ATLANTA — Reggae music travels through the hallways outside Marguerite’s Jerk Bistro in Atlanta’s Grant Park neighborhood. It’s Saturday afternoon, and a small group gathers at a table just outside as owner and chef Charlene Marguerite Diaz prepares jerk chicken, plantains, curry chicken and cabbage. Another employee works the cash register.
The lively scene is a change of pace from earlier this year when COVID-19 forced the restaurant to close its doors for three months and then only reopen in June for to-go orders. Before the pandemic hit, Diaz earned about $1,000 per day and saw between 50 to 60 customers. Now, she’s lucky if she sees 30 customers.
“Some days, to be honest with you, I don’t even make $300,” she said. “I just pray and say, OK, look forward to the next day.’”
Diaz’s reality is something restaurant owners have been struggling with since the pandemic. More than 32,000 restaurants nationwide have closed since February and more than 60% of those were permanently closed as of August, according to Yelp’s Local Economic Impact Report.
The pandemic has been particularly hard on Black-owned businesses. Between February and April, 41% of Black-owned businesses closed their doors at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, according to a study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Diaz had only been open six months in a mixed-use development when the pandemic hit. “My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, how am I gonna survive this?’ considering that I am on the inside and people are really leery about coming inside of a building. So, I was really worried that I would probably have to close my doors and I wouldn’t be able to sustain.”
At the time, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued an executive order allowing restaurants to provide drive-thru or to-go orders only. Diaz’s business is located indoors and has no drive-thru options. So she closed her business for three months and began selling to-go orders in June, although some customers can sit outside in a common area. She’s also limited her operating hours and is only open three days a week.
Diaz applied for Paycheck Protection Program funding but didn’t receive any. By the time she found out about grants from Invest Atlanta, she missed the application deadline. To stay afloat, Diaz applied for grants and started a GoFundMe. Combined, she received more than $30,000, but she said she would need roughly $75,000 to cover expenses, including back-owed rent and payments on equipment.
In the meantime, Diaz is considering cost-cutting measures such as returning her dishwasher; since reopening, she’s only serving meals in to-go boxes and doesn’t use dishware. She’s also still searching for grant money.
Despite Diaz’s challenges, she remains hopeful things will improve for her and attributed her strength to continue with her business to her customers.
“I love my customers. When I feel like I can’t go any longer, they are the ones who really motivate me,” she said. “As long as I have the strength to go, I’m going to keep going and just keep on serving my community.”
‘We didn’t see it coming’
About four miles away and just north of downtown Atlanta sits Negril Village, the popular Jamaican eatery known for its weekend brunch as a DJ blares music in its upstairs area. The restaurant, an extension of the Negril Village brand in New York, has been in Atlanta for seven years — the longest standing eatery at the location.
“It was just being in Atlanta, being in the South. It was just like a perfect move to expand the brand down here,” said manager Cathy Jack, who has worked for the restaurant brand for 15 years.
But the vibrant scene Atlantans are familiar with abruptly ended when the restaurant closed its doors for six months when the pandemic began.
“We didn’t see it coming,” Jack said. “When the pandemic first hit in early February, we started taking early precautions to protect ourselves and our staff against any type of infection, but we still weren’t sure what we were dealing with.”
As March neared, the restaurant temporarily closed because the Atlanta mayor’s executive orders prohibited restaurants from having indoor seating.
“It was just devastating,” Jack said. “No one knew what was going to happen next as far as a paycheck as far as their livelihood. The managers and even owners didn’t know what to do next.”
Two weeks after they closed, the business filed for unemployment for workers to make the process smoother. And like Marguerite’s Jerk Bistro, the business started a GoFundMe but only received $625 of their $10,000 ask. The New York-based company received between $150,000 and $300,000 in PPP funds but Jack wasn’t sure if that trickled down to the Atlanta-based eatery as well.
The company was also reluctant to do to-go and delivery orders. “We were still putting our employees at risk,” Jack said. “Also, employees were reluctant to work. We didn’t want to force anyone (to work) that felt uncomfortable.”
Jack said the restaurant fell behind on rent and utilities. Jack could not provide specific financial figures but said the eatery went from “making money and having some type of profit one moment” to nothing.
But despite their challenges, Negril Village has managed to persevere.
“The brand is strong. Before we closed, and even while we were closed, we were still getting inquiries from guests wanting to know when we’re going to reopen,” Jack said. “Because we had such an overwhelming support from the public, we had to try and do something.”
As soon as certain restrictions were lifted, the eatery slowly reopened, first transitioning to takeout and delivery and later allowing patio seating. Negril Village’s strategy has also changed; they primarily take orders by phone. Employees’ responsibilities have also been redirected; a host whose job was previously greeting people now answers phones as well — which have been ringing nonstop since the eatery reopened in August.
“I’m very optimistic because there are also a lot of restaurants that didn’t reopen doors, which is rather unfortunate,” Jack said.
Pandemic déjà vu
For Orran Booher, the pandemic was déjà vu. A year ago, his eatery Baker Dude suffered a financial setback that nearly caused them to close.
“We almost closed because sales were down,” he said. “The Beltline (22 miles of trails and parks along old railroad corridors) hadn’t picked up yet, and foot traffic was a little bit of a problem for us here.”
Determined to save his business, Booher created a GoFundMe for the Grant Park bakery, rallying neighborhood support.
“We went through that storm, we made some changes and ramped up our catering within the local universities like Georgia State University. That was going well, and then COVID hit,” Booher said. “It forced us to think about the next steps we should take.”
Booher immediately closed the eatery, furloughed his employees, and began operating from his home and making deliveries to keep the business afloat. He also pivoted toward more online sales, which were virtually nonexistent before COVID.
The change led to high sales in April and increased demand through the business’ website. Booher also increased his advertising, leading to increased online sales and requests for birthday cakes.
“I find that strange because the supermarkets are still open, but people wanted bakery birthday cakes,” he said. “And we were one of the few bakeries that also offered vegan, paleo and gluten-free cakes.”
Once Booher realized business was picking up and as COVID restrictions eased, he slowly brought back his staff, allowing them to work alternate days. But despite the setbacks, Booher has seen an uptick in online sales and was offered the opportunity to open a second location in Atlanta, set to open in November.
Booher attributed some of the success to people who are determined to buy from local businesses.
“Because of what’s happening to us as a country and the leadership,’’ he said, ‘’people told me when they were coming during the pandemic that they wanted to support a local business because they realized that we were the ones getting hit the most but were the ones that make their neighborhoods.”
Raisa Habersham is an Atlanta-based reporter whose work has appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and on The Daily Beast and BET.com. This is part of a series funded by a grant from the Rita Allen Foundation to report and present stories about the disproportionate impact of the virus on people of color, Americans living in poverty and other vulnerable groups.