On a June afternoon, I went for a short walk in the woods. At the end of the trail, on the bank of a creek, I found a five-course dinner, a bouquet of wildflowers, and a cold glass of Loire chenin blanc waiting for me on a thoughtfully set table, like one of those imagined desert oases in old cartoons.
It wasn’t a hallucination, though after months of isolation, the experience of leaving my house and dining at a table set by someone else certainly felt like one. Like a lot of my fellow Atlantans, I’ve been mostly sealed inside my home for over a quarter of the year. Every now and then, I’ll accompany my husband to the grocery store or to pick up takeout, always with a mask and usually with a lingering sense of unease. (Like a dog, however, I do enjoy getting to go for a ride in the car, as a special treat.)
When I took that walk in the woods, I was eight months pregnant during a pandemic that had claimed the lives of more than 2,000 Georgians, and I had zero intent to eat in a restaurant any time soon. I also ached for the dining experiences I once took for granted—drinking a beer on Halfway Crooks’ rooftop patio while watching sheepdog trials on the projector or tucking into a mess of tacos at El Tesoro with friends. But there wasn’t a lager or taco (or sheepdog show) in all of Atlanta that could lure me inside a restaurant to dine around other people.
Fortunately for me, Ett—the one-person, one-table, zero-contact “restaurant” that awaited me at the end of that brief but scenic trek—isn’t inside, nor does it involve being around other diners or anyone at all. And so, for the first and only time in the months before and after, I ceremoniously added a dinner reservation to my Google calendar.
The idea for a one-seat restaurant came to Jessamine Starr, proprietor of the Good Food Truck (known for its weekly curry deliveries, savory waffle cones, and watermelon snow), during her own isolation. Starr, who caters weddings and, at one point early this year, had a fully booked schedule for spring and summer, found herself with a bounty of time on her hands after the pandemic paralyzed the U.S. in mid-March. She came across a news story about a couple in Sweden offering solo dining experiences in a meadow and decided to try something similar in her own backyard, a couple of lush wooded acres where Starr grew up and now raises her own children, 47 years after her parents first squatted on the land. (They bought it, eventually.) She calls the restaurant Ett, the Swedish word for “one.”
Ett, Starr says, is not just about a meal; it’s more like an experiment that probes “that uncomfortable space of being by yourself, which maybe shouldn’t be uncomfortable.” She says she spends a lot of time on the food, but the food is “less than half of the importance of the whole thing.” She encourages her diners to take advantage of their time in solitude however they like—splash in the creek, meditate, bring a book—but has observed that most only stay for about an hour. (She only requires that you leave by dark.) She also fielded a few pleas for tables for two, which she firmly declined. “I get that it would be a romantic thing to do,” she says, “but . . . absolutely not.”
Pricing for the meal is pay-what-you-can; in addition to a few cash payments of varying amounts, past diners have left calla lilies and cucumbers from their yards, thank-you notes and doodles, and, in one memorable instance, chickens—live ones. (Ironically, that particular guest’s dinner included an egg tart.)
Starr plates the food and prepares the table when her guest first arrives on the property; by the time the guest concludes the third-of-a-mile traipse through the forest, the full meal awaits beneath glass cloches, and Starr is nowhere to be seen.
After scoring one of Ett’s six slots for June (they go quick), I drove to Roswell the day of my reservation and parked in a driveway on a wooded piece of land surrounded by expensive-looking subdivisions. I followed signage along a short trail that led me through the woods, under the power lines, and down a short, steep ridge snaking down toward Willeo Creek beneath a canopy of bigleaf magnolias. Halfway through, I was rewarded with a “walking snack”—a Ball jar of homemade sparkling dandelion water and two little strawberries. The trail ends next to the creek, where a table with one chair overlooks the water.
I found myself trying to ration my time. I ate slowly and took long, leisurely pauses between bites to stare at the creek and look up at the thatchwork of leaves. I carefully meted out sips of that sweating glass of chenin blanc, hoping to make it last as long as the meal itself. Occasionally, I spotted a harmless, tiny spider lazily dropping below his web to check on me like a laid-back server.
Starr changes the menu with each meal, keeping dishes vegetarian (mostly vegan) and working with produce from 8Arm’s CSA, Patchwork City Farms, and her own garden. My meal, with its menu penciled in cursive on a scrap sheet of looseleaf, was composed of simple, beautiful dishes heralding the arrival of summer: pattypan squash flecked with tangerine-hued squash blossoms and smoky pepitas, a hominy crepe blanketed in edible flowers, a creamy grit terrine spilling over with briny black-eyed peas. Starr has never been “a tweezer chef” but says she’s been surprised at the level of precision she’s adopted in placing each individual flower on various dishes. “It’s really against my general cooking ways, but I just want it to be pretty,” she says. Dessert was a half-dozen Pearson peach slices roasted and wrapped in a fig leaf, tucked inside an old tin lunchbox.
I’ve never been so completely by myself in a dining experience before (how could I be?), but it didn’t feel lonely. Throughout the meal, I resisted the urge to look at my phone—and, somehow, I stayed in Starr’s backyard for close to two hours. There wasn’t another human in sight, and, in this setting, there didn’t need to be. The snack on the trail, the wildflower bouquet, the handwritten menu—all of those little human touches helped me feel Starr’s presence without seeing her. I was alone, but I had simple proof of something special a stranger wanted to share. Maybe that’s all it takes to feel fed right now.
In light of the pandemic, be sure to check a restaurant’s Instagram or website for its most up-to-date info on dine-in, patio, takeout, and delivery options.
