Chef Jarrett Stieber: “We were hitting our stride and doing well—and then this hits”

For our 21st Century Plague project, we spoke with 17 Georgians about the toll of COVID-19.

21st Century Plague: Coronavirus in Atlanta
Jarrett Stieber: “My focus is keeping the business open any way I can.”

Photograph by Audra Melton

For our 21st Century Plague project, we spoke with 17 Georgians about the toll of COVID-19. Below, Jarrett Stieber—owner of Little Bear in Summerhill—describes the virus’s debilitating effect on his long-anticipated, two-week-old restaurant, as well as his commitment to keeping it alive. (Stieber was interviewed on March 17)

I’ve been cooking for a living since I was 15, and it’s been a dream of mine to open a restaurant the entire time. I spent over seven years running [pop-up restaurant] Eat Me Speak Me by the time we closed it, and six of those were spent actively planning this restaurant, fundraising, looking for a space. We started our build-out at the beginning of August, end of July. We had applied for building permits in April, and it took until the end of July to get them because three different city departments lost our physical paperwork. So that was great.

We have definitely not taken the easy road by any means. Running a pop-up for seven years, we had to share space, there were weird situations, weird quirks, strange logistics. We had no real funding ever and were living week to week. It’s always been a struggle. And then we finally go through this long, drawn-out build-out. We, like every restaurant, ran way over budget. Even though our building plans got approved by the city, we had inspectors throughout the process tell us we had to change things, and we covered the cost of it. 

We opened with $285 in our checking account after buying products for the first week and just prayed that we were busy. We thankfully were. We struggled through everything and we finally had two weeks where we were open in our own space the way we always wanted it to be. We were hitting our stride and doing well. And then this hits.

Frankly, it didn’t stop being surreal. I didn’t have the chance to be open long enough for the good, good weeks to not feel surreal still. Now, we’re dealing with a pandemic, so it’s surreal again in a different way. It’s something that maybe will make a good first chapter of a cookbook down the road or something, a funny story when the time feels more appropriate. But for now, it’s just kind of a kick in the nuts. But we’re trying to fight back as best we can. If this place is going to close, I want it to be because I run it into the ground and mismanage it. I don’t want it to be because of some other stuff I can’t control got in the way.

We had one customer who said that she couldn’t believe that a place like this was here, that it reminded her of restaurants in San Francisco. That’s exactly what I had in my head when I planned this restaurant: to open the sort of place you find in bigger food cities, that little hole-in-the-wall that basically is a neighborhood restaurant in terms of how it feels but has food as good as any high-end restaurant somehow. That’s what we always wanted, so that was a big thing. That, and having people from the neighborhood who don’t know about Eat Me Speak Me or the history of the place and looked at our menu and were like, “We don’t know what half of this shit is” but stopped in and ate anyway and were like, “Oh my God, this is delicious.” We don’t want the food to be hyper-conceptual. We don’t want you to have to think through it every step of the way. If you’re a nerd into food, great, you can ask us a million questions and we’ll give you the answers and you can see how cool and technical it is. But if you’re not, you can just take a bite of something and go, “Wow, that’s just delicious.”

The beginning of last week is sort of when it started to obviously get weird, but it still felt like we had some freedom to make our own decisions. I would say by Sunday [March 15] it felt less that way. This is definitely the first time in the history of the world that social media and the general public has been able to kind of force people’s hands in a business sense, beyond just what is recommended from a health standpoint. We just live in an era where people are so polarized and proselytizing of everything from behind their screens and keyboards that whether you want to or don’t want to try to stay open right now, to fight for your business, you don’t really have much of a choice because of the stigma associated with doing so. 

So what do we do? We just try our best and hope we get through the next couple weeks.

My staff is my main priority right now. We want to be able to keep their jobs and continue to pay them—because this is a frightening enough time as it is, let alone if you’re broke and have no prospects and don’t have a job anymore. So, my main focus is keeping the business open any way I possibly can, which means switching to a to-go only format. We’re changing some of the dishes that wouldn’t quite work or keep well to-go, but we’re still doing the same kind of irreverent, goofy, weird, unusual food we’ve always done. If that’s what you’re looking for, you can still get it from us.

I’ll do whatever I have to. If I have to order extra vegetables from the farmers I’m buying from so I can sell produce to people who are having trouble finding it, I will. If I have to, I’ll sell them paper towels and toilet paper we get that through our distributors. I’ll do whatever I can legally to stay open, because we just don’t have as much of a fighting chance as other people have had, based on that we’re so young and, frankly, that we’re a 30-seat restaurant. We were never built to be big, and we’re not designed to do volume. So, we’re in this weird place now where we need to sell three or four times as much food to cover the cost of what we would sell from a full menu and alcohol sales, but we don’t have the means, space-wise or staff-wise. So what do we do? We just try our best and hope we get through the next couple weeks.

Our staff is staying home, aside from my salaried employees who want to work and want to help fight for this restaurant and make it survive. Since we don’t have a dining room full of guests, we don’t have a need for our tipped employees to come in at this time. They all want to and were willing to fight and work and keep this place alive and clean and safe, but there’s really no need to bring them in. We’re still offering a tip line on our checks for to-go food. We’ll be using all the tip money like we always would, to pay the front of house employees as if they were in here working. My salaried employees are still going to be getting paid out of revenue coming in from whatever to-go sales we have.

If people aren’t comfortable coming and picking up food to-go, we are offering gift cards, the ability to just simply donate if you like us and want us to stay in business, and you have the resources to do so. We’re taking all of the payments for gift cards and donations through our Venmo account, @littlebearatl. We’re just asking that people include either “gift card” or “donation” plus their full name and email address in the memo, and all the money is going to go toward keeping the business alive and keeping the staff paid. We’re trying to pester Mayor [Keisha Lance] Bottoms and Governor [Brian] Kemp to waive sales tax and excise tax for as long as we’re in this state of emergency.

Some people have the ability to work remotely from home and still get paid to do so, and we do not in this industry. My employees don’t have that ability. So if you do have the ability to stay home and still get paid and you feel like you’re in a financially stable place, or if you’re just fortunately wealthy enough to have savings in place and you’re willing to be charitable and share with the people who are going through this time and need it, then do so. 

I think the main thing is just keep calm. Don’t panic, because that won’t help anything. Make sure to tip well. Donate whatever you can, however you can. Keep eating, supporting small businesses—and when all this blows over, come put us in the weeds.

Interview edited for length and clarity.