week, Cooper’s office added more restrictions, as well as closing other front-facing service industry businesses: masseuses, tattoo artists, hair stylists, managers, and receptionsists — all were put out of business, joining cooks, servers, bartenders, and owners in the virtual unemployment line.

Wilmington’s restaurant scene was just gearing up for the busy season, local spring produce was rolling in, crowds of locals and visitors filling dining rooms. Then, the novel coronavirus, which had for many been a news story on the periphery of their radar, took center stage. Abruptly, hundreds and hundreds were out of work.

It’s no exaggeration to say Wilmington’s restaurant and bar scene will be devasted — for many, it already is. Some establishments will never reopen their doors. Others will run the risk of reopening with the added burden of new loans taken on in order to survive, or at least try.

As the shock of being abruptly shuttered subsides, anxiety and fear have taken hold. In the blunt words of one server, “how long will this f—ing thing last?’

But at the same time, there’s a sense of hope in the restaurant industry — which, after all, weathers a lean off-season every year, not to mention two hurricanes in the last two years. There’s no clear answers about when restaurants will reopen, but many are optimistic Wilmington’s food scene will recover.

These are just a few of the voices from that scene, sharing what the last few weeks have been like, and what they hope for in the coming months.

Lara Bair – General Manager

Lara Bair with her son, who lives in Minneapolis and was also recently laid off due to coronavirus. (Port City Daily photo / Contributed)

Lara Bair grew up in the restaurant industry, working with her father. She worked as a 911 dispatched for nearly three decades before returning to the business last year as the general manager at Smoke on the Water in Wilmington RiverLights development. She’s no stranger to the industry’s challenges, from thin margins to seasonal shifts to staff turnover. But she said nothing could have prepared her for what happened earlier this month.

“I got the call from the owner on that Tuesday [March 17] letting me know about the Governor’s announcement and that we were going to close the restaurant. I started calling my employees and letting them know that we were closed — that was … definitely one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Bair said.

According to Bair, the restaurant owner and managers did discuss the possibility of attempting to stay afloat by transitioning to take-out and delivery. But ultimately, it didn’t seem financially feasible — and it didn’t outweigh the concern of infecting both the staff and the public. Bair said she was devastated but tried to focus on helping her employees to keep their footing as best as possible.

“I just told them that we closing indefinitely unless the governor decided otherwise — then I started immediately helping them with applying for unemployment, sending them websites [for resources], walked them through it, applying for emergency food stamps. Anything I could think of to help them stay on track while we’re closed,” Bair said.

In the days, now weeks, that followed, Bair kept in contact with her staff.

“I send them text messages every day. I ask if they need food, if they need help with money. I can try and find resources for them. Direct them websites for people are that are hiring, which is primarily grocery stores. Just trying to find them help any way that I can,” Bair said.

Bair has seen firsthand — and through her employees — the difficulty of the unemployment system. Laid-off employees spent hours on the phone, or just as long hacking through a glitch-ridden online system pushed to its limit by over 100,000 applications filed in just a week.

And the end result? It’s not what most would hope for, Bair said.

“It’s devastating for the entire community. I’m thankful for unemployment. And all of my employees are thankful. But it averages out to be less than $300 a week — which barely covers rent for anybody. And part of the problem is, there are some people who are hiring, but there are hundreds and hundreds of people who were just put out of work that are applying for these jobs,” Bair said. “The employees are overwhelmed. The system is overwhelmed. The people hiring are overwhelmed.”

Bair said there are definitely plans to reopen the restaurant, and that she looks forward to the region’s food and beverage industry recovering. But for now, she said she hopes people outside the restaurant world understand how hard the state-ordered closures have hit people.

“Just how financially devastating this is for all of us,” Bair said when asked what she would want people outside the restaurant world to know. “Especially for servers, who live of the tips that they get every day, and suddenly they have no money. The people who work hourly, they got one last check, which helps a little — and for the business owners, this is possibly career-ending for them. Some of them aren’t going to be able to open back up because they’re going to lose so much money.”

