COVID-19 hit Virginia’s food industry hard. Without any stimulus, some restaurants closed, while others still hold on.
MARTINSVILLE – Monday through Saturday, the aroma of fresh baked goods wafts down Brookdale Street in Martinsville. That’s thanks to Rising Sun Breads and its owner, Darla Main-Schneider. In a regular year, you’d find people coming by the full-service bakery and restaurant for breakfast, lunch and to pick up meals for dinner. But when the coronavirus hit Virginia restaurants in March, most folks stayed home.
First, Rising Sun Breads took a punch to their breakfast sales. Since most people no longer left for work in the morning, fewer customers came in to grab their go-to favorites.
“Lunch was kind of right behind it. If you’re an office worker working from home, you’re not really going out for lunch,” Main-Schneider said. “Those two areas took really big hits.”
Sweets also struggled. From postponed weddings to immediate-family-only birthday parties, fewer people requested the bakery’s creative cakes. Those who sought a special sweet surprise needed smaller sizes than normal. The most popular cake size the bakery sells now is a six or seven-inch version.
“It has been a tough year,” Main-Schneider said.
Adapting, the changes sparked new ideas for Main-Schneider’s business.
“We did develop a lot more things that were pick up and go, so you could just come in and pick up things that were already sealed and ready to go, which was helpful,” Main-Schneider said. “I also brought in a baker who does nothing but keto.”
Helping the community, the business owner also implemented a free city delivery service to customers age 65 and older.
“You call up,” Main-Schneider said. “We will deliver the order to your house and put it on your front porch or in your garage.”
Restaurants adjust to the situation
Restaurants, bakeries and breweries in the Commonwealth were all hit hard by COVID-19. At the peak of the pandemic, the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association found 94% of restaurants had to lay off or furlough employees. And it hasn’t improved. According to the National Restaurant Association, Virginia ranked fourth in the nation for September when it comes to restaurant jobs lost. Massachusetts was first with 7,900. Florida came in second with 4,600 jobs lost and Maine finished third with 3,800. Virginia was right behind, with 3,400 lost in September alone.
Some operations, like The Homeplace in Catawba, closed temporarily. The restaurant’s ownership posted on their Facebook page Oct. 12, saying they just couldn’t make it work right now.
“We know how Covid has affected all businesses, and we sadly have been hit hard,” the post said. “We enjoyed being able to offer carry out over the summer and had high hopes of trying to get our feet back on the ground by opening for inside dining with social distancing along with the takeout option still in place. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the folks we needed with new policies in place, and wanted to let you know our last day of business for 2020 will be Sunday, October 18 for inside dining and carry out. We pray for better days and hope 2021 will shine for all.”
They’re not alone. A September Economic Impact report from Yelp found 58% of restaurant owners expect to be out of business in the next six months, unless they get some kind of help. In some cases, that already happened. Thirty restaurants in Richmond shut their doors permanently over the last seven months as a result of the pandemic. Restaurants in Danville, Martinsville, Roanoke and Lynchburg have all adjusted hours, laid off staff and scaled down menus, trying to stay open. It’s not been easy.
A unique situation
Meanwhile in Chatham, a unique situation happened in June. As some Virginia restaurants were laying off staff and juggling schedules, Pop’s Country Cooking was opening the doors. A new spin on an older restaurant, Bryanna McGhee and her staff reinvented a type of family tradition.
“My grandparent’s had owned Donnie Boy’s in Danville years and years and years ago,” McGhee said. “I think it’s very homey feeling. A lot of family works here.”
As for the menu, it’s down home southern cooking.
“We serve, like, meatloaf, chicken and dumplings, pintos, cornbread and things like that,” McGhee said. “Mashed potatoes, all that stuff.”
Pop’s opened right around the time state restrictions allowed restaurants more flexibility when serving their customers. When restrictions lifted, McGhee said people started pouring in. This happened during the time Virginia moved to Phase Two in the reopening plans. So far, traffic’s been steady enough that there haven’t been any issues.
“I’ve been very surprised with how well we are doing, considering all of the restrictions,” McGhee said. “Hopefully it picks up more.”
Stimulus hopes dashed
It’s not that simple for other operations, groups that have been going for years or even decades in some cases. As evidenced in the National Restaurant Association’s graphic above, the state’s seen between 10 to 19.9% job loss in Virginia restaurants across the board since February. Many owners hoped for some government help, but that’s been hit or miss.
Places like Roanoke and Richmond set up ways for restaurants to request a waiver from this year’s meals tax. In addition to Richmond, Montgomery County and the City of Danville used some of their COVID-19 federal grant funding to help restaurants and other local businesses. But when it comes to state or federal support, business owners aren’t expecting any.
“It would be nice, but I didn’t count on it,” Rising Sun’s owner Main-Schneider said. “I’ve worked it to the point that I think it’s important as an owner, especially as a small business owner, you have to be dependent on yourself. You have to look forward and say, ‘Hey, I can’t worry about what somebody else is going to give me. I have to worry about what I can do.’”
Leading by example, Main-Schneider picked up odd jobs around the bakery when short staffed. She also complimented her team for a job well done.
No help from Washington?
The General Assembly adjourned from their special session this month without including any help for Virginia restaurants in the budget. On the national level, negotiations continue between the US House and Senate, but an actual deal isn’t expected until after the election. The House passed a $3 trillion relief bill in May, then trimmed that down to $2.2 trillion earlier this month to try and get it passed in the Senate. Their version includes another round of $1,200 stimulus checks, extended weekly unemployment payments, $220 billion for schools and $436 billion in emergency funds for states.
Senators, however, want a $500 billion version. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this past week that it’s either their version or nothing. Senate Republicans, he said, are not interested in a compromise between the $1.8 tillion version proposed by the White House and the $2.2 trillion edition passed in the House.
Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]