In the course of a few weeks, the COVID-19 crisis created a ripple effect throughout the global economy, significantly impacting small businesses. Few industries have experienced a more immediate impact than the restaurant and hospitality industry.
In the last 2 months, over 1 millions restaurants across the country have employed various strategies to adjust to guidance and restrictions issued by federal, state, and local governments to slow the spread COVID-19. Many have shifted to curbside and family meal models, some have made efforts to fulfill pantry items that have been in low supply in grocery stores, and others have decided to close their doors altogether for the time being in hopes to weather through these challenging times.
CO.LAB spoke to several local restaurant owners about their experiences in the last several weeks and asked about their strategies for managing through the COVID-19 crisis, as well as their thoughts on returning to business as usual.
Credit: Uncle Larry’s
Uncle Larry’s Restaurant has been a staple on MLK Boulevard since owner Larry Torrence opened it in 2013. The restaurant is known for its fried fish, which is described simply on its window as “Fish So Good It Will Smack Ya.”
While the restaurant has a dining area and TVs for those looking to dine in, Larry says that before the COVID-19 crisis roughly half of his restaurant’s business was take-out. He says he considers this as an advantage when he had to quickly turn to take-out only, which he was able to quickly do with services and technology available today.
“I started diversifying, doing online and went on DoorDash. We got with MenuFy for online ordering.”
Contrary to what people might expect for a restaurant business, he says his business has actually increased during the crisis. He has been able to keep all of his staff employed and has even ran out of food on some weekends due to the high volume of orders. He says with people at home and looking to support local businesses, it has generated even more interest in trying out his food.
For the foreseeable future, Larry says he will keep operating his business with curbside services and may allow people to order inside if they have a mask at a later date. For him, he chooses to remain curbside to prioritize his employees’ health. The main part of running his business prior to the COVID-19 business that he misses, he says, is the community.
“I miss the fellowship of people.”
There is an additional Uncle Larry’s location in Ooltewah. You can order online here.
The Bitter Alibi
Credit: Eat Drink Frolic
Only a few blocks up MLK Boulevard from Uncle Larry’s is The Bitter Alibi. The three-story, house turned dive bar and restaurant opened in 2014 and has been known as a neighborhood watering hole with a menu that takes inspiration from Southeast Asian and Hispanic cuisines.
Before local restaurants’ dining rooms were mandated to close, owner Jason Bowers decided to go ahead and close their dining room. They quickly shifted to a curbside model and took to creative marketing to push their new services. A new territory they had to explore was alcohol to-go, which was allowed through executive orders from the Tennessee state government.
Jason says that while alcohol sales have been down overall, food sales have fortunately been comparable (if not better) to what they were before the shutdown and move to curbside service.
Known for being a collaborative business, Jason has made an effort to communicate with others restaurant owners in the area to get a sense of others’ reopening procedures. He says restaurants have been faced with tough decisions in these few weeks, including the lift on restrictions from the state level. For now, he believes it’s in his business’s and employees’ best interests to continue curbside for The Bitter Alibi.
Jason also owns The Daily Ration, a brunch-centric restaurant in the North Shore. Currently, they are allowing patrons to order food at the front of the restaurant and “picnic” on the restaurant patio, versus offering full dining service.
“This feels right to keep it at the counter and limit their interaction with a server.”
Proof Bar + Food Incubator
Credit: Proof Bar and Incubator
Mia Littlejohn and Mike Robinson, who have served as founding team members of the CO.LAB Consumer Goods Accelerator, recently launched Proof Bar and Incubator. Also located on MLK Boulevard, the bar features a restaurant residency program along with a shared commercial kitchen. The business was scheduled to open to the public March 13th, but they postponed their Grand Opening due to concerns over the coronavirus and instead have focused on providing resources to our local restaurant and food and beverage community.
Their team has actively been compiling and creating resources for restaurants to help weather through this crisis, which can be found on their website. For several weeks their team has been researching best practices and procedures from experts around the globe as well as being involved in local- and state-level discussions.
Recently, they began hosting webinars on best practices for re-opening in light of lifting some restrictions on the state level. You can access their Best Practices for Restaurants Reopening along with other downloadable resources HERE. Additional efforts have included creating food boxes for furloughed restaurant workers and making lunches for workers helping with the April 16th tornado damage.
Recently, their resident restaurant Lil Oso with Chef Chris Greer started offering curbside service with plans to allow patrons to dine on their patio in the near future.
“This season of uncertainty has allowed our team to focus on what we are most passionate about–providing support to food and beverage professionals as they work to creatively solve unexpected challenges,” said Mia Littlejohn.
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For business owners, if you have any questions about ways to manage your business during these times, please reach out to us at email@example.com or by scheduling a Wayfinding meeting at colab.co/wayfinding. Our partners at the City of Chattanooga are also hosting reopening webinars to help answer questions related to policies and procedures for a variety of industries, restaurants included.
For supporters of our entrepreneurial community, we encourage you to continue supporting our local businesses in whatever manner you are able and feel safe doing so. On behalf of CO.LAB, we thank you for the contributions you have already made to help your neighbors.