Sunday, May 22, 2022

From ‘online tips’ to mastering pickup windows, here’s how Wilmington’s restaurant industry is coping with Covid-19 [Free]

Chase Duncan sprinkles P.T.’s Grille’s “gold dust,” the restaurant’s signature lemon pepper seasoning on burgers late April. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — For nearly two months, restaurants have been struggling to deal with Governor Roy Cooper’s executive order, shutting down bars and dining rooms.

Related: Theoretically, PPP loans could save Wilmington’s small businesses. The reality is more complicated. [Free]

For some establishments geared towards high-end dining, transitioning to a take-out or curbside model just wasn’t possible. For others, the switch was possible, but without alcohol sales it just barely made sense financially. In the meantime, other restaurants have made it through, relying on loyal customers — and, in some cases, some new technology that lets those customers support their favorite employees in new ways.

Local and loyal

Count P.T.’s Grille as one of the lucky hometown establishments enduring the pandemic. P.T.’s has cemented itself as a fast-casual go-to in the Wilmington community since 1990, with its flagship location on Fountain Drive.

Even though business is down an estimated 25-30% due to mandated dine-in closures, the shops are still slammed. They even find themselves taking the phone off the hook during busy lunch and dinner hours.

“If we’re taking too many calls or got too much going on, I feel like the quality of the product would go down,” the Fountain Drive general manager, Zach Biermann, said. “We’re trying to find the fine line as taking as much as we can but also not sacrificing the product.”

Supported by a loyal and local customer base, Biermann is grateful for the community’s continued support. “We’re so grateful to all the customers that keep coming in, the loyal Wilmingtonians that keep coming, local businesses — not just P.T.’s, but all the other restaurants around — we’re really grateful they continue to support us through this whole thing,” he said late April.

The stores used to notice a big difference between customers when the weather is nice on the weekend vs. a Monday. But now, there isn’t much to differentiate the days.

“Now, they’re all really close because everyone is off work and everyone is looking for something to do. People doing something is kind of going out and grabbing food and going back to the house. That’s something to do,” he said.

One major key to the restaurants’ pandemic transition? Each store already had a takeout window in place, with staff trained to handle an entire order through a sliding glass pane. Staff is limited in how much business they can physically conduct through that window, Biermann said, while still attempting to follow physical distancing guidelines to the best of their ability.

With seven and a half locations (the half is the food truck, Biermann explained) the group employs an estimated 180 people. Since the pandemic, no one has been laid off or furloughed, though Biermann said a few have opted to self-quarantine, their jobs still waiting for them when they’re ready to return.

About 90% are part-time, with the ability to fill a full-time schedule easily achievable pre-coronavirus, Biermann said. Most employees are young high school or college students. “Even though they understand their hours have been cut back for, not that they did anything wrong, which sucks, they’re just happy to get out and make a paycheck,” he said.

Shifts have decreased from about five to four a week, Biermann said. The pandemic has created a newfound issue for management to balance who gets what, as opposed to a previous struggle to fill shifts with plenty of hours to go around. “For the most part, it’s just been cutting people’s amount of shifts they have, total hours. We’ve done our best to keep the people that have been here the longest and the people that need it the most the same amount of hours, or as close to their normal hours and pay as we could,” Biermann said.

Out of all seven locations that applied — five in Wilmington, one in Goldsboro, and one in Leland — the Fountain Drive location was the only one to receive a PPP loan during the first round of funding (each location is separately owned through a franchise agreement).

“Luckily, we got it, thank goodness,” Biermann said.

P.T.’s Grille owner Jim Biermann (left) and his son, Zach Biermann, continue the pattern of turning the restaurant’s stools right-side-up while the dine-in area stays closed to maintain a sense of normalcy. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

Catch-22

For James Smith, pandemic decision-making has felt like a bit of a gamble, he said. As owner of both locations of The Fork ‘N’ Cork, Smoke on the Water, and Bone & Bean BBQ, Smith employes between 100 and 110 people.

Early on, Smith made the decision to lay off all of his employees so they could collect unemployment. Everyone in the industry comes out of winter a little tight, he said, and he was cutting it close after opening a second Fork ‘N’ Cork in Carolina Beach. He said he thought to himself, “If I squash everything right now,  I have enough money to pay the staff, get payroll covered, and enough money to get food for when we reopen.”

Fortunately, he was awarded a PPP loan in the first round. “I’m happy about it. I think I cried,” he joked. But because he has to spend the forgivable loan within eight weeks of activating it, he said he feels stuck in a Catch-22.

“It’s kina hard because if we open too early, and spend all that money, and we don’t have any money left, then I’m back where I started,” he said.

Also, he has staff making more on unemployment than they would while working at his restaurants (a difference of about $700 to $850 he estimates).

