Even in the frigid air, there was the giddy excitement of a reunion of sorts between comrades, with elbow bumps, virtual high-fives and the inevitable, sobering, “How’s it going?”
Across the board, the answer was “not good.”
At this informal gathering of several dozen West Virginia restaurateurs last week, not a single one was doing well enough to say, “OK.”
“It is a make-or-break situation. I’m not too prideful to say that,” said Morgan Morrison, co-owner of Rock City Cake Company and The Golden Bagel Company, which is scheduled to open soon.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, most who gathered at Haddad Riverfront Park reported sustained revenue losses of 40-60% — or more — in an industry with single-digit profit margins.
“I never would have dreamed it would have hit us. We’ve been open 18 years. We’re at about 50% of the revenues since March,” said Teddy Queen, owner of Swiftwater Cafe and Swiftwater General Store, which primarily serve Charleston government employees working from home these days.
“We’re just basically taking it out of our life savings to keep open until things come around. If the vaccine comes through, and if we get back and people start coming back to work downtown after the new year, we’ll be able to maintain,” he said.
“If not ...” he sighed and shrugged, tossing his hands up, his voice trailing off.
“I’m the firm believer that if you just work hard enough and you give the best that you can to people, that things will work out. And 2020 has taught me that that is not necessarily the truth,” said Teri Blevins, who owns Lil’ Bit of Heaven Cupcakes. She said once her revenue losses this year topped $70,000, “I just stopped counting.”
In addition to the weddings that were canceled, “We had eight weddings on the book this year that went from being weddings for 250 to 300 people to 40 people and below.
“Folks who would normally order, say, a three-tiered birthday cake because they’re having a party for 75 people, well, now that cake is a two-layer, six-inch cake because there’s just two of them,” Blevins said. “And that has happened a lot. You’re not having baby showers. You’re not having birthday parties. You’re not having gender reveals.”
Sandy Call, who owns Bridge Road Bistro in Charleston and Sunset Grill in Huntington, said she would have lost less money staying closed until the pandemic had passed. She has cut as many corners as she can find, reluctantly cut payroll and picked up the slack herself, she said.
“Me personally, as the owner, I work the dish machine. I clean the dishes and I put them away,” on top of everything else it takes to run her businesses — and she’s not cutting herself a paycheck at all, Call said.
The situation, she said, is “beyond survival.”
“I don’t have money partners, I don’t have any finances behind me, it’s just me. I came from very humble beginnings. I don’t have trust funds, an inheritance and money behind me. It’s me pretty much raking and scraping my whole life to achieve my dream. And now it’s getting ripped from me,” she said.
Call is “hanging on” until the first of the year in the hopes that state or federal funds come through. That’s why she and other members of the newly formed group, “Eat Small West Virginia,” gathered safely outside last week despite the chill in the air, to send a unified message.
“We need help,” said Paul Smith, one of the owners of 1010 Bridge and The Pitch in Dunbar, and one of the organizers of the Eat Small group. “This is a call to arms. We need help from the public and from our leaders, and we need a collective voice, to come together and say, ‘Some of us are not going to make it.’
“We did seven people [the other night] at 1010. Typically, December gets you through until Valentine’s Day. From the numbers that I’m seeing so far ... that’s not going to happen. There’s no possible way.”
Thirty-seven percent of restaurant operators nationwide say it is unlikely their eatery will still be in business in six months if there are no more relief packages from the federal government, according to a Restaurant Impact Survey conducted in mid-to-late November by the National Restaurant Association.
Sixty-three percent of West Virginia operators expect their staffing levels to decline during the next three months.
“I’m worried about my livelihood, but I can’t lay off 45 people before Christmas, you know?” Smith said.
Realizing the pandemic wasn’t going to end quickly, Smith sold his home and moved in with his parents earlier this year, freeing up cash to keep his businesses afloat. Last month, he put in some of that money to for payroll. He expects to do the same again this month — and said he’s not the only one.
“I cannot shut my doors,” Smith said. “Like, I’m going to fight and scratch and claw and dig into my own pockets, as most of us have, in order to not have to do that until I can’t anymore. And I know that everybody else feels exactly the same way.”
Smith and some of the other members of Eat Small have signed a letter authored by the Independent Restaurant Coalition urging Congress to pass restaurant relief.
“The loss in revenue we have endured this year is simply unsustainable for our businesses and the economy,” it reads. “In just the second quarter of 2020, restaurants lost over $220 billion in revenue and received less than 18% of those losses in relief from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). ... The PPP was a ten week solution to what has become a ten month problem, and the RESTAURANTS Act was built by the independent restaurant and bar community to solve it.”
Nationwide, the legislation, introduced by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., would provide $120 billion in grants to small food and beverage purveyors through the U.S. Treasury Department.
“I talk to restaurateurs every day who are fearful if the congressional relief package does not come through they are not sure they will survive again, as most have exhausted their revenues, employees and reserves. West Virginia restaurants are struggling mightily and must have relief,” Carol Fulks, executive director of the West Virginia Hospitality & Travel Association, said in a statement.
Some local restaurants were among businesses awarded grants of up to $5,000 this month from the City of Charleston. The winter grant application period is open now, and South Charleston offers its own matching grant program.
“We are also reaching out to the governor because we look to him as a fellow hospitality owner,” Smith said. “We want to work together with the governor and the administration to figure out this CARES Act and how those funds can benefit restaurants and other small businesses.”
The public, too, can help, Smith said, even if they’re not comfortable dining in.
“They can come downtown and get something to eat at a family owned business. Everybody’s at Southridge in the drive-thru lines,” said Swiftwater’s Teddy Queen.
“Holidays are coming. Let us do the cooking for you to spend the time with your close family. And let us take care of all the fancy cooking and come and pick it up from us and let us do that work for you,” said Michael Jarrouj, owner of The Olive Tree Cafe & Catering.
“We also offer e-gift cards on our website, and they can even use that gift card to have something shipped to themselves,” Blevins said. “And just remember us. I think that’s one of my biggest struggles right now.”
Whatever form it takes, help can’t come soon enough, Call said.
“I’m afraid they’re going to wait until it’s too late and ... it’s going to be tumble towns everywhere. There’s gonna be tumbleweeds in every town,” she said.