You can feel the love the moment you step into Anna’s BBQ, an old school–style barbecue spot in the middle of fast-gentrifying Kirkwood. The sprawling menu can be overwhelming, but the pulled pork, served as a platter, a sandwich, or in “Anna’s Favorite” (a sandwich topped with slaw), is a good start. The pork is juicy and well-seasoned and scattered with a just-right, sweet-and-hot sauce. The collards are appealingly briny, the mac and cheese adequately decadent (if a little salty). Pro tip: The portions of meat served with the lunch meals might feel a little scrawny for more carnivorous diners; spring for the dinner platter. 1976 Hosea L. Williams Drive, Kirkwood, 404-963-6976
B’s Cracklin’ BBQ
Every cloud has a silver lining, even the cloud of smoke that began billowing from the roof of B’s Cracklin’ last year, when a fire consumed Atlanta’s best barbecue restaurant. For better or worse, smoke and fire are integral to pitmaster/proprietor Bryan Furman’s success. In 2015, his first location in Savannah also burned down, and the amount of support he received back then allowed him to reopen in four months. Of course, both smoke and fire are critical to preparing his masterful, pecan wood–smoked ribs (cut from heritage-breed hogs raised in Georgia and South Carolina) and brisket. While Furman and his wife and co-owner, Nikki, still have a new location in the works, they opened a B’s Cracklin’ outpost in October in the new, BeltLine-adjacent Kroger on Ponce. Now, you can get your B’s fix at the same time you try to score toilet paper. 725 Ponce de Leon Avenue, Old Fourth Ward, no phone
Busy Bee Cafe
Atlanta would be a lesser town without Busy Bee, which provided sustenance to Civil Rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. Since 1947, the woman-owned institution has reliably served heaping helpings of soul food: smothered pork chops, oxtails, fried chicken, collards, and cornbread dressing. Old-school politicos and R&B stars alike continue to file into the tight quarters on the outskirts of Atlanta’s HBCU complex, seeking lunch or early dinner. You can’t find a more delicious serving of history. 810 Martin Luther King Drive, AUC, 404-525-9212
Chicken + Beer
There is no better restaurant co-owned by a rapper and named for a seminal album—especially if, like the intro track from Ludacris’s Chicken-n-Beer, you prefer your comfort food “Southern Fried.” That the restaurant is located in the airport is just one more reason to show up to Hartsfield-Jackson early. Ludacris and his partner, restaurant group Jackmont Hospitality, don’t peddle “airport wings” (the flavorless variety created solely to sustain a captive, security-cleared audience); these whole wings rival those you’ll find at any restaurant in Atlanta, the world’s wing capital. If or when Luda and company decide to expand the franchise beyond Hartsfield-Jackson, and members of the general public have an easier time getting hold of the short-rib mac and cheese, it will be even clearer that this food holds its own against restaurants far beyond Concourse D. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Concourse D, Gate 5, 404-209-3905
Daddy D’z the BBQ Joynt
Christianah Coker-Jackson bought Daddy D’z in 2018 from the restaurant’s founder, Ron Newman. The iconic barbecue spot on fast-gentrifying Memorial Drive received not just a fresh coat of paint but a continued commitment to the neighborhood’s longtime residents. “As a business owner, you can see that maybe there’s a possibility of increased business with all this development,” Coker-Jackson told Atlanta earlier this year. “But as a Black woman, I see gentrification as a way to displace African Americans, because these were our neighborhoods, and we’ve been pushed out of them.” Yes, there are tons of restaurants on Memorial Drive now, where there used to be few. But don’t overlook Daddy D’z. The tender, smoked ribs are as perfect as ever. 264 Memorial Drive, Grant Park, 404-222-0206
Desta Ethiopian Kitchen
Desta is one of three Ethiopian restaurants at the corner of Briarcliff and Clairmont roads—including the stylish and formidable newcomer Feedel Bistro. Despite the competition, it’s still among the best places in town to scoop up kitfo (raw, minced beef seasoned with chili powder and spiced butter) and miser (red lentils stewed with cayenne, onion, garlic, and ginger) using soft, spongy, fermented injera bread. The menu, which allows you to make decisions based on how daring you are, demystifies Ethiopian cuisine, and the tree that rises up from the middle of the covered patio and through its roof makes you forget you’re in the middle of an asphalt sea. A second location recently opened in Emory Point. 3086 Briarcliff Road, North Druid Hills, 404-929-0011, and 1520 Avenue Place, Emory, 404-835-2748
As the newest of three (yes, three) Ethiopian restaurants at the intersection of Briarcliff and Clairmont roads, Feedel Bistro signifies the size and strength of Atlanta’s Ethiopian community—but it also faces a challenge. How does it differentiate itself from its next-door neighbor, the no-frills and long-reliable Bahel, and its across-the-street one, the acclaimed Desta? For starters, Feedel Bistro is technically Ethiopian and Eritrean (the cuisines of the bordering countries are similar). A bigger difference is Feedel Bistro’s stylish dining room, all decked out with distressed shiplap walls and black rattan pendants. The space is tasteful and curated, and so is the concise menu, which has fewer options than Desta’s or Bahel’s and is a little easier to navigate. The supremely comforting “mom’s special,” gomen be’siga, combines cubes of tender lamb and velvety collards in a mildly spiced butter sauce. The kitfo—a beef dish traditionally served raw but also available here lightly sauteed or fully cooked—is evidence of the kitchen’s delicate balance with spice (the meat is neither overwhelmed nor underseasoned) and its deft knifework (the raw beef version is perfectly minced). Whatever you do, order the vegetarian sampler platter of spiced red lentils, brown lentils, yellow split peas, collards, cabbage, and house salad. It’s one of the best vegan meals around and a worthy addition to the spread, even at a table of carnivores. 3125 Briarcliff Road, North Druid Hills, 404-963-2905
Lake & Oak
Chef Todd Richards, who launched Richards Southern Fried at Krog Street Market and serves as culinary director at Jackmont Hospitality (One Flew South, Chicken + Beer), finally brings his mastery of barbecue to the masses. Lake & Oak, on a quiet East Lake corner formerly inhabited by Greater Good BBQ, arrived without much forewarning—but that didn’t stop the crowds from lining up (if only to pick up their takeout orders). Lake & Oak’s ribs have just the right amount of smoke and tug, the brisket is downright buttery, but I was no less impressed with the briny collard greens (no sign of mush in these leafy beauties) and the collard fried rice, punched up with slivers of ginger. 2358 Hosea L. Williams Drive, East Lake, 404-205-5913
Merkerson’s Fish Market
Few things feel more Southern than a fish fry. You can locate some of the best by following a sign advertising one at a local church—but if that doesn’t pan out, you’ll find a similarly iconic Atlanta experience at the somewhat decrepit-looking, old-fashioned Merkerson’s Fish Market, a longtime fixture on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard. Merkerson’s offers fresh porgys, sheepheads, snappers, mullets, and catfish whole at the counter, which you can cook yourself. Better yet, have them fried on the spot while you sit on one of the benches, waiting for your order to be called. A scant $7 will buy you three pieces of deftly fried flounder, two thin slices of wheat bread, some fries, and a few jalapeño hushpuppies. The hot sauce waits for you at the counter. The whiting fish sandwich, priced as low as $3.49, trumps anything you could ever purchase at a fast-food restaurant. Eat your fish burning-hot at a long folding table overlooking a broken Pac-Man machine or in your car with the windows open. 740 Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, West End, 404-758-9079
The Real Milk & Honey
At this all-day brunch spot from Chopped: Redemption–winning chef Sammy Davis and Monique Rose, you can chow down on Crown Royal peach cobbler French toast and Southern fried catfish with creamy grits—even for dinner. A valentine to Atlanta’s iconic Black music scene, the interior features photos of music-industry icons, gold accents, a bar embedded with vintage vinyl, and a menu that also includes crab hash, Southern fried fish and grits, and lobster, egg, and cheese biscuits. 3719 Main Street, College Park, 404-458-5500
Slim & Husky’s
This Westside pizza joint is the first of two Atlanta outposts from the hip-hop–minded Nashville minichain, which gained initial attention by opening in historically Black and underserved North Nashville. Atlanta is a logical next stop (Memphis and Chattanooga are next). But underserved the Westside is not; the chain’s mission will resonate more strongly in Adair Park, its second Atlanta location. The pies have cracker-thin crusts and names evoking vintage hip-hop (Rony, Roni, Rone! or Got 5 On It), and they’re made in front of you, assembly-line style, before being placed in a conveyor oven. What emerges on the other side is high on stoner-y fun. Go for the Cee No Green, loaded with ground beef, pepperoni, sausage, and two styles of bacon. 1016 Howell Mill Road, Westside, 404-458-3327, and 581 Metropolitan Parkway, Adair Park
Bring a friend. Bring a book. Just be prepared to stand in line. This southwest Atlanta take-out–only burger stand serves plant-based patties to thousands of people every week, all of them willing to wait an hour (or more) for the experience. The Westview brick-and-mortar location of Pinky Cole’s viral-sensation food truck serves cheekily named burgers—hello, One Night Stand and Menage a Trois—that have drawn orgasmic reviews from celebrities like Tyler Perry and Snoop Dogg. The 10 burger and sandwich options on the menu come with toppings including vegan bacon, vegan cheese, vegan shrimp, and caramelized onions (the $19 Menage a Trois has all of those atop an Impossible patty; perhaps it should’ve been called the Menage a Cinq), and all but one of them is doused with Slutty Sauce. Gloriously sloppy and convincingly meaty, these burgers are nearly indistinguishable from the classic ones you’ll find at the best walk-up joints. A second location opened in Jonesboro in July. 1542 Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, Westview, 678-732-3525; 164 North McDonough Street, Jonesboro
