MARIETTA — Restaurants, like the rest of the service industry, were hit especially hard in March, as businesses across Georgia closed due to coronavirus concerns.
Four months later, Cobb County eateries have gained back much of their customer base, but face uncertain futures as cases have recently surged.
At The Red Eyed Mule in Marietta on the South Loop, owner Sabra Wood estimates her business is down about 30%. While some days see plenty of full tables, Wood worries about the high costs of food and personal protective equipment.
She said she exclusively uses certified Angus beef, which is almost double the price it was last year, and the price of gloves, where she can find them, went up "astronomically."
"Being closed for over two months, trying to recoup that loss and having these inflated food costs on top of that, and materials, every day is a struggle," she said.
The Red Eyed Mule has 10 employees, including Wood, and she said she was fortunate that almost all of them came back when the restaurant reopened. She said during the worst few weeks, she used her own money to pay employees until the restaurant received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan.
Since March, the restaurant has more than doubled its outdoor seating, and while Wood said she can't afford to use a third-party delivery vendor, it offers takeout and curbside pickup for orders in addition to dining in.
"I have a very strong faith, and I honestly, I feel that it’s going to get better. I think that the community, Marietta, is amazing, just the support that they’ve shown all the restaurants," she said. "I think we’re on the right path to recovery. We’re learning as we go. And I think with the support of the community, and if everybody wears their mask, we’re going to get through this."
Honeysuckle Biscuits and Bakery in Kennesaw never completely closed, but the restaurant did scale back hours and cut down staff cut down staff to three people — the couple who owns it and a barista — said one of the owners, Mitch Phillips.
Thanks to loyal customers, including some who bought gift cards of as much as $100, the restaurant has stayed open and is fully staffed again, and business is nearly back to the level it was before, Phillips said. They've also shifted their business in a way Phillips thinks will last a long time: about 60% to 70% of customers are taking orders for takeout, curbside or delivery.
"For right now, we’re back to close to what we were a year ago. It’s in a different format, it’s a lot more takeout, DoorDash and other people coming in," he said. "But in the last two weeks or so, we've started to see it slip back. I think people are getting scared again."
Still, Phillips said he's optimistic about the rest of the year and is hoping the breakfast and lunch spot regains customers from Kennesaw State University when classes start.
"We’re grateful that everybody stuck with us and kept coming in," he said. "We give glory to God that he is seeing our way through and we’re hoping we’ll continue to keep moving forward."
Vittles, a Southern comfort food staple on South Cobb Drive in Smyrna, is seeing about half the business it was, owner Charity Salyers said.
"Business has picked up tremendously, and we are still seating every 6 feet, so we’re still kind of short on our tables, but we’re filling up our tables several times a day, and people are patiently waiting when we are full," Salyers said. "Business is still nowhere near what it was before. We’re maybe halfway, but we’re still lacking a lot."
After Salyers bought the restaurant last year, it had about 20 employees, and now operates with half that, offering limited dine-in and some takeout, curbside pickup, and delivery for residents in an 8-mile radius or home-bound seniors. And like Wood, Salyers' profits are cut further by rising costs in the supply chain.
In April, Salyers sold her car to keep the restaurant open and pay employees. Now, she worries her business could be hit with another shutdown amid a surge in COVID-19 infections.
"Of course we watch the news and we see all this, and it seems like the numbers keep climbing with this virus, so we really don’t know. We’re kind of worried they’re going to end up shutting us down again," she said. "It’s scary, because you worked so hard to get where you are. It’s really a struggle for us because we haven't been open that long."