For our 21st Century Plague project, we spoke with 17 Georgians about the toll of COVID-19. Below, Mike Gallagher—co-owner of Brick Store and Leon’s Full Service in Decatur, Good Word Brewing in Duluth, and partial owner of Kimball House—describes the outbreak’s impact on his businesses and his family. (Gallagher was interviewed on March 23.)
2020 was starting great. We’d put down a sizeable amount of money on a redo of Brick Store. So, we were feeling pretty good, and [the coronavirus] was definitely a giant slap in the face. For us, it became a choice of calm or panic. I think everybody has to make that choice. But Twitter and social media and certain news factions operate on panic, and panic propels some and spreads very quickly. Calm does not. Calm takes a lot of effort.
Gallagher and his co-owners decided to go ahead with a planned St. Patrick’s Day celebration on March 14, which included a short parade to the bar. Their decision, announced on Brick Store’s Facebook page the day before, brought out the knives. “You are encouraging people to make a very selfish decision,” wrote one of the more restrained commenters. “Public health providers are telling us to behave AS IF WE HAVE THE VIRUS, because many of us likely do.”
It was an organized walk. Calling it a “parade” is a stretch, because there were about 15 to 25 people. There were more people congregated in front of retail stores than there were in the parade. But we did it, and we had our event. We removed some tables. We put some tables spread out outside. We removed some barstools. I think people were clustering with whom they felt safe, their own household member or a family member, and then they spread out otherwise. It wasn’t six feet apart in the whole place, for sure. But our staff was militant about sanitizing bartops, tabletops, stools, chairs, menus in between their reuse, faucets. I got a lot of feedback from staff and guests about how meaningful it was to them and how they viewed it as a beacon of hope in an otherwise bleak moment in time. So we certainly got a lot of great feedback. But the bashing on social media was unfortunate and unnecessary, quite frankly.
Would we do it again in the same situation? I can’t answer that without buy-in from my partners. I don’t know. My head space is captured in this video. Our company philosophy is, “It’s not the strongest who will survive; it’s those who are willing to adapt.” And in 22 years of Brick Store, we’ve continually had to do [that]. So I honestly don’t know. I’d like to say, “Yes, we would. We’d be better and smarter at doing it, that we would do it again.” But I cannot say without full partner participation in that decision.
As new restrictions kept restaurants from opening to guests, they pivoted to takeout operations. They started GoFundMe accounts for furloughed staff. At Brick Store, owners reduced their menu to soups and sandwiches. Donations to the “soup kitchen”—meant to compensate workers—were encouraged, but if you couldn’t pay, you could still grab a bag.
At Brick Store, we decided to be donation only. That way, if there were folks in the community that didn’t have money and needed to eat, they could. So we’ve just been giving soup and sandwiches. We have six-feet tape markers. They come up and order, and we set the food down and they grab it.
Most restaurants are lucky to have two full weeks’ worth of financial runway, and employees, probably even less. A lot of these guys are paycheck-to-paycheck. And that was the reason to stay open for food, because at least we could feed our people. Some of them are okay [because they have] family support. Some of them very much need financial help. Some of them have needed help navigating how to file for unemployment, so we’ve been filing on their behalf.
Knowing that we were still open, that we were selling stuff, that people were donating by buying gift cards, people were donating through GoFundMe. I think it helped a lot, the outpouring.
We ran a one-week payroll on March 16 to actually pay people ahead so that they would have three weeks of pay in their account. We committed to insurance through April. SBA [Small Business Association] loans are a potential option. But we have a great relationship with CenterState Bank. They’ve been extremely positive and reaching out, not just waiting. So we have opportunities with them to borrow some money if needed. If SBA’s a better deal, we’ll go that route. We are willing to take on a certain amount of debt to get some runway for us and our people. As owners, we’re obviously not going to be taking any money for now unless we have to in order to make our mortgage. We can eat in our homes. That’s really all we need right now—some food and something over your head.
It’s kind of like building the plane while you’re flying it. We’re sort of figuring it out day-to-day. I would say, overall, [employees’] spirits are uplifted. I think perhaps that’s relative to the fact that restaurant people are pretty relatively unflappable in moments like this. We’re sort of built for high-stress. But I also think that there is a sense of community within our restaurant group. I think they’re standing strong on some of that.
At Brick Store, we are taking the money from the GoFundMe, the money from the gift cards, and any additional monies that have been given, and we’re divvying them up among staff on this upcoming payroll. We’re going to try to find an hourly threshold. For instance, if you worked 24 hours or less, you’ll get this pay rate. If you’re 25 or more, you’ll get that pay rate. We felt that was the most equitable, least cumbersome way to do it. I’ll be honest, it was tough. Do you pay more because they make more? Do you pay more because they need more? Do you pay more because they worked with you longer?
[My wife and I have] had some difficult talks about the greater good. Is it being available as a soup kitchen, or selling food to raise money for our staff, or closing down and keeping the highest level of social distancing? This morning, she shared a dream she had where she was in the grocery store and there was too many people and she could see the hand sanitizer and she couldn’t get to it.
The fear and anxiety have definitely been the trickiest ones. I’ve been taking it on a day-to-day basis. To date I haven’t let it creep in. I know it’s there somewhere, this fear of What does it look like? I guess if we do put some good in the world by trying to be available, safely putting food out, and showing our community some hope, I trust—maybe not quickly enough and maybe not to a level of what we would love—that banks, insurance companies, and government will backfill some of that goodness and kindness.
I’ve gotten into a habit in the morning. I come down and make my coffee and, while the cup’s still too hot, I just meditate. I think that moment of selfishness for myself, getting my mind in order, and unraveling my mind a little bit, has been huge. It’s given me some regimen. I can tell on days I don’t do it that I’m a little less patient. And then yesterday, I cycled with a good friend about 30-some miles. Sometimes a bit of exercise helps. We closed both stores yesterday, and I think it was a good mental health day for everyone.
My wife said, “Would you feel helpless if you couldn’t go in?” That certainly is some piece of it, for sure. The opportunity to feel like you can help and do something is, in this moment, a gift.
Interview edited for length and clarity.