After a banner 2019, Fifth Group Restaurants was humming along in March when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Atlanta-based company to shut down.
“It’s been pretty tough. It’s been devastating,” said Robby Kukler, a partner with Fifth Group. “You have a thriving business with over 800 employees, and 2019 was the best year we’ve ever had in almost every measure. And to go overnight to zero revenue, it’s something no team or company can ever plan for. It’s unimaginable. It’s unprecedented waters with the pandemic and the virus.”
Fifth Group owns 10 eateries, including three in Buckhead, and four other restaurants are licensed under its name but owned by others: three at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and South City Kitchen at Avalon in Alpharetta. It also owns Bold Catering and Design, a catering and event business.
All have been impacted by the outbreak, as have countless other restaurants and related businesses. Here’s a look at how restaurants are handling the pandemic, from a statewide angle down to owners of eateries across metro Atlanta.
Karen Bremer, CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association, said the state, which was on pace to make $25 billion in revenue this year, has lost $8 billion in revenue since the pandemic started. That statistic is based on monthly surveys the organization did through mid-June with Georgia’s 18,933 eateries, with about 6,500 respondents. The July data has not been compiled yet.
In metro Atlanta, based on the fact that two-thirds of the state’s restaurants are in a 30-county region, the lost revenue estimate is about $5 billion. Nationwide, Bremer said, an economist with the National Restaurant Association told her its estimate is $120 billion.
With the recent spike in COVID-19 cases causing concerns for diners, she said the biggest challenge facing restaurants is “consumer trust and employee trust.”
“The trust factor is going to be validated by everybody practicing good habits, not just for restaurants but for consumers,” Bremer said. “Are they following the protocol that the state is asking, not just restaurants but all businesses? I ask consumers to have patience with restaurants right now. Not all are completely open. …
“I think that those that are comfortable about going out and dining in restaurants right now are going to continue to do so and are comfortable about it. There may be a small percentage of people who are reconsidering dining out. But I also think the testing is much greater. There’s many more testing being done than two months ago. I think consumers need to understand the data and their own personal feelings about it to make the best decision for their own health and well-being.”
She added no matter how you feel about eating out, supporting your favorite restaurant is paramount to its survival.
“If you’re not comfortable about going to a restaurant, don’t go,” Bremer said, “But at least get carryout or delivery so three months from now, it’s still there. That’s the biggest thing right now.”
Also, she said she’s hearing from a lot of restaurants that some of their employees are not returning to work because they can get an extra $600 a week in federal unemployment funds. However, workers who make $300 or less per week can still receive full unemployment benefits (federal and state), though they are expected to run out by the end of July.
“The smart ones are going back to work and getting paid from three different sources,” Bremer said. “Then (there’s other) uncertainty because there are so many regulations a restaurant has to follow in the normal course of business.”
Kukler said Fifth Group closed its 10 restaurants March 17 before reopening three at a time for to-go and curbside pickup service on a weekly basis starting the first week in April. Beginning in mid-June, the company followed the same plan in reopening its eateries’ dining rooms.
However, its Alma Cocina location in downtown Atlanta has not reopened at all since the hotels and offices nearby have had little occupancy due to the pandemic. At the nine other restaurants, employees are required to wear masks and customers must wear them when not seated at their table.
“It took a long time to roll out because we put in a lot of new safety and standard protocols because of the coronavirus and did two full days of training of the staff prior to reopening those,” Kukler said “There is no playbook for this, so we created a lot of things regarding safety so the staff would be comfortable, but at the same time having as close to a regular experience (for customers) when they dine out at restaurants.”
He added almost all employees were furloughed when the restaurants closed, and about half have returned to work. The rest either left the company or are on unemployment and/or waiting to be rehired once the company can based on sales levels.
Kukler said Fifth Group’s overall sales are down “in excess of 90% since we closed” but has rebounded some.
