10 ways to help restaurants survive COVID-19

Restaurants are scrappy and innovative—and overwhelmed. It’s going to take all of us pitching in to help them rebound

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.

How to help restaurants in Atlanta COVID-192. 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.

In Decatur, B-Side Bagels bags up orders of Riverview Farms smoked meats, cheeses, grits, and wine for shoppers to retrieve. Kirkwood’s Sun In My Belly sells pantry staples out of its dining room—and delivers them to customers within a four-mile radius. Bell Street Burritos, Hodgepodge Coffeehouse, Wonderkid, Rumi’s Kitchen, Hampton and Hudson, and D.B.A. Barbecue are just a few of the local spots provisioning Atlantans with perishables and household goods (yes, even toilet paper) in low- or no-contact settings.

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.
  • Some local farmers markets are offering online preordering for quick pickup at the market. You can shop Community Farmers Markets’ virtual market for pickup on a set day at the market location closest to you (in-person shopping has resumed at the Grant Park location). Freedom Farmers Market at the Carter Center and Peachtree Road Farmers Market in Buckhead, both held on Saturdays, also offer preordering for pickup. Though it doesn’t offer preorder, the pop-up farmers market Saturdays at Boxcar in the West End still is open for in-person shopping. You can also check out which vendors who sold at the temporarily closed Marietta Square Farmers Market are offering pickup at other locations.
  • 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?”How to help restaurants in Atlanta COVID-19

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.”

How to help restaurants in Atlanta COVID-19

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.

This article appears in our June 2020 issue.