Tassili’s Raw Reality
There are 40 ounces of kale packed into the Mandingo wrap at Tassili’s Raw Reality, which since 2011 has occupied the colorful ground floor of a two-story duplex in West End. (Grab a table on the front porch.) Lest you scoff at its $25 price tag, note that this wrap could easily feed you for three days—and that it’s so magical you’ll actually want to spend three days eating it. What makes it so good? Superspicy, soy-marinated kale, sweet coconut corn, couscous flecked with raisins and goji berries, and the sticky-crunchy combo of hemp hearts, almonds, and agave. Fewer mouths to feed? Various normal-sized wraps run from $9 to $14. 1059 Ralph D. Abernathy Boulevard, West End, 404-343-6126
Thompson Brothers Barbeque
Though you won’t see them all in the flesh, the five Thompson brothers can be found at this modest strip-mall joint just north of SunTrust Park—grinning at you from the large photo over the counter or beaming down from the snapshots lining the wall that collects their various honors (from culinary to military to athletic). Once you bite into a rib, you’ll want to grin back. There’s just the right amount of tug and chew comparative to soft flesh and fat, all of it bursting with straight-from-the-smoker fragrance. Those ribs might overshadow the chopped pork, but if you’re going for a combo platter, that’s your next best choice. Skip the underseasoned collards and lackluster mac and cheese for the piping-hot, perfectly tangy Brunswick stew. 2445 Cobb Parkway, Smyrna, 770-818-9098
Trederick’s Seafood & Grill
The owners of the Blue Ivory NightClub on the fringe of Castleberry Hill opened the charming Trederick’s next door in 2019. Southern-fried seafood is the specialty, and the catfish and whiting fillets in a light coating of cornmeal batter are especially splendid, though you might also be rightfully tempted by baskets of huge, sweet shrimp. In addition to its inexpensive fried offerings, Trederick’s offers more decadent options such as crab clusters and lobster tails. Don’t forget the crinkly fries, the thick homestyle chips, and the sweet coleslaw. 609 Whitehall Street, Castleberry Hill, 470-343-2175
Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours Chef Deborah VanTrece is quick to share her unfiltered opinion on the state of soul food, Black restaurateurship, and any other social issue you care to discuss. She also artfully builds on culinary traditions of Black Southerners. And after reopening on Juneteenth, her restaurant’s patio has become an ideal place to unwind. For brunch, order the “Sweetest Hangover” Chick, a fried chicken Benedict with crunchy Vidalia onion rings, arugula, and peach Hollandaise. 1133 Huff Road, Blandtown, 404-350-5500
Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen and Bar
Gee and Juan Smalls, who debuted Virgil’s last summer in College Park, are married business partners and first-time restaurant owners; they started out as event producers based in Midtown and rapidly became leaders in the Black LGBTQ community. It was Juan who suggested that Virgil’s pay tribute to his late father-in-law, Virgil F. Smalls, and the Gullah-Geechee cuisine Gee grew up with on James Island, just outside Charleston. As chef, Gee looks to the traditional Gullah-Geechee kitchen as inspiration for dishes such as red rice, crab rice, okra soup, and shrimp and crab gravy. 3721 Main St, College Park, 404-228-4897
A version of this article appears in our August 2020 issue.
“I’m not an artist at all,” admits Virginia Hepner, “but I’m the best audience member.” Growing up in a tiny Arkansas town of 500 people, Hepner, 63, had an uncommon exposure to the arts: Her mother regularly took all four kids to Kansas City to explore museums, and her father loved taking the family to musicals. In undergrad at Wharton, Hepner majored in finance and minored in art history. “But I never in my wildest dreams imagined I’d ever do anything actually connected to the business of arts,” she says.
Hepner, currently corporate director of Cadence Bank, came to Atlanta in 1988. That year, her trajectory in the arts was kick-started when she was asked to join the board of the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund. That set the stage for Hepner’s work in shaping some of Atlanta’s most lauded arts institutions, from the Atlanta Ballet to the Woodruff Arts Center. She is credited with transforming the arts center financially, even amid unprecedented challenges.
Throughout her work in Atlanta arts and culture, Hepner has witnessed enormous change. “We’re the beneficiary of a lot of wealth creation, and we’ve had tremendous support from the corporate community,” Hepner says. But that financial success has sometimes made it more difficult for emerging artists to live and work here, and for other Atlantans to access the arts at all. “I believe you can’t really be a great city without having the arts,” she says. “And I think it’s essential for everyone to have those opportunities.” Creating those opportunities has long been one of Hepner’s goals.
Most recently, she’s set her sights on another crucial component of the city’s challenges: community development and affordable housing. She now works with the Westside Future Fund, a nonprofit committed to transforming and protecting Atlanta’s Westside. Hepner says the work is inspiring and aligns with her values. “It’s never been just about housing,” she says. “It’s about redeveloping and revitalizing communities, while at the same time trying to protect the people who built that community.”
When Anita Johnson was eight years old, she scrawled her signature inside her family’s encyclopedia collection as “Dr. Johnson, MD.” Now 53, Johnson has worked at the cutting edge of breast cancer treatment for 25 years and serves as the director of breast surgical oncology at Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) in Atlanta. She still has one of those encyclopedias.
Her career in healthcare was fueled by her drive to care for women—a drive that was first sparked in childhood, when her mother fell ill and nearly died in an intensive care unit. That exposure, she says, inspired her to want to take care of people—and to offer them better care than her mother was given.
Johnson not only approaches each patient with compassion, but also with some of the most scientifically advanced treatment options available, which allow for earlier detection, better outcomes, and less invasive surgeries and therapies. One example is intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT), which allows patients to undergo one round of therapy during surgery rather than a weeks-long regimen. Thanks in part to Johnson’s efforts, CTCA was the first hospital in metro Atlanta to offer IORT.
Above all, Johnson appreciates giving women options. She proudly recalls one patient who had been told by another hospital that she needed a bilateral mastectomy. Johnson treated her and left behind only a hidden scar, and the patient—a hair stylist—proudly showed it off to all of her clients. “It’s bad enough to have a cancer diagnosis, but women don’t want to be disfigured, too,” she says. “I get joy from being able to give women options with equal or better outcomes.”
In 2019, Johnson collaborated with state Rep. Sharon Cooper to write Margie’s Law, which mandates that women with dense breast tissue must be informed by their doctors that they’re at a higher risk for breast cancer, and that insurance companies must cover their breast MRIs. “Research is important,” Johnson says, “but when research turns to policy, that’s when it’s really impactful.”
A visual thinker, Carolyn Meltzer was drawn to medical imaging sciences because she appreciated using pictures to solve a complex problem—to her, it felt like putting a puzzle together. But at this stage in her career, the 59-year-old neuroradiologist is embracing a different kind of challenge. “I’ve accomplished a lot of what I wanted to accomplish in my research,” says Meltzer, who chairs Emory’s radiology department. “For me, the most gratifying thing at this stage in my career is the development of the next generation of leaders in the field.”
Meltzer has long been a champion of breaking up the hierarchies in her historically male-dominated field. She looks back on leadership positions she’s held in which she was the first woman to do so. “While it’s great to break glass ceilings, they should all have been broken a long time ago,” she says. A decade ago, she and her colleagues launched the Emory Radiology Leadership Academy, a rigorous, nine-month program designed to propel mid-career faculty and staff into the next phase of their careers. “This leadership academy was put in place with the very intentional understanding that every class would be more diverse,” she explains.
Last year, Meltzer was tapped by Emory School of Medicine to assemble an office overseeing the entire faculty experience, with the goal of bringing diversity, equity, and inclusion to the forefront. “We don’t think of social justice and equity issues as being separate from everything else we do, but part of how we do our work and the patients we serve,” Meltzer says.
Though she isn’t conducting neuroimaging procedures as frequently these days, she enjoys spending time on images of a different kind. Meltzer’s fine arts photography has been shown in more than 40 galleries around the world, and she serves on the board of Women In Focus, an organization that promotes and supports women fine art photographers. She sees that work as a parallel to her work in imaging. With imaging, she says, you must work within strict technical parameters with no creative input, but with photography, “I get to create the pictures.”
