In October 2019, Virginia tourism officials gathered in the dining room of a restaurant in downtown Richmond to launch the state’s newest branding campaign: “Virginia is for Restaurant Lovers.”
The goal of the campaign was to raise awareness about the importance of Virginia’s restaurants to the economy. In 2019, the restaurant industry in Virginia generated $18.1 billion, and its 14,000 restaurants were responsible for more than 378,000 jobs, representing 9% of employment in the state.
“Virginia is for Restaurant Lovers” was set to officially launch in 2020. But 2020 had other plans.
On March 23, 2020, Virginia ordered every restaurant in the state to close for dine-in service and shift instead to a takeout model. There were 254 confirmed coronavirus cases in Virginia and while the virus was still relatively new, it was already clear to health officials that close proximity to other people would contribute to its spread.
But in Richmond — which has the largest concentration of full-service, independently owned eateries in the region — many local restaurants had opted to close their dining rooms March 16 after a handful of prominent restaurant owners worked with Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney to strike a deal: temporarily closed dining rooms in exchange for financial help from the city.
The Richmond dining scene had just garnered another round of national acclaim with Southern Living magazine naming it one of the “Best Food Cities” and home to the “best new restaurant in the South.” Restaurant owners were hopeful that financial aid from every level of government would be coming soon and they could shutter for a few weeks while COVID-19 stormed quickly through. Whatever they needed to do, was the thought; local restaurants were committed to doing their part to “flatten the curve.”
No one was prepared for what came next.
Restaurants wouldn’t be permitted to serve diners inside again for more than two months — and then, only at limited capacity. Full-capacity dining in Virginia would not return in 2020. Bars inside dining rooms would be ordered closed for the rest of year. Hours would be limited in November, and restaurant owners are still keenly aware that further restrictions could come at any time.
Across the city, state and country, full-service restaurants were among those affected first — with tremendous financial impact because of the business restrictions put in place to help combat the spread of the coronavirus. Along with the airline and travel industries, restaurants have been ranked among the top five industries hardest hit by the pandemic by S&P Global Ratings, a financial research company.
Virginia’s restaurant and hospitality industry lost 16% of its jobs in the last year, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — more than any other industry in the state. All full-service restaurants report dramatic and sustained loss of sales. And locally, more than 50 restaurants have closed for good — and experts warn that more restaurant closures will come.
Meanwhile, aid has been slow to arrive, if at all. As an industry, restaurants and hotels received approximately 8% of funds through the Paycheck Protection Program, and it is estimated that a huge portion of those funds went to large industry chains, according to an analysis of the funding by the publication Restaurant Business — as opposed to local, independent restaurants, which are 70% of all restaurants, according to the National Restaurant Association. Those were the type of restaurant hurt hardest by the economic impact of COVID-19.
A second stimulus package — promised months ago — didn’t materialize until late December and “falls woefully short of giving 11 million independent restaurant workers the job security they need,” according to the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which represents the interests of independently owned restaurants.
Part of Richmond’s promised financial aid came in the form of a meals tax amnesty program with an application stipulation added weeks later that caused some restaurant owners to not only get shut out of the program, but also to actually get assessed fees for not making payments during the amnesty program.
But this isn’t a story about failed aid programs, phases and financial statistics that have been reported over and over again these past nine months.
This is the story of Richmond restaurants and what this year has been like for them — as told by Richmond restaurateurs, in their own words.
This is their story.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch circulated a list of questions open to any local restaurant owner to answer. Here are their replies. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What was the hardest thing about this year?
Lisa Ann Peters, owner, The Locker Room and The Pitts BBQ Joint: As much as I hate to be cliché, and I really do ... every single solitary thing! Losing our momentum, questioning how the bills would get paid, the unbelievable amounts of “who the hell knows,” the underlying stress that comes from knowing there’s tremendous loss in the world and all around you, the feeling of having to shift every gear you’ve got into a completely different direction and you definitely don’t know how to drive that way! The constant tightrope dance of what’s safe for everyone that will keep the doors open and of course the newly acquired debt that we didn’t have before this and never planned to have. Should I go on? OK I will! While we are all dealing with the madness that is running restaurants during COVID, our kids are home. Home hating life, missing their friends, making all of this even harder.
