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VOL. 44 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 20, 2020

Restaurants need our support amid outbrteak

By Catherine Mayhew

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I went to a favorite local restaurant last weekend to get takeout. Yes, I’m practicing social distancing in an abundance of caution right now. This restaurant is one my family’s favorites. We’ve been going there for decades.

I was shocked when I walked in and found the dining room almost completely empty. I asked my favorite server how business was going. “It’s been a little slow,” she winced.

And that was before Davidson County ordered bars closed and restaurants to be at no more than 50% capacity, capped at 100 individuals.

Now, the federal government is recommending that gatherings be limited to no more than 10 people and that the public avoid restaurants, bars and food courts for the next 15 days at least. Instructions and recommendations change daily.

So where does this leave the restaurant industry in Tennessee? Everyone needs to be safe, but let’s take a deep breath here and calmly assess the current situation.

Restaurants are the lifeblood of a community. They’re where we gather for celebration, communion and sustenance. And sometimes a good, stiff drink.

We could use a drink right now.

This coronavirus thing just sucks in so many ways but it especially sucks for our local restaurant economy whether it be in Nashville, Knoxville or Chattanooga.

In Nashville, we’re hit particularly hard on the heels of the killer tornado.

“We’ve really had a one-two punch,” says chef Laura Wilson, a partner at Citizen Market in East Nashville. “We had the tornado, and now we’re seeing the effects of COVID-19 in the service industry.

“The difference between the tornado last week and this is that the tornado is covered by insurance. Every insurance policy I’ve looked at so far excludes virus and business interruption.”

Caterers are suffering, too, seeing large events canceled right and left. Some have turned to delivering food they have prepared.

Let’s look for the good. The hospitality industry has served up a heaping helping of responsibility just in the last week.

All of this could come to a grinding halt at any moment, but just assess what progress was made in a very short time.

Responsible restaurants, which is to say 99% of them, worked hard to make dining out as safe as it can be. At Martin’s BBQ Joint in Nashville, owner Pat Martin had already decided to decrease seating capacity by 50% so diners are a safe distance from each other. He was also closing earlier to avoid late-night crowds.

Calhoun’s in Knoxville went to using single-use products. That meant bye-bye metal cutlery that has to go in a dishwasher and be reused. Yassin’s Falafel House, also in Knoxville, offered hand sanitizer not only to its patrons but to anyone who needed it, customer or not. They managed to find a little humor on their Facebook post, ending with the hashtag #weallneedloveplusfalafel.

Many restaurants put all the condiment packets behind the counter to prevent diners from rooting around in free-standing containers. No need to paw though the jelly packets to avoid the apple jelly. Just ask for the strawberry and you’ll get one packet handed to you with a sanitary glove.

With schools closed, some restaurants offered free food to students for whom school lunches were their only source of nutrition.

Maple Street Biscuit in Chattanooga offered bagged lunches to children.

“I was once the kid who depended on the kindness and generosity of others when I was growing up and we are going to make sure we pay all of the grace forward,” wrote operating partner Connor Reap on the restaurant’s Facebook page.

Granite City Food and Brewery in Franklin also offered a free lunch to children that included a turkey sandwich, chips and applesauce.

Let’s hope that somehow continues because there’s little safety net for these children.

Restaurants exist on the slimmest of profit margins during good times and are having to make hard choices right now to stay afloat. Servers, cooks and dishwashers are getting laid off. These folks need our help.

So how do we all get proactive in supporting our local restaurants while staying safe ourselves?

Keep up with restaurants online. Regularly check their websites and friend their pages on Facebook, Instagram and other social media.

Leave an encouraging word or two. Kindness goes a long way right now and you will provide a bit of comfort to people in an awful, awful spot.

See which restaurants can still provide food to go. Many restaurants have special measures in place to deliver food right to you as you sit in your car. Again, call ahead and ask.

Believe me, restaurant kitchens right now may be a lot safer than your own home. Did you wipe down your groceries with disinfectant wipes when you brought them home from the supermarket? I do.

And don’t you dare not leave a tip. In fact, leave the tip and then add $10.

Another way to help is to purchase a gift card from your favorite restaurant. Figure what you would have spent in two weeks of dining out and make the amount generous. They’ll have the use of your money for now to help support their staffs and you can redeem the gift card when times get better.

For my part, I’m going to actively look for local restaurants to support in my small way. The chains will suffer, too, but they’re better able to handle this crisis. The local folks aren’t.

Back to last week at my favorite restaurant. I got takeout Saturday. I was so shocked at the empty restaurant, normally packed almost every hour they’re open, I went back Sunday for another to-go order. That same server who had understated that business was slow looked relieved to see me again.

I’ll keep going back if I’m allowed. As the virus spreads, and it will, I may resort to looking like a complete goofball and show up wearing disposable gloves with a bottle of hand sanitizer to wipe down the delivery bag.

But I will show up.

Peace and ya’ll stay safe out there. We’re in for a bumpy ride.

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