When Allegra Lawrence-Hardy enrolled in law school at Yale, she boarded the plane from Atlanta to New Haven with one thing in mind: “Too many people had sacrificed for me to have this opportunity for me to do anything but show up and do my best,” the 48-year-old says.
Growing up in Cascade Heights, Lawrence-Hardy was often reminded of the “long line of badass women” from which she came, and the sacrifices they made along the way. Her great-grandmother earned her degree from Columbia in 1918 (and had to do so by passing as a white woman); her grandmother enrolled in college at 15 and later worked as Spelman’s registrar; and her mother became the first black computer science PhD at Georgia Tech.
Lawrence-Hardy is continuing that legacy. The Atlanta lawyer works in complex litigation and crisis management cases, including investigating claims of racial and sexual harassment. She also helps fight for those who don’t have a voice. After the 2018 gubernatorial election, during which she served as chair on Stacey Abrams’s campaign, Lawrence-Hardy and her team heard from more than 80,000 Georgians who had experienced trouble voting. “We couldn’t walk away from that,” she says. In response, Lawrence-Hardy helped bring a comprehensive federal lawsuit against the state, which is pending, and now supports Fair Fight Action in monitoring elections and engaging Georgia voters.
Lawrence-Hardy displays her great-grandmother’s diploma in her living room so that she, her nine-year-old daughter, and her two nieces can reflect on how their elders helped pave the way for them to succeed. Growing up, she was fortunate to have women role models who were “not people I was reading about in a book, but who were doing my hair every morning.” Now, she works to share that good fortune through her philanthropic efforts focused on access and advocacy for Atlanta youth at places such as the Children’s Museum, Zoo Atlanta, and the Atlanta Girls’ School.
Last year, a little more than a week after the birth of her daughter via emergency C-section, Jenné Shepherd returned to the hospital, this time to the emergency room. She hadn’t been able to keep food down for days, and she sensed something wasn’t right. But instead of taking a closer look at what could be wrong, hospital staff sent her home with a prescription for antibiotics and instructions to follow up with her primary-care doctor, which Shepherd did two days later. “I think the furthest she got was taking my temperature before she said, ‘Something is wrong—you need to go back to the ER.’”
After an examination at a different Atlanta hospital, a doctor informed Shepherd that she was suffering from an advanced staph infection, and her kidneys were already failing. His words, as Shepherd remembers them: If you had waited until tomorrow [to come in], you would have died.
Shepherd was prepped for an emergency hysterectomy. Two months and a half dozen surgical procedures later, she was released from the hospital, but her treatment continued with another month of home healthcare, in addition to physical therapy to relearn how to walk (and, later, behavioral therapy to work through acute anxiety stemming from the trauma). By the time Shepherd could walk and drive, her daughter was six months old.
“I couldn’t even advocate for myself,” says Shepherd, a community activist herself and former president of the neighborhood group Adair Park Today. “I couldn’t remember things. I was in so much pain. Every day was like, I just got to get through the day.”
But because she survived, she’s one of the lucky ones. The number of Georgia women who die from pregnancy-related causes is startling: According to 2018 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state’s rate of such deaths was more than double that of California, and, in many recent years, that rate has been the highest in the country. Georgia’s unusual number of maternal deaths stems in part from the fact that Black women, who make up a larger portion of Georgia’s population than in many other states, are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white ones.
In Georgia and elsewhere, women die as a result of pregnancy complications before giving birth (such as from a stroke brought on by elevated blood pressure during pregnancy); as a result of complications related to birth (including an infection or hemorrhage); and, perhaps most surprisingly, from untreated conditions that manifest weeks or months postpartum. A critical component of solving the maternal mortality crisis, therefore, is to look not just at how women die but when. More than a quarter of women who died from pregnancy-related causes in Georgia were more than six weeks postpartum, according to a study of 250 maternal deaths from 2012 to 2014 by Georgia’s Maternal Mortality Review Committee. (Data from more recent years have not yet been examined by the MMRC.) Of those deaths, approximately 65 percent were preventable.
One of the most immediate solutions, according to medical experts and the recent bipartisan Georgia House Study Committee on Maternal Mortality, is expanding Medicaid for women who recently gave birth. State lawmakers are pushing for that expansion, though the legislature is currently on pause at least until mid June due to COVID-19. The House study committee recommended that women be able to remain on Medicaid for a full year following childbirth, though the version of the state budget passed by the House and awaiting passage in the Senate would extend it only to six months. That budget could change drastically due to COVID-19. [Editor’s note: On June 24, HB 1114, which would extend Medicaid for low-income mothers for up to six months postpartum, passed the state Senate and House. It still has to be signed by Governor Kemp and will need to be funded, which the AJC says is “far from guaranteed given the coronavirus’ economic toll on state coffers.”]
More than half of Georgia’s births are to low-income women covered by Medicaid—but currently, that coverage is cut off 60 days after delivery. Patients can subsequently reapply to Medicaid as parents, but the income threshold for eligibility drops substantially. According to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, 76 percent of Georgia mothers making less than 220 percent of the poverty line ($37,900 for a family of two and $47,700 for family of three) made too much money to requalify for Medicaid after the 60-day period.
“Not every woman may need to come to the doctor for the whole 12 months, but for those who had pregnancy-induced hypertension or diabetes or had a C-section with complications, [expanded Medicaid coverage] gives us an opportunity to intervene,” says Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, president and dean of Morehouse School of Medicine. “That makes a big difference.”
Though individual bills under the Gold Dome this session differed on the length of time that Medicaid should be expanded to new mothers, the idea received support from members of both parties in both chambers.
Representative Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta), who cochaired the House study committee, cosponsored a bill proposing to extend pregnancy Medicaid to six months postpartum as a compromise between the committee’s year-long recommendation and the governor’s call for budget cuts. A six-month extension would cost the state about $20 million a year, compared to estimates of between $32 million and $70 million for 12 months. Cooper did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“It’s a half-measure,” says Representative Renitta Shannon (D-Decatur), who sponsored legislation to extend postpartum Medicaid to a full year back in early 2019 and again this year. “To me, what a six-month extension basically says is, We’re going to save the lives of some women but not all. Why wouldn’t we do what we could to make sure we’re trying to save the lives of as many women as possible?”
As a Black woman and a community organizer for reproductive-rights initiatives, Shannon says the issue of postpartum health resonates on a personal level: Her sister, who had a baby in March 2019, had to be under a doctor’s close care for a year following the birth to manage pregnancy-induced high blood pressure. If she’d been on Medicaid, even with a six-month extension, she would have had a hard time getting that care, Shannon claims.
Medicaid expansion, of course, is only part of the solution—one that serves women in a specific income bracket and in a specific window of time. Other systemic problems contribute to Georgia’s high maternal mortality rate and are harder to fix. The state’s ongoing shortage of healthcare providers and rural hospitals—over half the counties in Georgia do not have an obstetrics provider—leave many women, on Medicaid or not, without access to pre- or postpartum care.
There are studies showing that doctors and healthcare workers are less likely to accept or to prioritize Medicaid patients because of low reimbursement rates. Other studies, such as one published in 2018 by the Yale Global Health Justice Partnership, found that the medical community doesn’t take the concerns of Black female patients seriously enough.
“What Black women have reported, and what I have actually seen in action, is that they don’t believe that they are heard or listened to in the same way that others are,” says Montgomery Rice, the Morehouse School of Medicine dean. In 2020, the school hopes to launch its Center for Excellence on Maternal Mortality to develop strategies for more equitable prenatal and postpartum healthcare.
