‘Worth it’: Why a Georgia lawmaker reopened his restaurants

As the last customers downed their frosty beers and cleaned the pizza from their plates, Kasey Carpenter made straight for the cash register at the middle of the bar.

“It’s time,” he said, “to look at the tale of the tape.”

Carpenter is walking a tightrope amid the coronavirus restrictions. He’s a Republican state lawmaker and close ally of Gov. Brian Kemp. He’s also a restaurateur in Dalton whose two downtown eateries were upended by orders to shut down in-person dining at restaurants.

When the governor made the polarizing decision last week to allow restaurants to reopen their dining rooms if they abided by safety precautions, Carpenter didn’t hesitate. He reopened both restaurants Monday with more limited capacity, social distancing and other measures.

"I was ready. I didn't want to shut down in the first place," he said, though he was forced to shutter first by local officials and then by Kemp's April 3 mandate. "People were scared to death and they were doing the best they could, but I pleaded with them not to do it."

The shutdown took its toll. Carpenter, 42, has been in the restaurant business roughly half his life. In the first 19 years, he only had to put five staffers on the unemployment rolls. This year, he had 75 employees suddenly out of work.

“Devastating” was how he put it.

Oklahoma dough

In a state Capitol packed with lawyers, insurance agents and small business owners, Carpenter stands out. He’s the only one of the 236 legislators whose main job involves owning and operating restaurants — the welcoming Oakwood Café and the buzzy Cherokee Brewery and Pizza Company.

It’s also how he got his start in politics. A few years back, Carpenter ran his family’s restaurant in Forest Park, just south of Atlanta. He found a niche delivering food to politicos at the Capitol, helping him forge ties with hungry power brokers.

Inspired by his experience in Leadership Georgia, Carpenter ran for the state House and won on his second attempt, defeating three other candidates in a 2017 special election.

He cast himself as a business-friendly conservative who opposed a controversial “religious liberty” measure, but it helped that he’d fed a generation of Dalton residents at his two popular restaurants.

Carpenter has cut a low profile at the Capitol, though he's been a behind-the-scenes player in higher education legislation, including a bill to let young immigrants receive in-state tuition rates at some Georgia colleges and another that aims to protect "religious expression" of school employees.

He’s also managed a growing empire that, beyond the restaurants, includes a wedding venue and plans to expand to nearby cities. But the coronavirus pandemic complicated his plans and left him scrambling for even basic staples.

For one, the pizza dough that he imports from Spain was held up as the pandemic spread, and then it was stuck at an Oklahoma facility. Carpenter drove halfway across the country to pick up the dough after his wife forbade him from flying.

‘I never doubted it’

Like most other restaurants, his business tanked after the shutdown, plummeting to roughly one-fifth of its usual traffic. Reopening let him put most of his 75 or so employees back on the payroll, albeit with limited hours.

Carpenter acknowledged the warnings from public health experts who fear that Kemp’s rollback will trigger new outbreaks, but he’s also confident in security measures that he’s required to take.

A sign at the front door of Cherokee Brewing and Pizza offered a glimpse of what awaited inside: “Thanks for being the greatest customers on the planet and please don’t laugh at the face shields — we know we look goofy.”

Staffers wore plastic guards that covered their entire face and surgical masks. Hand sanitizers were spread across the room. Most of the tables were removed to ensure social distancing, and groups of more than a handful of people were barred from stitting together.

“You can’t let fear drive your decisions,” he said. “I pray at night that we don’t spread the virus, that my employees don’t get it, that my friends don’t get it. But we’ve flattened the curve. At some point people need to see progress.”

The Monday crowd was more a trickle than a rush. But Carpenter never expected it to reach full speed. And when he saw the night’s tally, he was pleasantly surprised: His restaurant was twice as busy as it was the previous Monday.

“I never doubted it was worth it even if we lost money,” he said. “I just want to get people moving in the right direction.”