Many staff have asked him not to activate the PPP until the unemployment period runs out — a complicated request for him to consider. “It’s kind of an odd situation to be in, because you want these people to have as much money as possible given the circumstances, but you want to do what’s best for your business.”

After closing all restaurants mid-March, Smith has since opened Bone & Bean BBQ for takeout — but it’s just not the same.

Most items on Smith’s menus weren’t meant to be plated in a cardboard box and eaten with plasticware. “It just doesn’t translate,” he said. The experience of dining is part of what drew him to the business in the first place — and why customers are willing to spend $14 on a cocktail.

“It’s the view, it’s the fire pit, it’s the glass of wine, it’s the breeze, it’s the sunset,” Smith said. “That’s what it is.”

[Editor’s note: Smith aims to open the Carolina Beach Fork’n’Cork location on May 13 and the Wilmington location on May 20. Smoke will reopen when state regulations allow dining rooms and bars again — possibly as soon as May 22.]

Service cuts

In early March, a small group of volunteers out of Chattanooga, Tennessee launched an online platform, serviceindustry.tips, that has since been implemented in nearly 300 U.S. cities.

The platform randomly generates a service industry employee, giving visitors the option to tip their Venmo or Cashapp accounts. In the tri-county Cape Fear region, 492 employees have signed up for the service as of May 4.

Dale Streyle, the region’s volunteer coordinator for the service, said the program has logged 860 tips in total. He hopes that means at least everyone has received something. Even a $3 tip can make a difference, Streyle said.

“It really meant a lot just to hear that someone cared,” he said. Because the donation stays between the donor and the recipient, Streyle said the platform has no way of tracking how much money has been shared.

“We’ve had people tell us it’s enough to fill out the grocery or cell phone bill,” he said.

The all-volunteer effort aims to screen those who sign up for the service to make sure they’re service industry employees, Streyle said. “We call it a sniff test. does this look like a legitimate worker? Nobody’s going to get rich on this. it’s just something to help out.”

After an initial surge of those signing up for a chance to be displayed on the generator, Streyle said the amount is now steady. “The number of workers are starting to level off and the number of tips are starting to go up.”

Dean Cooper, a server at Thyme Savor, signed up for the service but said he has not yet received any tips.

A part-time employee before Covid-19, Cooper said the $600 a week Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation was a huge boost while he was out of work. Cooper has always kept a second job in the service industry to help pay bills, he said, because his career in child welfare does not pay well.

When Thyme Savor was awarded a Paycheck Protection Program loan, Cooper’s unemployment status changed and he stopped receiving benefits. Because the catering service and restaurant is still struggling to fill hours and maintain sales, Cooper said his shifts aren’t always guaranteed.

“Unemployment for them was a huge boost especially when there was the extra $600 a week. And now to come back from that and have to do what’s available now,” Cooper said of his coworkers. “You’re getting nowhere near the amount of sales.”

Even if it’s more difficult on employees of the business in the short-term to come out of unemployment to earn less money, Cooper said it may be more beneficial in the long term — because the job will still be there.

“I know I’m missing on a significant portion of money by not being on unemployment. It’s more money than I’m actually going to be making this month. But that’s the way it is and at least the business will be there at the end of this. Otherwise, the job may or may not have been there afterward,” he said. 

He worries for his colleague in the service industry that have imperfect records or no degree, knowing there are fewer jobs outside the field available to them. Plus, a huge portion of server’s earnings come from tips — a frequently inaccurately accounted for income that can’t be replaced by unemployment. “I think everyone knows that it’s a very badly held secret that servers don’t always claim all of their tips. So in situations like this that doesn’t work out for the best,” he said.

With a new software certification, Cooper was working as a server, hoping to be hired by a company that has shown interest in him since November. He’s hopeful the company still plans on hiring him, given new economic uncertainties.

“You just gotta take it all with a grain of salt on the rim of a margarita,” he said.

Carolina BBQ server Tammy Hawkins has worked in the service industry her entire life, previously working 30 years at Burger King. She also signed up for the tip service and also hasn’t seen any donations come through.

“I’m ready to go back to work but I don’t want it to happen too soon. For the simple fact that we’re a buffet. And we’re a restaurant. And having all those people in one place again,” Hawkins said.

A majority of customers are older, Hawkins said. On Sundays and Mondays, the restaurant’s busiest days, 100 to 200 people can pack in at one time, Hawkins said. Living off unemployment payments for now, Hawkins is weary of the days ahead, concerned she will be stuck in the predicament of needing to work but feeling uncomfortable with the circumstances.

“So it’s kind of scary to have all that again. You want to go back, but you don’t want to go back too soon bc you don’t want everybody to get sick again.”

On top of working full-time, six days a week at Carolina BBQ, Hawkins had recently picked up work as an Uber driver. She said she loved it but does not plan to return. “I have grandbabies at home and I can’t bring it back to them,” she said of the virus. 


Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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