Shepherd wasn’t a Medicaid patient: With private health insurance through her husband’s job, a doula, and access to her choice of Atlanta’s many healthcare providers and hospitals, she had all of the tools at her disposal for a healthy birth and aftermath. Yet, she barely survived. Looking back on her experience, she wonders: “What happens to a person who doesn’t have any of that?”
Shepherd now is running for a seat in the state House (District 57), and she shares her story on the campaign trail. “I want to be that person who advocates for Medicaid expansion, who says that 60 days is not enough. And if you should happen to have some kind of situation like mine, six months would have definitely not been enough.”
The restaurant business is a brutal one even in the best of times, whether you’re a Michelin-starred chef or a rookie barback. Any worker who’s gone through its basic training emerges with something of a battle-ready mindset. Usually, though, such battles take the shape of merciless hours and relentless dinner rushes—not an invisible, spiky-crowned virus. This is the rare fight that the tenacious members of the restaurant industry can’t win alone. In our Resilience of Restaurants issue, you’ll find not only suggestions for how to support your favorite haunts—many of which were far from ready to reopen in early May, despite the governor’s assurances that it was fine to do so. You’ll also find the faces and stories of the people who need that help to survive the short term, so that they can stick it out long enough to protect their families, their workers, and their customers. They want to preserve what they’ve built so that something lasting remains after the virus retreats. “These are the places that you’ve always loved, and the charm is still there,” says Allen Suh, who was forced to close Buford Highway stalwart Donquixote in April. “We always hoped that would bring the people back, you know?” —Mara Shalhoup
1. Mobilize (and pay) restaurant workers to feed those in need
There are, tragically, an astronomical number of people who make and serve food for a living who recently lost their jobs. In Georgia, unemployment claims from restaurant-industry workers increased by 118,000 in March, according to the Georgia Department of Labor. There also is an unprecedented number of people in need of meals, from front-line workers to children who had relied on subsidized school (and summer-camp) lunches to families whose wage earners have suffered layoffs, furloughs, or pay cuts. The private and nonprofit sector already is raising and donating funds to pay restaurants and their workers to prepare meals for those in need. But what if the government funded a program to redeploy restaurants and their workers as emergency food providers?
Congress passed a $25 billion COVID-19 bailout for the airline industry but not one tailored to the restaurant industry, which is four times bigger in terms of sales and 18 times bigger in number of jobs. Instead, restaurants were left to compete with all other businesses for federal small-business loans—and smaller, independent restaurants often are missing out on those funds in favor of restaurant chains. In the first round of loan disbursements, seven such chains gobbled up $91 million of the $349 billion available (though many of them returned the loan money after public blowback).
Miller Union chef/co-owner Steven Satterfield and his team mobilized after Emory Healthcare asked him and Forza Storico’s owners to provide meals for hospital workers, many of whom are pulling 12-hour shifts. The effort supplies 400 meals a day between both restaurants, five days a week, thanks to funding not from the feds but from State Farm Arena and the Atlanta Hawks. It’s enabled Satterfield to keep about 60 percent of his employees on the payroll at $15 an hour.
“We’ve just been really fortunate to have something to do while this pandemic is happening because so many people are out of work. So many restaurant workers are furloughed and have no mission except for just to try to navigate their own life,” Satterfield says. “It’s given us a purpose, and we feel really lucky.” He says that, without the work from the initiative, “we would have just been doing piecemeal to-go sales and probably furloughing more people.”
Chef José Andrés, who has used his international nonprofit World Central Kitchen to provide more than 15 million meals for those in need (including passengers on quarantined cruise ships in California and survivors of Hurricane Maria), essentially is proposing a New Deal for the restaurant industry. His plan would have the government pay restaurant-industry professionals to feed their cities’ most vulnerable—on a large scale. (Think arenas and convention centers.) He shared that idea in a phone call in March with chef and restaurateur Hugh Acheson (of 5&10 in Athens and Empire State South and By George in Atlanta), who then came up with his own, scaled-down take, which calls for using federal funds to support cooks in preparing meals each day in their restaurants; as of late April, Acheson’s two restaurants were preparing well over 1,000 meals daily for in-need communities and first responders (paid for by outside contributions). Whether large-scale or small, such efforts—if federally funded—would bring relief not just to restaurants and those in need of meals but to the entire restaurant supply chain, including Georgia’s farmers and shrimpers.
Along with Satterfield and Acheson, other Atlanta chefs are already doing their part, with donations from individuals and the private sector. You can donate meals (from places like Nina & Rafi and Hampton and Hudson) through the Meal Bridge, a website where you sign up to buy food for healthcare workers at the hospital of your choice. You also can donate to the cause through the Castellucci Hospitality Group, where a $15 contribution will ensure the delivery of two meals to healthcare workers as part of CHG’s Feed the Frontline campaign. Petit Chou is delivering meals to the elderly and other high-risk individuals.
Other restaurants have focused their efforts on helping their fellow hospitality workers, predominantly with funding from outside contributions. Gina and Linton Hopkins (Holeman & Finch Public House, Hop’s Chicken, and C. Ellet’s Steakhouse) have partnered with the Lee Initiative, an organization that strives to make the restaurant industry more diverse and equitable, to turn what would have been the Hopkins’s newest venture, Eugene and Elizabeth’s, into a relief center where restaurant workers who’ve been laid off or had their pay significantly reduced can stop by for a to-go meal and supplies like toilet paper, canned food, and diapers. Red Pepper Taqueria has partnered with Sysco, FreshPoint, and Buckhead Meat to provide weekly care packages (with fruits, veggies, meats, and hand sanitizer) for its employees. Staplehouse is taking donations via Venmo (@staplehouserestaurant) to pay its staff to serve meals to out-of-work food-service employees. Yet another effort spearheaded by Electric Hospitality (Golden Eagle, Muchacho, Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall) called #ATLFamilyMeal provides a similar service, working alongside about a dozen partners, including Fox Bros Bar-B-Q and New Realm Brewing, to deliver meals to workers’ homes; a $20 donation covers four meals. So far, #ATLFamilyMeal has hired workers from 100 local restaurants, bars, and breweries to help prepare and deliver more than 10,000 meals.
These are noble and essential efforts on the part of the restaurant industry and the people, organizations, and corporations whose donations support them. (For even more ways to give, see no. 5 below.) But it’s time for the government to step in to sustain this important work—because even after dining rooms reopen, the need to subsidize both the restaurants and the workers ravaged by COVID-19 will continue.
2. Order food to-go
Regardless of when restaurants decide to reopen, the takeout orders that allowed them to hang on during the roughest weeks will continue to be essential to the slow rebuilding of their business. They’ll be essential, too, for those of us who are unwilling to risk visiting even the most overprotective dining room. As of early May, there were more restaurants offering takeout, curbside, or delivery than not. Just take a look at our 50 Best Tacos issue, which we updated to indicate how many of those tacos you can order to-go. (Answer: 48!) And while this is an especially good time to revisit, repeatedly, your all-time favorite spots, you also should use this opportunity to give newer restaurants a try—especially those from the brave souls who opened in the midst of the pandemic. Whether you seek comfort from septuagenarian Busy Bee (there are few greater salves than their fried chicken) or from newborn Talat Market (we’d like to sleep on a bed of that crispy rice salad), there’s no shortage of memorable meals.
3. Buy groceries from restaurants . . .
Running low on eggs, flour, or salad greens? Skip the grocery store and hit up your neighborhood restaurant instead. Many restaurants have pivoted to retail in order to keep the lights on and keep a few employees on payroll, all while offering a low-contact way to stock your pantry—and helping to keep the local food-supply chain intact.
Inman Park bistro-turned-bodega One Eared Stag started offering groceries out of a to-go window in early April. By selling the produce it would normally use in its farm-to-table kitchen, One Eared Stag is supporting local farmers while figuring out yet another survival mechanism. (One Eared Stag also offers takeout meals.) “Without the bodega right now,” says general manager Matt Reeves, “I don’t know where we’d be standing.”