Amy Cabaniss, owner, Julep’s New Southern Cuisine: What has been the most difficult to deal with during COVID-19 is how much the media talks about how unsafe it is to dine in restaurants! The nationwide shutdown back in March should have applied to everyone, not just a few select businesses. How is dining at a restaurant more unsafe than going to the grocery store, where shoppers have the opportunity to touch everything and there are no employees sterilizing behind them, like we are at restaurants? The other most difficult issue is our city and state haven’t addressed the issue of the city’s unrest. People seem to be unwilling to come downtown currently and the city/state have not even begun to address this issue. Our wonderful city looks like a ghost town.
Patrick Stamper, co-owner/operator, En Su Boca and Beauvine Burger Concept: It’s been a lot. Keeping up with what was happening, reinventing your entire business model on the fly, constantly trying to figure out the RIGHT thing to do, balancing safety and business, at one point we were boarding up at night and un-boarding in the morning, just trying to adapt and survive ... and keep it going. When it all went down in mid-March, we lost what seemed to be about half the staff at both places in one day. So now what? We talked to the staff we had left, tried to gauge everyone’s feelings and mindset, talked about what we were still capable of, and decided that if they were committed to working through this and making a go of it, we better get our s--- together and throw everything we got at this. We began working on transforming into takeout and delivery restaurants — that’s what we were all of a sudden. We were stubborn about everything — still haven’t sat one guest inside either restaurant since March 16 — and it became a personal challenge that almost felt like a war. It did feel like we as a team — us, as small-business owners, and all the amazing people who wanted to work instead of having government checks deposited into their bank accounts, were being attacked by this thing that we couldn’t see or control. It was going to take our livelihoods and everything we have worked for. It still might.
Liz Kincaid, co-owner and chief operating officer of RVA Hospitality, which includes Tarrant’s Café (both locations), Max’s on Broad and Bar Solita: The hardest thing about this year was the not knowing combined with the perceived urgency. You wait weeks to hear about a grant and then on your day off, they email you that if you don’t get the paperwork back in 24 hours, your grant is tossed out. You spend all morning talking to staff and doctors and reading articles on COVID to decide to open or not while waiting on a COVID test for an employee ... and the employee’s test comes back negative (finally) — or you wait 11 days for a test not knowing if someone is sick, not knowing if you made the right call to stay open. Not knowing if the $10,000 in food you just bought would be given away to staff if the governor announced another lockdown, but everything feels like an emergency. Like if you don’t stop everything you had planned for your day — like working with managers or making new food items — you won’t have a restaurant. But then, you stop doing all the things that made you great like working in and on your business because you’re filling out endless paperwork for loans and grants.
Michelle Williams, co-owner of the Richmond Restaurant Group, which includes: The Daily Kitchen & Bar — Carytown and Short Pump locations, East Coast Provisions, West Coast Provisions, The Hard Shell — downtown and Bellgrade locations, Barrio Taqueria + Tequila and The Hill Café: What wasn’t hard about it? We spent weeks deciding on whether or not we should use the PPP right away or remain closed for the benefit of our staff. We feel very fortunate we chose the latter, especially since the government later changed the rules regarding the PPP. I know plenty of folks who just spent it quickly and wished they hadn’t. Opening and closing and reopening because of COVID exposures at multiple restaurants. When your staff is so small, it’s hard to remain open through a potential exposure. Staffing has been crazy difficult; we still aren’t fully open at most of our places because of staffing shortages. Budgeting and rebudgeting, and rebudgeting, just when you think you’ve got it figured out, everything changes. MacGyvering how to make the patios usable in inclement weather with little to no budget and still making them feel like outdoors while being warm in the winter. Access to testing is another big one. Having a ton of more costs associated with running the businesses and a LOT less money to do it.
David Bender, owner, Sheppard Street Tavern in the Museum District: Hardest part of 2020 was it being 2020. Knowing that people I had worked next to for years were struggling. Knowing that all I could do wasn’t enough. Wasn’t even close.
Susan Davenport, co-owner, Tazza Kitchen: Laying off employees in March was devastating. Everything happened so quickly and as much as we tried to explain what was going on with the virus, it was hard to comprehend at first. Many employees lost their health insurance for a few months and that weighed on us heavily.
Sarabeth Hagen, owner and executive chef, SB’s Lakeside Love Shack: When this all began back in March, everything was so confusing and there were no answers to the millions of questions. Uncertainty is the scariest part of all! Will we shut down? How will we survive this? Do I have COVID? Am I going to die? Is this a conspiracy? When answers started to come out, they were still confusing, but at least there were some guidelines to follow. It made us be creative and adapt to this huge change! The restaurant industry is made up of passionate artists and hustlers and brilliant, misunderstood minds who think outside of the box and know how to survive with no money and work with what we have. As profits are lost and bills are pushed aside, the stress to take care of your family (home and work) is almost too much to bear.