Jason Frye – Food and travel writer, photographer

Food writer Jason Frye working from home, like so many others who have managed to hang on to employment during the statewide shutdown. (Port City Daily photo / Contributed)

Jason Frye has been a food writer for about 12 years. He’s been a culinary judge, the restaurant reporter for StarNews, and a writer for Forbes, Our State Magazine, Salt, and others. Frye has seen a lot come and go in those years: trends, chefs, restaurants, hurricanes — but he’s never seen anything like this.

“I’m coming at this from the point of view of an unwitting observer — and unwilling observer, really,” Frye said.

Frye said he’s acutely aware of the two camps of restaurants: those who shut their doors and tried to ‘weather the storm’ (some of them before Cooper’s latest executive order) and those who try to adapt and get by on a new, somewhat improvised business model.

“Locally I’ve seen two factions in the restaurant food businesses — and I understand the interests on both sides. They’ve bills to pay, rent to pay, their own salaries to take into account along with their employees,” Frye said. “Then we’ve got another camp, that is maybe a little better established, and they’re better able to weather this storm. They’re willing to shut the doors and move to no service — and it really to me reads like the difference between a short term play and a long term play.”

Frye said that while he understood both sides, from his point of view only the ‘long-term play’ made sense.

“If we sit back, we all do this, and we all shut down for a little bit, it makes it better for all of us. All of our Nanas and Pawpaws get to live a little bit longer,” Frye said.

Frye said he’d seen the damage done already, not just to restaurants but up and down the supply chain, from oyster farmers, artisan cheesemakers, and brewers to line cooks and servers, bartenders, baristas, and owners. Still, he said he believes the shutdown only really works if it’s done in unison — an unsavory choice, but one he thinks owners needed to face.

“If you want your restaurant to be open this time next year, the best bet is probably to close your doors and find a way to work a way around it. I’m not happy about a low-interest or no-interest SBA loan — you know, I run a small business, and I don’t relish the idea of taking out a loan to bridge this gap, but if that’s what I have to do, then that’s what I have to do. And I’ll be here next year writing about Wilmington’s hospitality industry,” Frye said.

Not everyone will make it though, Frye acknowledged. Some restaurants won’t reopen and, just as important, some of the richest talent in the industry might not come back: chefs, cooks, mixologists, and others who might leave the restaurant world, the region, or both due to the financial blow of shutdowns and restrictions.

“Those are real concerns, and that idea of a generation loss is really something. If we’re looking at things that might be as bad as some of the people are saying, it’s really going to be devastating,” Frye said.

In the short term, the world looks very different, Frye said, noting that his upcoming piece in Salt Magazine will be about a dish he’ll cook at home — something he’s not written about before. But in the long term, Frye said he does believe Wilmington’s food and beverage scene will survive.

“But when it’s time to start going out and we’re able to go out to Downtown Sundown, to First Friday, when we can have that beer a Flytrap, to head over to Flying Machine for their market — it’s going to be amazing,” Frye.

Frye related a story from a recent trip to the Netherlands around the time that cows are released to the pasture for the first time in the Spring. The cows literally jump for joy (and, allegedly, produce some of the finest milk afterward).

“We’re all gonna run out of the barn and find some new grass to eat — I really do think it’s going to be like that, as silly as it sounds. When it’s time to go out again, damn it’s going to be good to out, to see my favorite server, go out and talk to my favorite barista in the morning. It’s going to be so nice to go out and drink a cold beer that somebody else poured — from a tap, not a can,” Frye said.

Frye said he’s counting on that enthusiasm to help the industry bounce back when the restrictions are finally lifted.

“I think that first quarter back is going to be good, I think it’s going to be a bellwether quarter for the restaurant and food industry,” Frye said.

Jay Edge – Server

Jay Edge has worked in the Wilmington food industry since 2003, making his way around downtown establishments like Roy’s Riverboat, Circa 1922, Caprice (for 11 years), and most recently Manna.

Waiter Jay Edge has worked in the downtown restaurant scene for the better part of two decades. Now he’s trying to ward off cabin fever, like so many of his fellow industry employees. (Port City Daily photo / Contributed)

Edge said he’s seen a veritable army of line cooks, the ones who do most of the cooking in restaurants, take the recent closures on the chin.