4. . . . or from farmers It’s not only service-industry workers who are struggling as a result of the mass closure of restaurants. Suppliers to those restaurants—most notably, the growers who’ve powered the farm-to-table movement—also need extra support to weather the pandemic. The good news is that there are an increasing number of ways to safely buy produce from local growers—which not only will protect their livelihoods but will ensure that, when restaurants reopen, their crops will remain intact. Here are a few local options:
Sign up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscription and get a box of ultrafresh produce weekly. You can find farms with online ordering using the Good Food Guide from Georgia Organics. One notable new CSA not on that list is the one offered by 8Arm; order by Wednesday morning for a Thursday or Friday pickup—and note that a portion of the cost goes toward providing produce boxes for undocumented workers who’ve lost their jobs.
And if you’re not comfortable picking up your produce, you’re not out of luck. You can get local produce delivered to your door through Bag’d Atlanta.
5. Donate what you can, whether to organizations or directly to restaurants Perhaps one of the best and most immediate ways to help the food-service industry is by donating your dollars to support restaurant workers, many of whom lived paycheck to paycheck prior to the crisis. Few local organizations fulfill this need as greatly and effectively as Giving Kitchen, which provides food-service workers in crisis with small but critical grants. Since the start of the pandemic, the organization—the sister nonprofit to Staplehouse—has provided over $200,000 in financial assistance to workers who’ve experienced illnesses including COVID-19 (or are under doctor’s order to quarantine). Giving Kitchen also offers assistance through its Stability Network for restaurant workers who don’t suffer directly from COVID-19 but, rather, from its vast economic impact. The Stability Network creates partnerships with and offers referrals to dozens of groups that provide aid for everything from housing to mental health to immigration issues to family services. “In every phase of our work, we’re experiencing an unprecedented response,” says executive director Bryan Schroeder. “We will never have to explain ‘why Giving Kitchen’ again.”
You also can support the staffs of your favorite restaurants by giving money directly to them. Dozens of restaurants have launched employee relief campaigns on crowdfunding platform GoFundMe, with ones like Kimball House, Redbird, and those belonging to the Fifth Group collective raising tens of thousands of dollars for former employees in less than a month. A comprehensive (and searchable) index of those campaigns can be found at ReliefAtlanta.com.
6. Invest in dining bonds
Like savings bonds, dining bonds offer buyers credit to be redeemed at a later date. What makes the concept more attractive than gift cards is that they’re sold at a discount: A bond that costs $100 today could be worth $125 when it matures in, say, three months, when a restaurant reopens. The idea was the brainchild of Helen Patrikis and Steven Hall, two New York PR professionals who serve the hospitality industry. They launched their website, the Dining Bond Initiative, on the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day, and, within a month, nearly 500 participating restaurants around the world signed up. The service is free to the restaurants, whose owners set their own terms and sell the actual bonds. An interactive map helps users find locations near them.
Atlanta-area participants include Gusto!, NaanStop, and South of Philly. Gusto! founder Nate Hybl estimates the program brought his company close to $60,000 in its first month, all of which went toward paying team members. Before the pandemic, he had about 200 employees at five locations (two more are in the works), but about 30 percent have been laid off, at least temporarily. Sales initially dropped 70 percent, despite Gusto!’s niche of providing portable, fresh food. Dining Bond proceeds have helped save more jobs. “We are so thankful to the Atlanta community,” Hybl says. “The dining bonds are an amazing sign of belief in us. We have tremendous gratitude.”
Patrikis designed the program specifically to help restaurants survive. “We really admire and love the people in the restaurant industry,” she says. “They’re givers. They’re generous and hard-working. They are always the first ones to help out when there’s a charity or a humanitarian crisis and people need food. Whenever there’s something to celebrate or an occasion to mark, you’re going to your favorite restaurant. What’s it going to look like when this is over if they’re not there?”
7. Buy a private dinner
At charity auctions, private dinners hosted by local chefs are often a choice bid. Canoe chef Matthew Basford and co-owner Gerry Klaskala have raised $20,000 multiple times at High Museum auctions. But opportunities for such exclusive affairs are rare—or at least they used to be. Basford’s team already is considering auctioning off a dinner to raise money for staff. “It’s very hard to get us to come to your home as a restaurant,” he says. “But [it’s different] if it’s something to raise funds for staff and to keep the restaurant alive.” And Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q is offering a 50-person backyard barbecue for $6,000, with all proceeds going toward employee assistance. Short of that, you can book almost any restaurant for a future private party. You’ll have to pay early (or at least put down a solid deposit), then wait for your dinner; but if you were planning to splurge on an upcoming occasion, you’ll never have a better chance to recruit your favorite chef.
8. Local government: cut the red tape
As the number of COVID-19 cases mounted and restaurants temporarily closed their doors or pivoted to takeout, local governments tried to help keep them open by easing rules on selling to-go alcohol and classifying them as essential businesses. But policymakers should view those efforts as first steps and should listen to what restaurateurs need during an unprecedented time. While the newly created Independent Restaurant Coalition (chaired by Miller Union chef/co-owner Steven Satterfield) lobbies the federal government for relief on the national level, the Georgia Restaurant Association has urged local and state governments to grant sales-tax holidays and temporary breaks on business fees, and to defer taxes on purchases until the pandemic eases. Not all those proposals will happen. But the passage of some could mean the difference between a beloved ramen spot reopening when COVID-19 treatment and vaccines are available and a “For Rent” sign popping up in the restaurant’s window.
9. Fight for restaurant workers to get better health insurance and sick leave Georgia’s laws favor businesses more than workers, and the state prohibits cities and counties from passing labor-friendly policies like increasing the minimum wage, requiring paid leave, and establishing fair scheduling, which would push employers to provide workers with more predictable schedules and better protections. The gaps caused by those preemption laws (not to mention’s the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid) have left those in food service among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic—and the least protected.
Ideally, all restaurant owners would be able to offer affordable healthcare coverage to their employees, but that’s unlikely, given the industry’s razor-thin profit margins and workers’ low wages. Another, perhaps equally unlikely option is for the state legislature to expand Medicaid coverage. At the very least, says Alex Camardelle, a senior policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, Georgia could join the 13 other states that guarantee workers paid leave, no longer forcing servers, bartenders, and kitchen staff to work sick, which is unhealthy for them and unsafe for coworkers and customers. Some companies temporarily implemented paid sick leave policies as coronavirus spread. That’s a start, but employers and—better yet—the state should commit to making these changes permanent.
The feast or famine practice of tipping, erratic work schedules, and a state minimum wage that hasn’t increased in 15 years can make it hard for restaurant workers to maintain a steady budget or handle an unexpected expense. “All of the sudden, these folks who we consider to be low-wage workers, who were scraping by, are the essential workforce,” Camardelle says. “If this doesn’t force us to [raise the minimum wage] in the near future, I don’t know what will. It’s always been a lack of sheer political will. It will be a complete denial of these people’s humanity and their worth.”
10. Be supportive of the vastly different style of restaurant that could emerge as the pandemic recedes
If you think that offering benefits and paying workers livable wages on razor-thin profit margins was hard enough before COVID-19, just imagine what it will be like in the aftermath of the pandemic—when restaurants will have reduced occupancies (perhaps by as much as 50 percent). Also: Gone, for a while at least, will be the days of waiting for your table—and running up a tab—at the shoulder-to-shoulder bar. “What we made in a day is now what we make in a week,” says Gee Smalls, co-owner of Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen & Bar in downtown College Park. The restaurant has pivoted to takeout and delivery (through Uber Eats and DoorDash), but a large part of Virgil’s success since opening a year ago was its busting-at-the-seams weekend bar scene. “We’re using this downtime to think of ways to do things better and strengthen our restaurant.”
