NORTH GEORGIA — The restaurant industry, one of the hardest hit sectors in the COVID-19 pandemic, is being forced to lay off nearly all employees.
Most restaurants face significant overhead costs and limited profit margins. Shelter-in-place orders and a ban on dine-in eating in most local cities have resulted in trickling revenues that cannot cover bills and payrolls.
“We had no choice to close [Duke's], and we had to lay all the people off,” said Ron Wallace, owner of the Olde Blind Dog in Milton and Brookhaven and Duke’s Bar & Grill in Milton. “The whole thing is just a heartbreaker. I consider all my employees friends, and it’s just gut-wrenching. In the restaurant business, the margins are about 6 to 8 percent. The way to make it is to have a lot of volume. But just doing curbside service, you’re picking up pennies. Every minute you are open you’re just drowning. In two or three days you are completely upside down.”
Duke’s has closed its doors, though Olde Blind Dog is continuing curbside service at its two locations. Wallace said the restaurants are down in revenue about 90 percent, and 80 employees have been laid off.
Wallace said both stores are operating with just two workers at a time — one cook and one manager — who take all orders, clean, cook and serve the food curbside. Six employees are rotating shifts so a few more people can still earn a paycheck.
“If we did it just by the math, we would be better off closing, but we do want to keep some people employed, have service for our customers and show that we are open,” Wallace said.
Some good news for those laid off from the business cropped up this week, however. Olde Blind Dog is taking all tips earned on delivery and to-go orders to fund an employee market at both locations. The market will be open twice a week and allow workers to pick up free groceries and necessities.
In Alpharetta, Flatlands Bourbon and Bayou has also been crippled by COVID-19. Owner Jodi Chieco said she has been forced to lay off most staff.
“We’ve had to let most of our employees go, and most are out of a job with zero income,” she said. “It’s devastating.”
Chieco is also owner of Mercantile Social and Southern Porch, both of which have suspended operations completely amid the pandemic.
Under a City of Alpharetta executive order, restaurant dining rooms are closed, and only curbside pickup or delivery options are available. That is not enough to keep operating, Chieco said.
“At Flatlands, takeout is only about 10 percent of our sales, it could never support the restaurant,” she said.
With dining rooms closed, servers are out the job indefinitely, but cooks aren’t faring much better. Even with curbside pickup, Flatlands is currently employing a single cook.
To make ends meet, Chieco has suspended several services for her business, but there are still bills like gas, electric and insurance that must be paid. Chieco is hoping some services will allow restaurants to suspend payments, provide discounts, or let the owners catch up on what they owe later. Otherwise, the impacts to the restaurant will be far worse, she said.
“If this goes on for a while, I would think there are going to be a lot of restaurants going out of business,” Chieco said. “There is just not enough money from to-go orders.”
One employee feeling the impact is Carolina Knight, a server at the Mellow Mushroom in Roswell on Woodstock Road.
With the restaurant only providing to-go orders, servers are not needed, and she said she is out of a job until further notice.
It has left her in a financial limbo.
“I was told by my manager to file for unemployment, so I suppose that’s what I’ll do,” Knight said. “But I don’t really know how I’m going to pay for anything, really. Money’s running low already.”
She said that most the restaurant’s employees are facing a similar situation, and only a handful of cooks are still employed.
At the Olde Blind Dog, Wallace said there have been some silver linings. He noted that many of his vendors have allowed him to defer his costs or make smaller payments. Several local cities, including Milton, have also loosened regulations to allow for restaurants with pouring licenses to sell wine or beer to-go and for additional signage.
“That has helped tremendously,” Wallace said.
Many of the restaurant’s customers have been supportive, he said, and he hopes business will return to normal soon.
“We’ve been in Milton for 12 years, and we are pretty good fighters and we are not about to give up,” Wallace said. “We are thinking positive, and somehow we are going to get through this, open as quickly as we can and get people back to work.”