Weekend without water costly blow to Atlanta restaurants

Line cook William Miracle works in the kitchen next to large pots that are boiling water at the restaurant, Sun in my Belly, in the Kirkwood neighborhood, Monday, June 3, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Line cook William Miracle works in the kitchen next to large pots that are boiling water at the restaurant, Sun in my Belly, in the Kirkwood neighborhood, Monday, June 3, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / AJC)

Multiple water main breaks on Friday left Atlanta restaurant operators bracing themselves for the effect on weekend business. Eateries across Little Five Points, Downtown, Grant Park, Old Fourth Ward, the West End, East Atlanta, Midtown, Inman Park and Candler Park were forced to close due to water outages or low water pressure. And they were left wondering whether it would just be an overnight headache or something worse.

Some awoke on Saturday to restored water pressure but with a water boil advisory in effect, while others found their taps completely dry. Operators either had to shut down or find workarounds.

Costs of closing

Bovino After Dark, a supper club that operates out of a counter inside Hop City at the Lee + White mixed-use development in Atlanta’s West End neighborhood, was closed for all of its shifts Friday through Sunday due to the water issues.

Co-owner Alex Sher estimated the business lost to be between $10,000 and $14,000. He said the timing, at the end of the month when most businesses have to gather rent and pay for expenses, couldn’t have been worse.

Bovino, which still paid its employees over the weekend, is offering buyout options, catering menus and offsite and special event packages to try to recoup losses. Sher said if need be, revenue from other businesses he co-owns, including Stone Mountain Cattle and Sausage World, can help cover things financially until Bovino can operate as normal.

“If we didn’t have the other companies, this would not be OK,” he said. “We have friends who I don’t think will make it past the 10th of the month. Summer is already slow for everyone as it is.”

On Monday, the Bovino staff began assessing which perishable food products could be salvaged or composted.

Even with insurance, Sher said the costs of being forced to close over the weekend are immeasurable.

“Even deductibles have limits,” he said. “There’s no way to completely offset this.”

Reid and Sophia Trapani of La Semilla were forced to close their Reynoldstown eatery on Friday. They still didn’t have much water pressure on Saturday, so they had to cancel more than 100 reservations, Reid Trapani said.

To make up for at least a little of the lost revenue, the couple opened for takeout on the patio. He adjusted the menu with items that required less water to prepare. And in an effort not to waste food, they turned gallons of a peach basil agua fresca that had been made with clean water a few days ago into margaritas. He said customers tipped well, which helped to make up for the hourly employees who lost a night of work, but he still estimated it was at least a $20,000 loss for their small business.

Jen Hidinger-Kendrick, founder of Giving Kitchen, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that helps restaurant workers in crisis across the country, said several workers impacted by the water main break have reached out for assistance.

“When you’re already in crisis, little additional things can pile up,” Hidinger said.

She said Giving Kitchen has referred people to rental or utility assistance organizations, and said it’s key for the public to support restaurants to support restaurants during difficult times.

“When restaurants reopen, please go visit them and tip extra, please be kind and full of gratitude to the staff who goes out of their way to serve us.”

A sign reads, “Boil Water Advisory Still in Effect,” with a drawing of water being boiled and a stick figure with a thumbs up at the main entrance to the restaurant, Sun in my Belly, in the Kirkwood neighborhood, Monday, June 3, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

All hands on deck

Longtime Kirkwood eatery Sun in my Belly is no stranger to pivoting on the fly. Megan Cook, catering director and the sister of owner Max LeBlanc, said they began formulating a plan almost as soon as they learned about the water main break.

She closed the restaurant early on Friday when the water began to slow, and Saturday morning she realized they wouldn’t be able to open at all. Closing on Saturday meant losing around $14,000 to $16,000, she said, so Cook knew they couldn’t afford to lose Sunday business, too.

Saturday morning, they jumped into action. Cook said the team got in touch with their luxury bathroom company to rent portable toilets, purchased fresh ice from one of their vendors, and they gathered five-gallon jugs of water and as many customized water bottles as they could find.

Sun in my Belly general manager Megan Cook takes bottled water out of the plastic bags for customers to use at the restaurant in the Kirkwood neighborhood, Monday, June 3, 2024, in Atlanta. The restaurant is still boiling large pots of water in the kitchen and using bottled waters for service. (Jason Getz / AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

icon to expand image

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

“We basically just called out the troops,” she said. “Anyone that we worked with for the last 25 years, we saw what we could do and partnered with them to see how we could push through because we did not know how long this was going to be.”

On Sunday, chefs arrived two hours early to start boiling five-gallon containers of water to make any menu items that would require it ahead of time. Around midday, they had to shrink the coffee menu since they couldn’t heat enough water to keep up with the orders, but in exchange Cook added specialty drinks and menu items to keep customers well-fed. And Sunday evening, she had employees come in to thoroughly wash and process all the dishes and glassware.

Sun in my Belly has been operating for about 30 years, so they’ve muscled through countless challenges from the 2008 recession to COVID-19, Cook said. They’ve had the same leadership for more than a decade, which allows them to move quickly as a team to produce backup plans upon backup plans.

Despite thousands of dollars in lost revenue, Cook said she thought “the city of Atlanta turned things around pretty quickly,” especially since she and her brother are from Louisiana where they’ve had to deal with plenty of natural disasters.

“We have a lot of things that we have to pivot on weekly,” Cook said. “So this was just another blip in the system that we were like, we know what to do.”

Kitty Dare in Inman Park was forced to close Friday and Saturday, but was able to reopen Sunday for brunch after its water was restored.

Co-owner Jamshad Zarnegar said executive chef Giuseppe Esposito has taken precautions under the boil water advisory to continue to be able to serve food safely. Zarnegar hopes to make up for a portion of the financial hit by hosting an all-you-can-eat buffet at 6 p.m. Monday, when the restaurant isn’t normally open.

“It’s a huge loss, especially for our hourly employees,” Zarnegar said. “A lot of them live paycheck to paycheck, and we’re hoping to reimburse them for some of those lost hours.”

He said the lack of communication from the city has been frustrating, but the support of the Inman Park community has been a bright spot during a tough weekend.

“We’ll recover no matter what, but this is a kink we really didn’t want to have to experience,” he said.

Communication frustrations

Fifth Group founder Steve Simon said that the biggest challenge was “trying to figure out what was going on. I think that’s what everyone ran into. We didn’t know what to expect or when to expect it.”

Between Friday and Saturday, information from city officials slowed to barely more than a trickle with about 12 hours between updates until the City of Atlanta shared on Instagram that repairs on the break near Joseph E. Boone Boulevard had been completed, but the post was later deleted. Several restaurant owners said they gathered most of their information from word of mouth, social media and news posts.

Fifth Group closed the downtown location of Alma Cocina on Friday, finally reopening it in time for dinner service on Sunday. Low water pressure at Ela in Virginia-Highland forced a delayed opening for Friday’s service. But the group was particularly concerned about its Midtown restaurants South City Kitchen, Lure and Ecco.

“With that geyser flowing out of (West) Peachtree, we were scared to death all weekend. We have three restaurants within a few blocks of it. Fortunately none were impacted.”

Despite lack of information from city officials, Simon said that Fifth Group “went into over-communication mode” though company text group messages, eblasts and the use of social media. “We were able to scramble and figure it out,” he said.

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