We’ve long needed to build a better, more equitable, more worker-protective restaurant; now, we need to build a more diner-protective one—all based on a business model that actually keeps the restaurant afloat. For that miracle to happen, we need to be ready, as diners, to assume some of the cost—at a time when many of us have new financial struggles of our own. It might become more expensive to eat out than it was before. Or the more luxe experience at a given restaurant might become more casual and, given the masked servers and required temperature readings, weirder. Nobody yet knows exactly what the postpandemic restaurant will look like. (Well, our former dining critic Corby Kummer might; he’s working with the James Beard Foundation and the Aspen Institute’s Food and Society Program to establish new safety protocols for restaurants.) The biggest thing to keep in mind is that, going forward, restaurants will require an unusual amount of patience and patronage—and however much you’re able to give will be worth it.
A classically trained chef who typically executes high-end tasting menus now spends his days packing takeout orders. A James Beard–nominated baker boxes up preordered pastries with her seven-month-old on her hip. An out-of-work line cook and barback move 500 miles away from Decatur, just to secure a roof over their heads.
Coronavirus hasn’t just immobilized restaurants; it’s left their workers adrift, sweeping aside their wages, childcare, and routines. The challenges are even steeper for households where both wage-earners are employed in the industry. For couples who depend entirely on income from bars they own, restaurants they manage, or tips they earn waiting tables, the most frightening thing isn’t the virus itself but a future made unrecognizable by it. Even after Governor Brian Kemp allowed restaurants to reopen in late April, the decision to do so is fraught: Restaurant owners are left weighing the value of their businesses against the need to protect the health of their employees and customers.
Five service-industry couples spoke with us about how they’re surviving, adapting, and keeping one another afloat.
“If there was just some certainty, it would change everything.”
Paul Calvert (partner, Ticonderoga Club) and Sarah O’Brien (owner, the Little Tart Bakeshop) For a couple who owns a bar and a bakery, family time can be hard to come by at any hour. But these days, Paul Calvert and Sarah O’Brien start almost every day with a walk through Grant Park with their four-year-old son, seven-month-old daughter, and two dogs. The walk once would’ve felt like a luxury. Now, it seems more like a necessity—one of the few constants in their newly unstructured daily lives.
Calvert used to spend most nights managing Ticonderoga Club, but the celebrated cocktail destination closed temporarily in March to try to ride out COVID-19. With only one of the three Little Tart locations open, in Grant Park, and with it only offering preorder takeout, O’Brien vastly reduced her hours. (In the months leading up to the pandemic, she had opened the Summerhill location and the Big Softie ice cream shop next door and had expanded the Grant Park space.)
By mid-April, neither Calvert nor O’Brien had collected a paycheck in a month. After living off of their savings, both filed for unemployment benefits. They also were still negotiating April’s rent with their commercial landlords, with no assurance of what would happen come May.
Childcare, too, has been a struggle; the family had relied on daycare and preschool since their oldest was three months old and a nanny share for the baby; those options are closed or on hold due to COVID-19. “This has been a huge shift for us,” says O’Brien, who, when she does head out to her bakery, often has a Pack ’n’ Play in tow. “Every day, it’s like, How are we doing this today?”
But for O’Brien and Calvert, the hardest part of navigating a pandemic isn’t the day-to-day upheaval. It’s the lack of understanding surrounding how, or if, the government plans to assist people like the two of them, whose small businesses collectively employ about 85 people. Both filed for Paycheck Protection Program loans through their banks as soon as the program was initiated, but they haven’t yet seen any aid and don’t expect to. “If there was just some certainty, it would change everything,” says Calvert. “We could better plan for the future of our home and our children, the future of our businesses and our employees, if we could just have some clarity on financial support from the government.”
Though Governor Brian Kemp’s plan to reopen the state allowed them to resume serving the public sooner than expected, in late April, neither Calvert or O’Brien is comfortable doing so until there’s more clarity from the medical community on whether that’s a sound idea. “I’m thinking about the safety of my team,” says O’Brien. She also points to the burden Kemp’s decision places on small-business owners. “This decision really shouldn’t be up to me, because public health isn’t my area of expertise.”
She says she grieves the daily familiarity of her kitchen, her regulars, even the sounds of the coffee grinder and espresso machine. For two people working in an industry where a successful shift is easily quantified by pastries sold or tables turned, it now feels impossible to know what a “productive” day looks like. “Sarah and I have felt so busy every day,” says Calvert, “but we also feel, at the end of the day, like we did nothing.”
Calvert and O’Brien recognize their fortune in having savings to get them through the short term, as well as plenty of food and support from their broader family of restaurant-industry peers. “We both really love this industry,” says Calvert. “I do kind of wish one of us was a lawyer, though.”
“We had no safety net.”
Alisen Redmond (line cook, My Sister’s Room) and Katie DeMille (barback, Pal’s Lounge) Alisen Redmond and her girlfriend, Katie DeMille, were living paycheck to paycheck before COVID-19 swept their jobs out from under them. The couple, who’ve worked hourly gigs in Atlanta restaurants and bars for years, had both just started new jobs: DeMille at Pal’s Lounge and Redmond at My Sister’s Room. “I was really excited about that job,” Redmond says. “It’s, like, the longest-running lesbian bar in the Southeast, and I was making their signature extra-crispy wings and fries. That’s cool history to be part of. But that was short lived.”
Right before both establishments closed, the couple was notified that their lease in Decatur wouldn’t be renewed. Paying a deposit on a new apartment had quickly become a financial impossibility. “We had no safety net,” says Redmond. Instead, the couple relocated to rural Virginia, where DeMille’s family offered to house them for free. “We’ve been really grounding for each other and helping each other get through it,” Redmond says. Preserving their morning routine (“meds, coffee, memes”) has helped. Sometimes, they watch the news together, but Redmond’s been avoiding that lately.
Redmond now works as a cake decorator at a nearby Walmart. She hopes to eventually transfer to Atlanta so that she and DeMille can return home. If they do make it back, the couple plans to seek support via local mutual aid networks, like one facilitated by Food Not Bombs, which delivers meals and groceries to in-need members at no cost. But ultimately, says Redmond, the kind of support that actually would help people in their situation requires more systemic change.
“There’s no reason it should take so long for everyone’s stimulus checks to come out,” she says. “There’s no reason people should be pushed out of their homes in a time like this. And coming out of this, in a year or two, there are still going to be things we need to fight for.”
“We’re trying not to completely lose ourselves, but it’s kind of hard not to.”
Chef Deborah VanTrece and Lorraine Lane, co-owners, Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours Twisted Soul is a truly family-run business: Up until March, Deborah VanTrece was executive chef, her daughter Kursten was front-of-house manager, and her wife Lorraine Lane handled the restaurant’s finances and administrative tasks. Now, their daily tasks have changed: VanTrece works a few days in the restaurant preparing takeout orders, while Lane spends her time researching and applying for grants and loans. “I’m tapping into everything I can possibly think of to try to make a buck here and there,” VanTrece says. That means digging into savings and navigating how to reinvent their business. “We’re trying not to completely lose ourselves,” she adds, “but it’s kind of hard not to, when you don’t know how long this will last.”
In a way, the couple has lost some of the comfort they find in each other, too. Lane, who had been commuting between Atlanta and Texas for her work with a company that operates Job Corps facilities, self-isolated in the couple’s home for 14 days following her most recent trip last month. Because VanTrece suffers from asthma, she and Lane have decided to continue social distancing from one another in their own home, sleeping in separate bedrooms and staying six feet apart in shared spaces. “It’s really hard,” VanTrece says, “because when either of us is feeling emotionally fragile, we can’t just hold each other.”
