In the dining room of Restaurant Holmes, there’s a neon sign that reads “keep the vibes alive.” And right now, that’s just what the staff of the Alpharetta restaurant is trying to do.
In a matter of weeks, everything about life in the restaurant world has been turned on its head. Not just for Taylor Neary, Holmes’ executive chef and his staff, but for everyone in the dining and hospitality industries.
As the coronavirus has quickly changed every facet of daily life, Neary has had to change his business from a sit-down restaurant into a to-go operation that is also doubling as a convenient store of sorts — anything to survive in trying times.
“At Holmes during the regular world, we try to curate an experience that can't necessarily be duplicated anywhere else or at home, which adds that perceived value to what we have to offer,” the 32-year-old chef said. “With that being kind of swept out from under us, we worked diligently to try to create experiences that you could come and pick up and enjoy in the safety of your own home.”
That means a little pop-up market he’s calling “Holmes Bodega” featuring cured fish dip, pimento cheese and unopened beer and wine, which the city is allowing establishments to sell. They have cocktail kits that have everything you need to make a big batch of drinks, minus the alcohol.
They’ve also created an A la carte menu, which is a mix of lunch and dinner favorites available from noon-8 p.m. every day. And they have four different family-style meals that serve two available at a 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. pickup.
On the bar, Neary has set up merchandise including T-shirts, hats, stickers.
“I mean, at this point, I'll sell anything,” he said.
Holmes, a Roswell native, has spent his whole career in the restaurant industry. But this is uncharted territory.
“Nobody in the casual dining restaurant industry has ever made a switch like this, so it wasn't like there was this in-stone protocol to be like, ‘oh now we're a to-go restaurant,’” he said.
Even before Alpharetta city officials made the decision to prohibit in-person dining, Neary made the call to close his dining room in order to protect the safety of his staff.
“Holmes is a very old 2,000-square-foot home ... you get four people in the bar and you're standing four feet away from each other. So we just kind of took this safety precaution,” he said. “We thought it was the right move, and then four days later, the city said, you can't have people inside the restaurant.”
However, making that decision also meant that the employees that rely on the restaurant for their livelihood were now left waiting in the wings.
For the time being, Neary is operating with six salaried staffers, while 16 other employees aren’t currently working. However, he’s still finding ways to support them.
“That’s our No. 1 priority is making sure that the staff it's not able to work right now is taken care of,” he said. All the tips received on to-go orders are put into a pool to be divided up among the servers, $5 from each merchandise purchase goes into the pool and there’s also a GoFundMe campaign.
So far, Neary says the community response has been “unbelievable.” He says tips have been averaging at 42%, which as he puts it, has “never existed in the world of restaurants ever.”
At first, when people asked what they could do to help, Neary was a little more coy, just encouraging people to keep coming back.
Now, a little further in, he’s gotten more blunt. When people ask, he says they need money.
“I have two kids and a wife and I have every dollar in my entire life invested into this restaurant. So even somebody coming in and buying a sticker for $2 is something. I'm not a penny pincher normally, but at this at this moment I kind of have to be,” he said.
But still, Neary says he’s optimistic and he won’t give up. He has put his all into his business, which will be two years old in July, and he’s hellbent on shepherding its continued success.
It’s a similar story at other small businesses in Alpharetta.
David Silver, the general manager of Alpharetta’s mixed-use development, Halcyon, said many of the businesses “are quickly adapting” to continue serving their customers.
Silver notes Land of a Thousand Hills coffee shop is donating food items they aren’t able to use to the nonprofit, The Place of Forsyth, while other restaurants like Butcher & Brew are crowdfunding donations to help their out-of-work staffers.
Cherry Street Brewpub at Halcyon, has converted their menu to serve family-style to-go orders. They’ve also gotten creative with the extras they are offering.
“For purchases of more than $30, we are giving away a free roll of toilet paper per request. For purchases under $30, guests can add a roll of toilet paper to their order for $2 each and proceeds from this will go directly to help our staff during these times,” Alisa Tanner-Wall, Cherry Street’s general manager said via email.
Tanner-Wall said “every day has brought new challenges,” but despite the hardships, she remains encouraged by the camaraderie around them.
“With all the negativity happening around us, it truly has been amazing to see how businesses are quickly adapting and adding new ways of generating sales to stay afloat while at the same time continuing to serve the community,” she said.
Ultimately, Tanner-Wall said there is no right or wrong way to approach the unknown.
“We have learned that there is no right or wrong way to handle this situation – each business has to do what they feel is right for them and their team. Remember to be kind to your neighbor because everyone is going through this together,” she said.
A full list of how businesses at Alpharetta’s City Center are reacting amid the coronavirus pandemic can be found here.
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