“I think about all these line guys — and god bless the army, the battalion of kitchen people. They’re the ones who have shouldered the earliest part of this hit. They were already struggling at $12 an hour working 50 hours a week to make it,” Edge said.

Edge himself is one of the thousands from the area working his way through the unemployment system. After two hours of hammering through countless ‘refreshes’ on the state website, he got himself set up — but, as someone who mostly lived on tips, his weekly benefits are pretty low.

“The number I got — I hope other people do better — but I don’t think they’re going to see a livable number. I think a lot of us would be hoping their would be some compassion in terms of landords, credit cards, just some flexibility. But so far there doesn’t seem to be much of that,” Edge said. “It might help hold my household together for a little bit, but it’s not a long-term solution.”

For many in the industry, Edge said the shutdown has felt a little like a hurricane — the only real frame of reference for this level of closure — but without any way to know when the ‘storm’ will pass.

“In a way, it’s little like the hurricane at first — we’re were backing off of prep, and sort of expecting something,” Edge said. “The problem is, with a hurricane, you essentially know when it’s coming. There’s a cone, you know what to expect. You can estimate how long you’ll be closed, damages, repairs. That’s what’s weird about this — you don’t have a time frame, you don’t have a cone. Kitchens are just shuttered. And when we get back to being open, and some normalcy, whenever that is — who’s left to come fill the dining room? Who can afford to go out to a meal? That’s the thing we’re all stumbling on.”

The owner of Manna, Billy Mellon, joined several other restauranteurs — including Rx owner James Doss, Surfhouse’s Craig Love, and husband and wife team Dean Neff and Lydia Clopton — in closing their doors and asking Cooper for a total restaurant shutdown before the governor’s office had started shuttering establishments.

“I love all guys downtown – Dram and Morsel, Caprice, all those guys — as we made our decision, we were looking out for the community that we serve in the interest of not (a) infecting that community and (b) not infecting ourselves and carry that over into the circles we travel in,” Edge said. “We felt like once we were all on the same page we needed to stay on that page.”

But not everyone was on the same page. In fact, closing down was a polarizing move, and some strongly disagreed, choosing instead to attempt a conversion to take-out and delivery models.

Edge said he understood that move, but it bothered him knowing some restaurants had closed as a sacrifice for the greater good, only to see other restaurants with crowded lines — inside dining rooms and at bars — waiting for food.

“There were definitely places that kind of threw a drive-through shack out their back door… but also, we saw people coming in to pick up take-out food and asking or a drink, and I saw people say ‘yeah, it’s cool, if you come in and order take-out I’ll pour you a beer at the bar.’ And it’s like, that’s not legal. That’s literally not legal right now,” Edge said.

Here were the same conditions that the Governor’s office was taking extreme measures to prevent, happening in spite of the closures, Edge said. The fear, Edge said, is that half-measures will only drag out the process — the longer that happens, the fewer employees and businesses make it, he said.

“We won’t be this in for only a few weeks unless we all shut everything down all together,” Edge said. “And, I understand how those decisions get made, just trying to survive. There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty and anxiety right now. It’s fear and loathing in the age of coronavirus.”

Then there’s a simpler issue — some food just isn’t for takeout.

“Manna is a dining room experience, it’s the service, it’s the table cloth and the atmosphere — but, also you don’t want a meal like that and take it away. These are dishes that aren’t meant to sit even a few minutes before being served and, so, as take away it’s just not right,” Edge said.

Despite the disruption, the disputes, and the devastation, Edge said he’s still optimistic about Wilmington’s restaurant scene and its ability to recover from the current shutdown.

“I don’t think it’s going to be pretty. But I know there’s a lot of love and there’s an ability to connect, to keep the network of hope, so that when one of us is down we can reach out and pull them up. Because that’s what it’s going to take to get through this,” Edge said. “It’s a good community to be a part of. I miss it. And I look forward to convening again for service.”

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

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