Metro area restaurants adjust to a new normal

Amid the pandemic, sit-down service is gone, but the lights are still on for many

How are you?

Lately, when people ask me that question, I give a rote response: “Fine.” In reality, I don’t know if I am fine. Like everyone else, I’m figuring things out as I go.

Although I've been reporting about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on area restaurants since Feb. 28, when I did a story about how Chinese and Asian-owned eateries were experiencing a heavy decline in traffic, March 14 marks the first day of my new normal, where every day is filled with the need to pivot and turn.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

March 14 was the day I was scheduled to leave on a family vacation planned six months earlier. I was reticent to fly. My family convinced me it would be fine. Our “vacation” ended up being a flight to Salt Lake City, one day of skiing before slopes shut down, and a 1,900-mile road trip back to Atlanta to avoid airports and maintain social distancing.

The three-day drive home was surreal. At a Travelodge in Laramie, Wyoming, there was no overnight staff due to layoffs. There was an emergency number to call, said the employee at the front desk. (It felt like a cruel joke that the restaurant next to the hotel was called Corona Village.) We learned that some gas stations were up on the COVID-19 sanitary measures, and others far from it. (Thank you to the ones who have sanitizers next to each pump, who prop doors open so people don’t have to touch them, and whose employees clean the restrooms frequently and thoroughly.)

As all hell broke loose in Atlanta’s hospitality industry, and restaurant after restaurant closed as a result of mayors ordering them to cease dine-in service, our rental car became a mobile HQ for Atlanta Journal-Constitution food and dining coverage. I logged into our systems, typed emails, made phone calls and responded to text messages. The battery pack couldn’t charge fast enough. There wasn’t time to enjoy the scenery of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee or Alabama. By the time we got to Mississippi, it was too dark to see anything anyway.

Two weeks later, no restaurant in Georgia can offer sit-down service, but the lights aren't off at all of them. Some, like Staplehouse, have transformed into soup kitchens for displaced restaurant workers. Others, like Miller Union, Forza Storico and the Restaurant Eugene space that was slated to become Eugene and Elizabeth's, have become a major cog in emergency meal supply efforts that use charitable funds to feed frontline heath care workers. The funding from the Atlanta Hawks has enabled the restaurants to rehire staff to cook and package the meals. It also has enabled them to support area farmers, pumping critical dollars into a crippled supply chain. 

The AJC isn’t publishing restaurant reviews right now, because we don’t have a dining scene to cover. But, there is still a scene. Picture the inside of these dining rooms that have been mobilized for emergency relief efforts, with chairs pushed into a corner, and tables and bar counters turned into assembly lines. Picture cardboard boxes piled on top of one another, filled with paper goods needed to package prepared meals. Picture staff wearing gloves, hairnets, beard nets and masks, if they have them, who stop every 20 minutes to wash their hands, and who make pacts to go directly home after their shift, so that they don’t risk infecting one another.

With each installment of our new series, Atlanta Orders In, fellow dining critic Wendell Brock and I learn more about daily life at restaurants that have transformed into takeout and delivery operations.

For restaurants designed for a sit-down experience, the adjustments have been mind-boggling. They have to source food and to-go packaging, often competing with grocery stores for those commodities. Front and back of house staff must cook and assemble orders at a safe 6-foot distance from one another. Some employees are now tasked with new jobs, as servers have become cashiers, and take phone orders on a single land line, or join valets as delivery drivers. Websites are getting revamped to include online order forms and menus updated daily. Compared with a reservation system that staggers diners throughout the evening, when it comes to takeout and delivery, everyone wants dinner at the same time.

Even as these owners chase every grant and loan, file their employees for temporary unemployment, and set up GoFundMe pages, they still are feeding their customers. Whether talking to Gianni Betti of Cibo e Beve in Sandy Springs, Steven Herman of Haven, Valenza, Vero and Arnette’s Chop Shop in Brookhaven, Randy Adler of Babs in Midtown, Thip Athakhanh of Snackboxe Bistro in Doraville, or Jarrett Stieber of Little Bear in Summerhill, they all say they know they can’t go on forever like this. But, right now, they don’t have plans to stop.

“We’re going to do this long as we possibly can. We just don’t want to have to,” said Stieber, whose restaurant was open just two weeks before he had to pivot and turn it into a carryout business. “As long as we can continue selling anything we can, and pay our staff, and keep the restaurant alive, I’m going to do it until we can go back to normal,” he said. “We’ll have to figure out what the new normal is when we get there, I suppose.”


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