While the restaurant industry across the US struggles to deal with the biggest crisis it has ever faced, it is the work of ordinary restaurateurs and their resilience that is holding the fabric of the industry together.
At The Yolk in Charlotte, chef Gregory Collier and his wife Subrina serve speciality breakfast food that honours the best of southern tradition, using the best of locally sourced ingredients. They, like everyone else, were hit hard by the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. However, the spirit of Charlotte’s people means they are not going to roll over easily.
“Charlotte has been affected like most cities with plenty of restrictions and safety precautions,” says Subrina. “In our industry it's been quite the adjustment and call for creativity. I think Charlotte being a melting pot city was magnified during this time, everyone made the best out of the situation in their own way.”
Many have been critical of the government’s reaction to the threat facing the restaurant industry. Hospitality’s biggest names are organising with the Independent Restaurant Coalition to push for major financial stimulus of the type that has already benefited the aviation industry. But in the meantime, it is up to the likes of Greg and Subrina to hold fast and keep their business afloat no matter what.
“During lockdown we were able to regroup and replan,” says Subrina. “We went over new ways to market our business, advertise staff, and service the customer. We went from pausing and opening of a restaurant to doing curbside only, to opening with limited seating at one restaurant and curbside for the other.”
The Colliers availed of the James Beard Relief Fund, which provided grants, made possible by donors such as S.Pellegrino, to restaurants in their time of need. For the restaurant owners, the most important thing was to look after their staff, and to pay wages.
"It was so important to still be able to pay staff because they have obligations and families to take care of. That was super important to Greg and I.” - Subrina Collier
“For Uptown Yolk we applied for the fund the moment it was released,” says Subrina. “We were able to keep some staff on and pay them, as funds were limited and we are in an area that had low activity. It was so important to still be able to pay staff because they have obligations and families to take care of. That was super important to Greg and I.”
For restaurants in these uncertain times, it’s adapt-or-die, and the Colliers moved quickly to change the way they do business and improve in areas they didn’t have time for before.
“We are utilising who we are more, and definitely pushing social media. As more people are home and not in offices, you have to catch them where they are... the computer. We think doing things with more digital targeting, more delivery and contactless transactions, and family-style is going to be the new direction for Uptown Yolk.”
If and when this pandemic passes, societies and economies will have to be rebuilt. It will be hard, but it also represents an opportunity. Subrina Collier allows herself to be optimistic about her hopes for the future of the restaurant industry and the country.
“Small businesses would have the same advantages of big corporations, black people would be treated equal (morally, legally, jobs, living conditions, access to capital, etc.). Women wouldn't have glass ceilings, and healthcare would be reasonably accessible to everyone at all times.”
It’s an ambitious vision, but with decent hard-working business people like the Colliers working towards it, and more following their example, it’s not completely out of reach.
S.Pellegrino, with a donation of $1 million, was the biggest donor to the fund that has to date disbursed $4 million to independently owned restaurants around the country. This month, we'll be profiling some of the restaurants that benefitted from the James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund grant as a snapshot of how the coronavirus pandemic affected the US restaurant industry. The series will focus on those who, even before this pandemic, were operating with exciting, new and innovative business concepts, making up the rich and diverse fabric of a hospitality industry that came together in a time of need.