Coronavirus Has Battered Restaurant Workers Across North Carolina

By Sue Wasserman

April 14, 2020

Margo Metzger had no idea she could pivot so quickly. 

When the director of communications for the Raleigh-based North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association (NCRLA) heard the March 16 news that Gov. Roy Cooper was closing dine-in restaurant service throughout the state to slow the spread of coronavirus, she knew the organization, whose efforts were primarily focused on educating hospitality workers, had to shift gears in a hurry.

“The hospitality industry was instantly decimated,” Metzger says. “There were approximately 18,000 restaurants with 500,000 restaurant workers in the state, 90% of whom have now been laid off.”

Of those 500,000, most are hourly workers who make just enough to get by according to NCRLA Chair and Restaurateur Steve Thanhauser. 

The team at NCRLA, along with members like Thanhauser, who employs close to 400 at his iconic Angus Barn in Raleigh, responded by creating the North Carolina Restaurant Workers Relief Fund. As quickly as it was formed under the auspices of NCRLA’s foundation, they began calling on corporations and individuals to raise money for immediate distribution to restaurant workers in need.

So far, they’ve raised approximately $550,000 of a $1 million goal. “In the first week alone, we received 15,000 applications for the individual grants, which are available up to $500,” Metzger says. “Given the number of applicants, we closed the window on new applications, but are continuing to raise money.” To date, the fund has paid out $325,000 to 680 people and will continue providing funds as they become available.

“The hospitality industry was instantly decimated. There were approximately 18,000 restaurants with 500,000 restaurant workers in the state, 90% of whom have now been laid off.”

Margo Metzger, NC Restaurant and Lodging Association

“This industry has such thin margins to begin with,” notes Thanhauser. “Most of us don’t do it for the money, but for the incredible passion we have for food and hospitality. It’s the sort of thing that gets in your blood and is hard to get out.”

Thanhauser, his wife Van Eure and a small team of employees are keeping the restaurant open by providing curbside pick-up. “We can age and cryovac our beef inmmj-house,” he says. His team offers both uncooked steaks from their butcher shop as well as a limited menu. “Those of us offering curbside are limping along. While it’s not a profitable thing, it is a morale booster to be able to continue extending service to our loyal patrons. As long as our employees are okay and we can offer our services safely, we’ll remain open.”

In trying to keep his doors open, Thanhauser has applied for assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), part of the CARES stimulus package. “If 75% or more of the loan is used for employee payroll, that loan may be forgiven. This federal program can be a real lifesaver for restaurants and other small businesses.”

Like Thanhauser, Joe Scully, co-owner of popular Chestnut and Corner Kitchen in Asheville, has also applied for the PPP loan. Unlike Thanhauser, however, he made the gut-wrenching decision to temporarily close both restaurants’ doors. “On average, we served about 600 people per day. We did maybe 20 to 30 take-out orders. In order to move to take-out, we’d have to create a paradigm shift. It’s simply not how our customers see us.” Scully then asked himself who he’d keep on salary and who he’d lay off. It seemed like a fool’s errand. “Rather than make that choice, we decided to simply rip the band-aid off.”

I’m not sure how we’ll survive, though, if this goes through the summer.”

Tyler Graham, owner of Cape Fear Boil Company in Carolina Beach

Closing doesn’t lessen Scully’s workload. He is now in the process of communicating with vendors he’s been working with for the past 16 years. “I’ve spent countless hours thinking through who I need to call and who I can ask forbearance from.”

For some restaurateurs, COVID-19 has offered an opportunity for reinvention. “For years, we’ve had inquiries about shipping our low country boils,” says Tyler Graham, owner of Cape Fear Boil Company in Carolina Beach. The bulk of his business, according to Graham, is catering and take-out. After losing his upcoming wedding bookings, Graham revisited the idea of shipping steamer pots.

“My business here is very seasonal, so I’m used to some down time,” Graham says. “Memorial Day to Labor Day represents the bulk of my business. I’m not sure how we’ll survive, though, if this goes through the summer.”

In rural Burnsville, about 40 minutes northwest of Asheville, John Silver, who recently quadrupled his business by expanding and relocating his Homeplace Beer Company, says he’s nervously adjusting. “If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that we have to be willing to make changes to make this work,” Silver says. 

Initially, Silver offered almost daily curbside pickup of beer and pizza between noon and 7 p.m. from a tent in their parking lot. “We realized being open for lunch didn’t make sense, then decided to compress those hours across three days,” Silver says. Given the overwhelming number of orders they’ve been receiving for beer and pizza (provided by in-house Hog Hollow Wood-Fired Pizza), Silver relocated the pick-up station and now has two staff members use their phones as well to accommodate orders.

“I’ve joked that the numbers we’re seeing for beer sales would represent a great night for us at our old location. Other breweries have told me they’ve seen about a 70% drop in sales.” What’s so difficult for Silver, like many brewers, is that a significant portion of his revenue comes from the sale of his beer to other restaurants and businesses. 

“Right now, I don’t have to worry about rent so we’re okay. I’m primarily worried about being able to rehire my team once we’re back to normal. I suspect it could take up to a year before we get back to where we were.”

Metzger believes it will get worse before it gets better. She encourages industry professionals and restaurant-goers to visit the organization’s website to learn more about obtaining government support and reaching out to state and federal officials to garner more aid for an industry in need. Individuals can also help laid off restaurant workers by contributing to “As it says on our website,” Metzger notes, “let’s serve them for a change.”


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