Friday, July 19, 2024

The 2020 Dish: Restaurants open and close, business owners reflect on a year of struggles

Chef James Doss in front of his Castle St. eatery, Rx Restaurant and Bar. (Port City Daily/Photo by Jonathan Spiers)

SOUTHEASTERN NC—At the beginning of 2020, the restaurant industry was looking to surpass its 2019 revenue nationwide, according to the National Restaurant Association. Projections were around $899 billion. As 2020 comes to a close, it’s tracking around $659 billion — a $240 billion loss because of Covid-19.

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To quantify it locally, James and Sarah Rushing Doss, owners of Rx Restaurant on Castle St., will see around a 65% revenue decrease in 2020. They have had to close and reopen the restaurant on multiple occasions this year because of the coronavirus.

“If we had stayed open this entire time and paid out full payroll and benefits, we would not have made it through this year and would have had to close permanently,” the Dosses wrote in an email.

Locally, 2020 certainly wasn’t without its fair share of restaurant closures and openings (see list below). According to the National Restaurant Association, around 100,000 will have closed this year, with another 40% of operators saying they couldn’t make it another six months at this pace.

It’s an unforgiving business, the restaurant industry: working long hours and holidays, keeping up with expansive overhead in food and alcohol, on top of dealing with a demanding public. Add Covid-19 to it, and it becomes more precarious, especially in exposing health risks. After all, eating and drinking can’t necessarily be done with masks on.

The Dosses watch the Covid numbers carefully. They have closed Rx on their own accord three times because of increases in statewide spread. They made the decision to temporarily close again after Dec. 31 service since increased cases in New Hanover County has moved it into the orange zone on the NC County Alert System. With extended federal help keeping their employees paid, they’ve managed to keep all balls in the air in this careful juggling act: balancing the health of staff and customers, and being financially responsible for living wages and the business overall.

While the paycheck protection program (PPP) helped them through the beginning of the pandemic, they said PPP was flawed out of the gate. The federal government put unreasonable requirements on the loan, specifically to go toward payroll, even though no one was working since the restaurant was closed.

“We are appreciative of the adjustments that have been made with the new PPP loans, which at least acknowledge that restaurants need more help than other businesses right now,” they noted.

But grant programs and passing a Restaurants Act really is what would have helped most, they said. How politicians handled relief has disappointed the business owners — specifically, since no one really was looking out for small businesses, which make up 50% of the gross domestic product (GDP had fallen 32.9% in the second quarter of 2020 though rose 33.1% by the end of the third).

“Relief should have been more targeted towards the industries hardest hit, such as restaurants, travel-related industries, etc.,” the Dosses said. “We also wish there had been stricter regulations on big box stores from the start that continue to rake in money, while small businesses suffer and take the brunt of the blame for the spread of Covid.”

Pivoting to cope

A great deal of the restaurant industry in the U.S. pivoted to takeout and deliveries, as stay-at-home orders and curfews went into effect, and nonessential businesses across the nation were forced to close. According to the National Restaurant Association, to-go or off-premise dinners and lunch orders increased by 5% this year, while to-go breakfasts held steady.

At his fine-dining restaurant, Chef Doss didn’t originally design his Southern menu to be conducive to takeout or delivery. Yet, by fall he had shifted to doing to-go family meals and offering holiday meal packages to help sustain the business.

While restaurants pivoted operations to keep a revenue stream flowing, bars were left without a lifeline. The NC General Assembly couldn’t agree to an amendment in a Covid-19 bill back in April, which would allow bars to sell to-go mixed beverages and maintain some income.

Dubliner and Red Dogs owner Andrew Brothers told Port City Daily in October he’d seen an 80% revenue loss in 2020 from having to keep his businesses shuttered for seven months.

RELATED: Wilmington-area bar owners wrangle with Governor Cooper’s new Phase 3 guidelines

Dance clubs like Pravda and Coglins switched gears just to get the doors open. Pravda renovated to become a coffee shop, while Coglins installed pizza ovens to serve food and operate as a “restaurant.” Other bars began hosting limited “private events,” where customers could call ahead to get on a list, in order to enjoy a drink at the pine.

Blind Elephant owner Ashley Tipper, with her manager Cabell Bryan, launched a mobile bar, Vagabond Spirits, to be rented for private parties as her brick-and-mortar remains closed even today. Though a separate entity from Blind Elephant, Vagabond at least got Tipper back to work.

“We’ve had some really wonderful events,” she said of the 2-month-old business venture. “Although, with the colder weather and holidays, outdoor events have slowed down.”

The upcoming cold months are proving most problematic for bars that have opened, seeing as the governor has only allowed them operational at 30% capacity and with outdoor seating only. Blind Elephant doesn’t have an outdoor patio.

But outdoor patios were another big hit for the 2020 year in dining and drinking. Patios were added to places all across town, from Moe’s BBQ to Panacea Brewing to Pine Valley Market to End of Days Distillery. The Dosses are building an outdoor patio at Rx currently. As well, Downtown Business Alliance launched Downtown Alive to shut off downtown streets through September so restaurants could operate with more outdoor seating.

Yet bars were excluded from the program since they couldn’t fully operate. Once December came, and another peak in Covid numbers rose, bars took another hit. The governor cut operational hours specifically geared to the eating and drinking industry by ceasing onsite alcohol sales at 9 p.m. A few weeks later on Dec. 21, Cooper signed an executive order allowing bars to sell to-go mixed beverages, one per customer, as long as the drinks remain sealed.

Blind Elephant is now taking a baby step to get back in action. “The to-go orders are going OK,” Tipper revealed. “We’re not slammed, but we’ve got some loyal customers that make a point to patron our business.”

Tipper said Blind Elephant is only doing to-go drinks from a limited menu for now, but she assured more would come as business picks up.

“As far as the outlook for 2021 goes,” she added, “we’re not harboring any expectations. This virus is an ever-evolving situation, and for the bar to be made whole again would require government grants, not loans.”

“It’s difficult to continue to adapt as the goal posts keep moving,” the Dosses agreed. “When government leaders tell the entire country not to dine out but then expect businesses to keep folks employed without sufficient financial assistance, businesses have to make sacrifices, be creative, and jump through hoops to survive. We do not expect a full recovery until Covid is behind us and we can operate at 100% capacity.”

For every restaurant and/or bar that closed in 2020, another seemingly opened in the area. Below is a list of both.

Cafe Delmar
Stalk and Vine
South College Deli
Pita Delite
Peno Wrightsville Beach
Tama Tea
On a Roll
Bone n Bean
Foxes Boxes
Mod Pizza
Dead Crow Comedy Room
Dock St. Oyster Bar
Great Harvest Bread Company
Ruby Tuesdays
On the Border
Stella’s Pizza
Southern Thai

Malama Cafe
Potbelly Sandwich Shop
M&K’s Kitchen
Banh Sai Food Truck
The Pretzel Man
The Cheese Board
CraftGrown Farms
Molly Pitcher’s
Taco Baby
Even Tide
Whiskey Trail Midtown
Floriana Restaurant
Quanto Basta
Michael’s on the Waterfront
Tidewater Oyster Bar
Mess Hall
Low Tide Steakhouse
End of Days Distillery
Hi-Wire Brewing
Vagabond Spirits
Daily Grind
Sweet D’s
Burney’s Croissants in Mayfaire
First Watch
Chicken in the Box

Have dining news? Email Shea Carver at

Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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