“Right now we’re doing between 30% and 50% of what we typically do (in sales), depending on location,” he said.
The Select/ Paces and Vine
Dave Green, who co-owns The Select in Sandy Springs and Paces and Vine in Vinings with David Lester, said the two restaurants did two weeks of to-go service only starting in mid-March before closing completely for at least three weeks. The Select reopened, including dine-in service around April 23 (the first day Georgia restaurants could do so), and Paces and Vine followed two to three weeks later.
Green said sales for both restaurants are “down well over 50%,” adding it’s been “very tough” to survive during the pandemic.
“We’re just doing everything we can to make ends meet and hopefully we’ll bounce back,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll find a way to control the spread of the disease. We’re certainly doing our part.”
At The Select, the staff has taken extra precautions for health and safety with safeguards such as requiring each server and each bartender to change gloves (with different colors each time) each time they touch a diner’s plate or make a drink, respectively.
“We had gotten way ahead to build Plexiglas and wood dividers and take temperatures of employees and guests as they enter,” Green said.
In fact, after other media outlets covered The Select’s safety protocols, other restaurateurs contacted the owners about them. Also, Green added, he and Lester are in constant contact with other owners about ways to sustain their businesses during the pandemic.
“It’s really fantastic to see the community of restaurants to come together and help do this so we can all contribute to our own destiny,” he said. “We have to come together as a community and figure out who we can deal with this.”
The Select has nearly 50 employees and Paces and Vine has about 40, and all were furloughed when they temporarily closed, and only two to three at each restaurant have not returned, Green said.
“We have a really strong culture here, and we’re committed to our employees and they’re committed to us,” he said.
il Giallo Osteria & Bar in Sandy Springs and Lagarde American Eatery in Chamblee each closed March 17, and il Giallo reopened about a week later, offering to-go service for both restaurants, said co-owners Leo Moura and Jamie Adams.
Lagarde opened for takeout service a week after that, and at that time customers could take their meals home or eat them outside on the patio, with tables spread 12 feet apart, and get a drink at the outdoor bar.
Both restaurants waited until after Mother’s Day in May to reopen their dining rooms. The owners have had similar outdoor dining success at il Giallo, where they installed an awning and extra patio seating. They also adjusted the menu, including lowering prices on some items.
The owners said sales are down by 60% at il Giallo and by 40 to 45% at Lagarde, which opened in November. At least 20 employees overall were laid off, and some did not return to work due to fears of contracting the virus.
“The hardest part is personal,” Adams said. “We’ve had to make some very difficult decisions. We didn’t have jobs for everybody to come back to work. We tried everything we could. The businesses we had there, they couldn’t be kept around. … We’re seeing this huge drop in sales, and we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to provide.”
Said Moura, “Nobody saw this one coming.”
Craig Stark and Christopher Forrester, co-owners of Iron Brothers BBQ and Catering in Dallas, picked a tough time to open a restaurant, April 20. However, it’s surviving despite the pandemic.
“It’s been pretty tough,” Stark said. “Fortunately, we’ve got a lot of support behind us. We have a pretty good following and our food speaks for itself.”
Iron Brothers has no tables because of its limited space, so its restaurant only has takeout and drive-through service. Today the restaurant accounts for about 90% of the overall business with the catering side only about 10%, thanks to the outbreak.
“We have been doing some things,” Stark said of the catering arm. “Just small parties, like graduation parties. We’ve done a weeding. We’ve done a few different things. We’ve done a couple of motorcycle rallies. (But) most of our events have been cancelled, which is kind of tough.”
He said Iron Brothers would eventually like to expand its catering side of the operation to account for 70% of the overall business.
“Eventually we’ll have a food truck, so I would like that to be the majority of the business because we’ll be using it for large events such as fairs, festivals rallies, concerts,” Stark said. “That’s’ why we got into business.”
He added the company laid off two employees and reduced the hours of others to adjust to the pandemic.