What would you have done differently?
Stamper of En Su Boca and Beauvine Burger Concept: I’m proud of what we have done. And I’m so proud of my staff. In hindsight, there could be a thousand little things that could’ve been done differently, but for the most part, we moved pretty well with all the punches being thrown. It’s still evolving and now it’s getting really hard again, so maybe I’ll know what to regret in six months or so. F--- it. We have done everything we could.
Peters of The Locker Room and The Pitts: Spent the PPP funds completely differently! SAVED more.
Kincaid of RVA Hospitality: If I knew what I know now, I would have worried less. The government did come to our aid and that of our furloughed staff. I would have worried less about if people would be starving. Seeing the last 10 years of my life’s work, my future plans for retirement, my future plans for growth for myself and the company all come to a screeching stop in one week. It was devastating to see so many of my dreams end, but now with the new stimulus and another round of PPP, I think we’ll get back close to where we were. But there were bankruptcy meetings, sleepless nights, tears, pacing and ranting, and trying to work things out — all that stress could have just been let go.
Cabaniss of Julep’s: I would have stayed closed longer. Guests seem less willing now to come out than they did in July.
What’s a kindness you experienced during this time?
Stamper of En Su Boca and Beauvine Burger Concept: Early on, when we began doing delivery with our wait and bar staff transitioned to phone operators and drivers, there were a lot of people around town dropping massive tips. For the first few weeks, I was driving delivery a lot and people would give 100% tips, or $50 or $100 flat, as well as expressing a great deal of gratitude for us just remaining open and trying to serve them however we could. The staff was tip pooling, everything was so uncertain and it really meant a lot. There were a lot of thoughtful, generous tippers early on, recognizing us as essential workers.
Kincaid of RVA Hospitality: The landlord at Bar Solita gave us a month of free rent to help us get back on our feet. Our staff had been super kind and understanding of the situation and came back when we asked even though unemployment was paying some more than what we could cover. Cavalier also delivered food boxes to our staff, Specialty Beverage went above and beyond coming to pick up kegs and help us return kegs to other vendors.
Peters of The Locker Room and The Pitts: Well, this one is my favorite! The staff who bonded together to do WHATEVER was needed, all while wearing a mask. The loyalty of the family! The people who fill those booths and barstools and share their lives with us. They went above and beyond. They purchased quarantine T-shirts, and they reassured us they were right there! We were granted money through the Virginia 30 Day fund and were even told, we don’t need to fill out any sort of loan forgiveness. A complete stranger (then) gifted us $1,000 because she wanted to help! She’s a friend now!
Bender of Sheppard Street Tavern: The biggest kindness was the support of our regulars. The GoFundMe page they set up that raised thousands of dollars for my staff. That brought a tear to this old curmudgeon’s eye.
Cabaniss of Julep’s: The Virginia 30 Day Fund [a nonprofit loan program] was such a pleasant surprise! They reached out when all small businesses were down. It was nice to know that small businesses were still relevant. The Virginia 30 Day organization is comprised of really thoughtful and kind people!
Davenport of Tazza Kitchen: Our employees have been understanding, thankful and so supportive of each other and the business. The kindness from customers has been overwhelming; they have gone out of their way to support us on a regular basis. Many purchased gift cards to use later. Some purchased multiple takeout orders as gifts for work colleagues, and others purchased over 3,000 meals to be delivered to health care workers.
Hagen of Love Shack: The Lakeside community is close and supportive and like no other! They came, they ordered, they donated, they spread the word on social media, they sent links to grants, they most importantly never gave up on us! Their positivity made each of my employees want to keep working! So we played the unemployment game and PPP game, but my staff stuck it out and worked their butts off every day for our community! When we had anything at all, we shared, by giving toilet paper out with takeout orders, by donating funds to our volunteer rescue squad, by making breakfast for teachers and nurses and blue-collar essential workers. If we step back, the world is coming together and what better way to do that than with food. Keep up the fight my friends, I have nothing but LOVE and respect for my industry.
What government regulation has been or would’ve been helpful?
Kincaid of RVA Hospitality: Enforcing the policy at the businesses we all knew weren’t following the rules.