While the plague of coronavirus will certainly transform the restaurant industry at large, VanTrece fears that minority-owned businesses will suffer the most. “It was that way before, and it’s multiplied now,” she says.
What would support look like for families like hers? A level playing field, for one. Lane points out that before the federal Paycheck Protection Program ran out of funds, chains like Ruth’s Chris Steak House secured millions of dollars in aid, while she and VanTrece are scrambling to save their business. (Ruth’s Chris did give the money back, following the political backlash.)
For VanTrece, the answer is a kind of support that transcends the financial. “I would like people to pay attention,” she says. “Do not dismiss us. Know that we’re still here. And fight for us, too.”
“We’re reminding each other we’re not alone in this.”
Lai Khamphan (general manager, Chai Yo Modern Thai) and Aaron Phillips (partner and chef de cuisine, Lazy Betty) When Chai Yo Modern Thai closed its doors and furloughed its staff in mid-March, Lai Khamphan tried to stay optimistic. “I thought I’d be back at work within a few weeks,” she says. That same week, Khamphan’s fiance, Aaron Phillips, found himself out of work when Lazy Betty, an ambitious, year-old restaurant in Candler Park, also closed its doors. Sitting around at home on a Friday night with nothing to do, Khamphan and Phillips weren’t exactly enjoying the downtime. “We were just kind of like, ‘Well, now what?’”
Adding to the uncertainty, Khamphan and Phillips are expecting a baby in August and had worked hard to save money to buy a home together. Though Khamphan was successful in filing for unemployment, she says she and Phillips are now tapping into those savings to make ends meet. Along with the financial upheaval brought by the pandemic, COVID-19 shapes the couple’s lives in other ways: stricter visitor policies at Khamphan’s doctor’s office means that Phillips is no longer able to join her at appointments to listen to his son’s heartbeat.
In April, Phillips returned to Lazy Betty’s kitchen, which reopened for takeout. Meanwhile, Khamphan, concerned for the safety of her pregnancy, barely is leaving the house. Instead, she cares for her seven-year-old daughter, while Phillips is tasked with errands like prescription pickups and grocery shopping. She laughs when talking about how her fiance, whose work at Lazy Betty earned a James Beard nomination this year, handled his first solo grocery run. “Here’s this amazing chef, but you send him out to do grocery shopping for a family of three, and he’s like, Wait, is this the right cereal? Is this the milk you like?”
When Phillips worries about the future of the restaurant or when Khamphan feels anxious about her pregnancy, they remind each other to call a coworker, a friend, or a parent. For now, there isn’t much else they can do. “It’s just so out of our hands,” she says. “We’re just sitting and waiting for what we’re supposed to do next. But we’re reminding each other that we’re not alone in this.”
“We feel a responsibility to maintain that tradition.”
Alessandra and Micah Hayes (co-operators, Nino’s Cucina Italiana) After Nino’s Cucina Italiana closed its doors in March, Micah and Alessandra “Ali” Hayes found themselves no longer running Atlanta’s longest-operating Italian restaurant, which Ali’s father had bought in 1982 (it was a classic even then) and where she had started working as a teenager. In a drastic shift, the couple filled their days not with kitchen prep work, payroll, and wine orders but with learning how to homeschool their four- and six-year-old children. (Ali is pregnant with their third child, who is due in August.) “We have been completely torn from our routine,” Micah says.
As parents, they’re trying to view this isolation as an opportunity to spend more time with their kids than a service-industry family normally can. “This morning, we woke up and went into the backyard to play and to spend some time just letting them be,” Micah says. “I think that has been the best thing for us, just trying to go with the flow.”
Though neither is collecting a paycheck, both continue to fill their days with work (in between childcare): for Micah, a daily visit to the restaurant to check on the building and collect the mail; for Ali, processing unemployment for staff and taking care of administrative duties.
The biggest worry, says Ali, is the well-being of their staff. “It weighs on us,” she says. “Every day, we think about them, and I think that makes the days tougher.” To supplement unemployment for their staff, the Hayeses started a GoFundMe, which raised about $13,000 in a month: nearly a week and a half of employees’ pay.
They applied for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, though the funds haven’t come through. But the couple is certain that the half a century–old restaurant will reopen. “I grew up in Nino’s with my sisters and fell in love with the restaurant industry at a young age,” Ali says. “Generations of families have dined with us. We feel a responsibility to maintain that tradition.”
For Micah, who up until mid-March worked in Nino’s kitchen from noon to nearly midnight, the sudden abundance of time also has offered a chance to expand his culinary skills, experiment with new techniques, and test potential new menu items he hopes to share with guests when Nino’s doors finally reopen. Rolling pasta dough, filling profiteroles, and stirring risotto isn’t just an opportunity for menu research; it’s an echo of his lost routine. “I guess you could say that, in a terrible situation, if there can be a silver lining, that’s a silver lining,” Ali says.
So is hearing from their customers. “When you get those calls and texts, when you feel that support of people rooting for you, that helps a lot,” says Micah. “It just helps you feel human again.”
A few weeks after my husband, Dane, and I had closed on our first home, we were making small talk with a chatty real estate agent at the dog park. She’d been inside our house with clients; she was pleased it had finally found new owners, despite the challenges of a short sale. And she didn’t hesitate to issue us some unsolicited design advice: At some point, you’ll have to open things up. Trust me.
Our two-bedroom house in Grant Park isn’t a shotgun house, exactly, but it’s a peculiar cousin to one. The house is skinny and long and cloven in two, lengthwise: one long hallway on the right, and off to its left, a series of small rooms. While we aren’t exactly sure when the house was built (thanks to a fire inside a records department), some sleuthing has led us to believe it dates to around 1905.
Between the submarine-esque layout and, inexplicably, a finished attic sans stairs, our house is a little odd. Compared to other old houses modernized in the key of HGTV, ours feels dark, choppy, and perhaps a bit awkward. Or at least, it felt that way in the beginning.
Back then, we too felt the need to knock down a wall or two, to combine our two small front rooms and “open things up” into one grand, airy, 21st-century space. After an architect gave us a wildly expensive quote to do so, we questioned the idea. If we really wanted to make that many changes, why not just buy a different house or build our own? Why treat this 115-year-old home like a very expensive Lego set?
That spring, we unpacked the boxes and watched the previous owner’s bearded irises poke their green shoots out of the mulch. That fall, we got married. We hosted Thanksgivings, cookouts, and a steady stream of overnight houseguests. We learned which of the rooms was houseplant-friendly and which was most conducive to spending an entire Sunday supine on the couch. (The first and second rooms, respectively.) We even added stairs—not the grand staircase we’d envisioned but no longer the rickety pirate ship’s ladder that tumbled out of the laundry-room ceiling, either.
We never spoke again about gutting those walls, though. And we didn’t feel the need to make peace with them as a necessary inconvenience, either. Instead, we came to appreciate what they gave us: a sense of structure and order that a light-flooded open concept, frankly, never could. One room for cocktails and company; another for Netflix binges and greasy takeout, each with its own distinctive personality and purpose.
“Why treat this 115-year-old home like a very expensive Lego set?”
I’m grateful we didn’t have the means to make those changes to this creaky, lovely old house, because to do so would be forcing it into something it simply isn’t. Take a scroll through Zillow, and you’ll see them: the historic homes whose character has been aesthetically flattened to please our modern taste for convenience (and, apparently, our distaste for rooms). Our house has been here for more than a century. And as long as we’re here, the walls will be too.
As for forcing guests to awkwardly traipse through our bedroom to get to the backyard? We won’t be remodeling that, either: Turns out it’s a whole lot easier, and cheaper, to simply make our bed before company comes over.
Gray Chapman is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who has contributed to the New York Times, Curbed, and Atlanta magazine.
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