Restaurant-industry couples turn to survival mode—and to each other

Five metro Atlanta couples spoke with us about how they’re surviving, adapting, and keeping one another afloat

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This story is part of our Resilience of Restaurants issue, which also identifies 10 ways to help restaurants survive COVID-19 and examines the hopes and hardships of Buford Highway restaurants.

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.

Atlanta restaurant owners coronavirus struggle
Ticonderoga Club partner Paul Calvert and the Little Tart Bakeshop owner Sarah O’Brien

Photograph by Andrew Thomas Lee

“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.”

Atlanta restaurant owners coronavirus struggle
Twisted Soul owners Deborah VanTrece and Lorraine Lane

Photograph by Andrew Thomas Lee

“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.”

Atlanta restaurant owners coronavirus struggle
Chai Yo general manager Lai Khamphan and Lazy Betty partner and chef de cuisine Aaron Phillips

Photograph by Andrew Thomas Lee

“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.”

This article appears in our June 2020 issue.

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