Stamper of En Su Boca and Beauvine Burger Concept: They made a lot of mistakes, but it was their first pandemic as well. We didn’t have a playbook for this, and neither did they. I was AMAZED at how swiftly the ABC moved with allowing delivery of beer and wine and then cocktails. I still can’t believe they have allowed mixed beverage delivery in Virginia. The city made a profoundly dumb mistake in forcing us to take up sidewalk tables at 11 p.m. With the tables in place, we were able to control where people were and have real physical distancing happening. All of the time-related regulations have been bad. COVID isn’t more contagious after 10 p.m. They just need to let us run and try to survive.
Williams of the Richmond Restaurant Group: It would be great if they made the PPP funds grants and gave us credits for all of the money we’ve spent to be able to do business COVID-compliant. It’s crazy the amount of money we’ve spent modifying the restaurants, on PPE, on disposable menus, chemicals, etc.
Cabaniss of Julep’s: It is terribly unfortunate that the government cut off the additional unemployment so early on. If I knew my staff was being taken care of, I would not have opened back up so soon. I was worried about my staff, so when I heard the additional unemployment was coming to an end, I decided it was time to reopen Julep’s. It was important to me to keep the Julep’s team afloat, and I was hopeful diners would be ready to come out.
Hagen of Love Shack: The government should have stepped in sooner and not given all the money to the extra large “small businesses.” They could have offered a way to provide outside seating to small businesses. We cannot afford tents and heaters.
Davenport, co-owner, Tazza Kitchen: While it is not a regulation, more coordinated efforts to provide testing with quick turnaround in the earlier months would have made a big impact and eased many minds.
What was the most frustrating regulation in all of this?
Williams of the Richmond Restaurant Group: Without question, that we are required to have regulations that are more stringent than big-box retail businesses, airlines, etc.
Kincaid of RVA Hospitality: It’s not the regulations themselves that are frustrating — it’s the sudden changes. It’s buying food for a party of 25 and then the governor saying you can only have groups of 10 now. Having Virginia Occupational Safety and Health tell us exactly what our VOSH Infectious Disease Plan should be instead of making us read a 40-page document to create our own. We’re not doctors. We’ll do anything you ask and we’ll follow the rules, but it needs to put the burden on the government to tell us the rules and give us more time to run our business, especially in a crisis like this one.
Peters of The Locker Room and The Pitts: The stipulations of the PPP loan. Some of us applied and got it early. We started our eight-week clock the second the money hit the account. We HAD to spend the money, 75% payroll and 25% allowable expenses, over the course of eight weeks. Which changed about four weeks into the process. We could’ve stretched that further and bought a couple of months. For some people, those couple of months meant the end because they were forced to spend it or pay it back. Also, come on! As a restaurant to exclude inventory as an acceptable expense? Also, if I own my building I could only calculate the interest on my mortgage? In terms of running a restaurant, they removed our two biggest expenses that we could use in that 25%. With all that said, I’m really hoping there’s another round. That’s how bad it is!
Bender of Sheppard Street Tavern: What would have been helpful, and this is policy that is set at the state level, in the General Assembly, would have been getting rid of the state’s antiquated ABC laws regarding food-to-liquor ratios. Being able to run a bar would be a lifeline, but this being Virginia, there is no such thing as a bar, and I must have a full kitchen and hope that the bar does enough in sales to cover for the losses I’m taking in the back of the house.
What’s something you learned?
Williams of the Richmond Restaurant Group: That with patience and a strong team, we can navigate any crisis and that collectively our voices mean more as one.
Kincaid of RVA Hospitality: I am not my businesses. I love each of our restaurants as if they were my children, but I am not defined by my businesses’ financial successes, awards or failures. I’m defined by the choices I make each day and the lives I touch. And sometimes you don’t have to do anything wrong to fail, and that’s something we all have to accept. There is no blame here. There is only the pandemic. It’s not our fault, and we’re in this together.
Cabaniss of Julep’s: I learned our government/state/city can’t handle a pandemic. We could have done a much better job handling the precautions and shutdown. This should have been over a long time ago.
Peters of The Locker Room and The Pitts: That if you miss a meal tax payment, the fees and interest are rolled over to the next month. So you make the next payment and they apply that to the previous month and tack on more fees and interest while NOT notifying you in any way shape or form. This trickles from month to month to month. Then, you owe them $1,100 for a single missed payment. They told me: that’s no different than a credit card account. I say whoaaaaaaa! This is where you’re wrong. My credit card company notifies me by phone call, text message, snail mail and when those methods fail, they reach out to next of kin and release heat-seeking missiles with your name on them. Is it on the drop-down menu of months owed? Nope! You mean to tell me that if I go online to pay my meal tax there’s no way of knowing if I have an outstanding balance from a previous month? Correct! That’s legalized extortion where I come from. [According to the city of Richmond, it sends some notices to some businesses that are behind on payments, though not monthly or regular notices.]
