Restaurant owners – the independent ones – often start their businesses because they are chefs – artists whose medium is food and drink. As Governor Roy Cooper cautiously allows the state to move into Phase 2, they’re going to need all their creativity just to keep their businesses going.
Harper Peterson is a Democratic State Senator from New Hanover County, on North Carolina’s southern coast.
"You can include restaurateurs with artists, living day to day, with a vision and a passion, but also an economic legacy…"
Restaurants drive tourism -- and tourism drives the economy.
"It creates jobs, it supports charities. It's part of the creative identity of our community."
Harper Peterson is also a restaurant owner. And he worries that at half capacity, a number of restaurants aren’t going to make it.
"It's estimated to be over 50% we won't see again in September."
"I think nobody really had any inkling of like, exactly how deep and wide the problem was going to be."
That’s Cheetie Kumar. She plays guitar in a rock band called Birds of Avalon. She’s also the chef and co-owner of the downtown Raleigh restaurant Garland.
"And in our building we also have a music venue called Kings, which is upstairs and Neptune's parlor, which is a bar which is in the basement."
Cheetie Kumar is also a three-time semi-finalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast. This third time, the ceremony is planned for September in Chicago.
"Maybe it'll be outside. Maybe it's wishful thinking. I really hope it's not a Zoom call."
But September is a long way off – especially when she’s thinking every day about ways to keep her business afloat without endangering customers or employees.
Wake County was first in North Carolina to confirm a case of Covid-19 and it’s suffered the third highest number of deaths in the state. So for Cheetie, the threat is real. She’s also not eager to open too soon because she doesn’t want to see a resurgence.
"You know, when you look at other countries, they relax and they have a relapse and, it's just gonna be a while."
However long that “while” turns out to be, Billy Mellon is looking forward to celebrating the tenth anniversary of his Wilmington restaurant, Manna, in November. As he thinks about reopening, he says he’ll treat it like the opening of a new restaurant – with simplified menus, expansion of the dining area into the bar next door, and training employees on new protocols.
He’s also going to focus on romance.
"The days of calling your friend, you haven't seen in a year or six months to come have like a party of six are going to be behind you for a while. At least not going to happen for awhile. So I think it's going to be husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, and we're going to prepare ourselves to be like, you know, almost like every day is Valentine's day, which is not bad. A lot of love."
One of the surprising up-sides of the pandemic for Billy Mellon: time.
"Like I, I reinvented this wine club that I've been thinking about for a while, but I just never had the time to slow down and like dial it in logistically."
Dean Neff, also a James Beard-nominated Chef, is working on the opening of his new restaurant, Seabird, in downtown Wilmington.
"Initially we were thinking June, July and now we're thinking, uh, September, October is probably the more realistic date of opening."
Ed Wolverton is Executive Director of Wilmington Downtown Inc.
He says cities around the state are looking at allowing restaurants to expand outdoors. In downtown Wilmington, that could look a lot like Parking Day.
"And that is an international thing that reimagines how public space can be used by taking a parking space and turning it into a temporary park for just one day."
But it’s complicated. There are state statutes regulating alcohol consumption outside. And municipalities would need to clearly define how they want al fresco dining to look.
"When you look at places like Bourbon Street and Beale Street in Memphis and they are pretty wild party places. And I think the community has to do some soul-searching -- is that what we're talking about? I think some people are talking about that but I’m not sure that everyone has that same vision in mind."
Neff, Mellon, and Kumar are experimenting with meals that customers can pick up and finish at home.
Industry recommendations for the so-called “new normal” include going to single-use menus, single-use condiments – unless those salt and pepper shakers or ketchup bottles are cleaned after each diner.
Dean Neff sees masks in the restaurant for customers and workers.
"We've talked about … having, you know, specific people on staff that all they do is take dirty plates away. We have people that are designed to just bring clean plates to the table and they're washing in between every procedure and wearing gloves at the table. We’ve even thought of having bags for guests to put their PPE in the bag while they eat that’s a clean bag..."
The pandemic has also exposed the cracks in this country’s food production system, says Cheetie Kumar, as unpurchased produce rots in farmers’ fields.
"And I mean, how broken of a system can that be right now? I think everybody is realizing that they may not be able to find stuff in the big grocery store, but they can go to the market and get something that's even better for them and it's fresh and it's grown within a hundred miles maybe."
Senator Harper Peterson has sponsored a bill called Save Our Authentic Restaurants Act and Hotel Stabilization Fund. It would offer loans of up to $50,000 and would reward restaurants for buying from local farmers and fisheries.
"A lot of small and medium-sized farmers are also hanging by a thread. So if you buy from them and we can document that, that money will be forgiven."
As a restaurant owner himself, Peterson says he will take nothing from this program – as it’s an obvious conflict of interest.
For Cheetie Kumar, the pandemic and its challenges has connected her more deeply to her community. And while she’s worried a lot, and she hasn’t played as much music as she would like, she’s nurtured friendships with fellow restaurateurs and chefs.
"Just knowing that we're not alone and like operating that way and taking the time to be, you know, to be present with each other. That's been pretty remarkable."