Few businesses suffered as much during the coronavirus pandemic as restaurants. According to the National Restaurant Association, an estimated 110,000 restaurants have closed since cities and states across the country imposed restrictions on indoor dining last March.
After this hard year, restaurant owners know that survival is not the same as success. To keep doors open proprietors and workers had to adapt and sacrifice. The recently passed American Rescue Plan includes $28.6 billion in long-sought aid for independent restaurants but the pandemic has not ended and more businesses may close.
As the country marks one year since the pandemic began, five USA Today Network writers from across the South tell the stories of restaurants that, despite the difficulties, continue to feed their communities.
“The outpouring of love and support is the only reason we are still here,” said B.J. Chester-Tamayo, owner of the Memphis restaurant Alcenia’s, as she recounted story after story of customers’ small acts of kindness.
Customers from across the country have ordered preserves and baked goods to be shipped to their homes. Many have shared social media posts of dishes cooked from Alcenia’s two cookbooks. One customer paid $100 for a slice of pie.
Anyone who knows Chester-Tamayo would not be surprised by her sense of optimism, finding the good in every bad situation.
In 1997, Chester-Tamayo opened her now famous soul food restaurant a little over a year after her only child Will Adler (GoGo) Tamayo III was killed in a motorcycle accident. “The only way I was going to survive was to change my life completely,” she said. From the tragedy grew a dining establishment filled with happiness and good food.
She has taken every low point and turned it into an opportunity. A pandemic has been no exception.
Patrick O’Cain had already closed one restaurant. He wasn’t about to close another.
O’Cain had closed his flagship Gan Shan Station in North Asheville, two months before the pandemic wreaked havoc on restaurants across the country.
He didn’t want to watch the energy drain from a restaurant again, not even temporarily.
“And if you close, that’s what stops,” he said. “It’s really hard to recreate something after it’s already been stopped, and so what I chose to do was to deeply focus on how we could continue serving people food, and to keep everyone employed.”
“I thought, ‘This situation, as frustrating and terrible as it is, there’s also got to be some hidden opportunity,'” he said.
Wayne Baquet Sr. had retired once before. That lasted six months. But this time he was serious. After a lifetime running restaurants in New Orleans, he was done. No more serving gumbo. No more making sure that everyone got their fill of fried chicken and bread pudding.
The COVID-19 pandemic had forced the decision. Li’l Dizzy’s Café, the neighborhood spot he opened in 2005 and named after his trumpet playing grandson, had been closed since March, like most of the city’s restaurants. At 74, Baquet didn’t feel safe reopening even once restrictions ended. He was done.
The closing of Li’l Dizzy’s would end a long run that included more than a dozen Baquet restaurants. The family ranks among New Orleans’ most illustrious. They helped build Tremé, the culturally rich Black neighborhood. His great uncle, George Baquet, recorded with Bessie Smith, helped establish the clarinet in jazz and discovered Sidney Bechet. His brother Dean is currently the executive editor of the New York Times.
“You’ve had a Baquet in New Orleans since there was a New Orleans,” Baquet said.
During the nearly 40 years Geneva Wade has been cooking for Savannah, she has become known for her hand-cut candied yams, smoked turkey-laced greens, and fresh shrimp. The cornbread recipe, which she perfected through trial and error over several years, now accounts for 350 to 400 loaves served daily.
Everything is made fresh on site.
This February should have marked the celebration of the two-year anniversary of her current restaurant, Geneva’s Famous Chicken and Cornbread Co. Instead, she quietly acknowledged the milestone and offered thanks the restaurant was still in business after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered more established places in Savannah.
One key to the restaurant’s resilience is its local rather than tourist following.
“What people come to expect from you, we try to deliver,” Wade said. “We had a lot of people saying, ‘We’re not going to see this place close.’ So, people talk about what it meant to them to have this place to come to. They thanked me for being here and offering the food we offer to the community.”
The GoFundMe was a last-ditch attempt at survival. If it didn’t work, then Luna Rosa Gelato Cafe in Greenville, and all the work the family — Lauren, her husband Jose Ortiz and Lauren’s parents, Linda and Richard Schweitzer — had put into their restaurant over more than a decade would be lost.
The trauma of the last year has left its mark across the business landscape, and particularly on small businesses, like Luna Rosa.
They had to try one last thing.
“It would have been easier to give up a long time ago,” Lauren said.
“We don’t know how to do that.”
It was humbling to have to be here, especially after a year of struggle. It was one wrought with getting a new business off the ground, with a global pandemic, with Ortiz’s entire family contracting COVID-19 and with shutdowns, policing the public, and rising rent — it was a last chance at a lifeline that could get the restaurant to spring.
Amy Paige Condon from Savannah also contributed to this story.