Bender of Sheppard Street Tavern: What did I learn? The city and the state don’t give a s--- about us. Sure, they’re more than happy to sit back and have us collect and remit taxes for them, but when local mom-and-pops are going belly-up, they’re not doing s--- because we aren’t too big to fail.
If I thought it was frustrating dealing with City Hall when I was trying to open, it was nothing compared to the nightmare of dealing with the city and the state and the feds while trying to STAY open. I wrote emails to every one of Virginia’s elected officials. Every. Single. One. I heard back from two dozen, out of the 150 or so emails I sent out. Some, just to ask if I lived in their district, and when the answer was no, I got no further response. Only two or three seemed legitimately concerned, and even then, couldn’t do anything. Government is not of the people, by the people, nor especially, for the people. Not by a long shot.
Davenport of Tazza Kitchen: When you are faced with being wiped out, you can be far more resilient and resourceful than you ever imagined.
What breaks your heart about this year?
Stamper of En Su Boca and Beauvine Burger Concept: What doesn’t break your heart about this year? It’s been brutal. My heart goes out to everyone. I don’t know anyone this has been easy on, restaurant biz or not. Hearing about the latest place that’s closed is miserable. Over and over. Friends’ places, places owned by people I have looked up to for years, places I never would have thought ... the damage is immense, and as of now, immeasurable. Everyone is so worn down from this, and we still have such a great distance ahead. It’s hard to complain when 300K people are dead and so many more are going to pass. It’s been exhausting and it’s been uphill the whole time, but I have a feeling it will all really set in when this thing lets up, and we have perspective. Right now, we are in the thick of it.
Peters of The Locker Room and The Pitts: The many places that won’t reopen. Places that worked so hard to make it in such a difficult industry, and they did it only to get knocked down by something completely out of their control.
Bender of Sheppard Street Tavern: It breaks that leathery heart of mine to see all these restaurants closed and closing. It’s not just a restaurant, but it’s someone’s dream that they made true with more than a little blood, a whole lotta sweat and certainly tears. It’s families. It’s someone’s mortgage, rent, car payment. It’s restaurant families being torn asunder, cast out and cast aside, relying on the largess of unemployment and GoFundMe. It f---ing breaks my heart.
Williams of the Richmond Restaurant Group: It breaks my heart what we as a nation have lost. I can’t believe that my staff is still fighting with customers about mask wearing, as if not wearing one is going to get us back to normal faster. And for me it’s not hindsight. I was preaching early on about the difficult decisions countries like New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea and others were making, and it has paid off in every case. Our leadership has not done a good job in this area and instead politicized a pandemic. I don’t enjoy wearing a mask 12 hours a day for nine months, but I can suck it up for the good of my fellow humans, and if everyone in the U.S. could put something other than themselves first, we would have a few hundred thousand more people and businesses to show for it.
Davenport of Tazza Kitchen: The toll that the pandemic has taken on the mental and emotional health of so many people at a time when they cannot physically be surrounded by their loved ones is heartbreaking. The lives that have been lost is heartbreaking. Seeing some of our favorite RVA restaurants close is heartbreaking.
Where do you see hope?
Cabaniss of Julep’s: I find hope in the vaccine?! Hopefully, it will make a swift change in the number of cases and deaths, and we can get back to some kind of “normalcy.”
Kincaid of RVA Hospitality: I see a hope in our team. With having a smaller staff at each restaurant, I’ve felt more like it was in the early days of Tarrant’s. Getting to know everyone on a deeper level and the stress has tested us all as a team and individually, and we’ve made it this far together.
Williams of the Richmond Restaurant Group: With the vaccination rollout, I hope the end of this virus is near.
Bender of Sheppard Street Tavern: I have just been approved for a grant from Richmond Recovers. If I squeeze tightly enough, it may just get me through December and January. This shows that someone in the city DOES care. And I am hopeful that, with [recently appointed city small-business liaison] Jason Alley’s input and guidance, the city will continue to reach out to local restaurateurs to see how they can help us weather the storm.
Susan Davenport, co-owner, Tazza Kitchen: We see hope in the vaccines, a brighter outlook for our country, and the potential for 2021. We see hope in our employees and their work ethic, dedication and ability to adapt.