While Congress continues to delay another stimulus, Richmond restaurants try to stay afloat.
RICHMOND- At the height of the pandemic, 94% of Virginia restaurants had to lay off or furlough their employees. Since then, not much has improved. In September, Virginia ranked fourth in terms of food service job loss.
But all hope is not lost. There are still so many restaurants in the state that are tackling this pandemic head on. And to find them, you need to look no further than Hull St. Located on the Southside of Richmond, this street is home to several restaurants still open for business. Many of them are run by people who’ve grown up in the area. Now, these restaurants are leaning on each other while this global health crisis passes.
Opening a restaurant during the pandemic
Opening a restaurant can be a risky move at any time. But during a pandemic is a particularly gutsy move. But, if there’s one thing that business owner La’ Teshia Tuppince has, it’s guts. A born and bred Richmonder, she had plans on opening her store on Hull Street for nearly a decade. Now, she runs Green Olive Eatery with the help of her sons and nieces.
“I started Green Olive because I saw a need. Growing up and riding through Hull St., it was always dead. And I always knew that I wanted to be here in this area. Now I’m here ten years later,” she said. But getting to this point was a long process. And the pandemic did not make it easier.
“I have a video I took on Mar. 31, where we were moving some furniture. And the whole block was dead. No one was walking. There were no cars. All the businesses were closed,” said Tuppince. “And, here I was opening. So I was a little afraid. Are people even going to come? I didn’t think we’d be able to open.”
But, with encouragement of her friends and family, she finally mustered up the bravery to open Green Olive’s doors officially.
“I was sort of thrown into opening. My nieces helped me out. They opened the doors for me,” said Tuppince. “I was scared of opening and they told me ‘we are opening today.’ So I opened on a Friday and it was kind of impromptu. But, there was a whole lotta love from the community.”
But one of the biggest challenges of opening was getting the paperwork in order. In March and April, the entire city of Richmond was shut down. Most government buildings, including several courthouses, were closed.
“The entire city was closed. We couldn’t get permits,” said Tuppince. “It took three months but when they finally opened back up, they were on it.”
Small businesses struggle in a health crisis
Ajay Brewer is a man of many hats. Before running his own business, he worked as a financial advisor on Wall Street for 10 years before his ex-fiancee got pregnant. As a soon-to-be father, he wanted to spend more time with his son. Now, the 35-year-old entrepreneur owns both Brewer’s Cafe and Brewer’s Waffles located on the Southside of Richmond, the same place that he’s called home his whole life.
But after the pandemic hit, both restaurants struggled to stay afloat.
“I wish I could say something good has happened, but it’s all been adjustments,” said Brewer. “It’s not back to normal. There was a slow progression. Now, there’s kind of enough traffic that we’re staying open over here. “
The pandemic hit every restaurant hard in Virginia. But COVID-19 wasn’t the only health crisis Brewer was dealing with. In June, while COVID-19 was at its peak, both his kidneys failed, leading to thousands of dollars in hospital bills.
“I have kidney failure that I developed in June. So its double blow for me. As much as I’m doing alright, there’s a huge financial burden on me and my restaurants because now I can’t work as much I used to,” he said. “It’s been difficult financially to run stuff.” So far, Brewer has had to let go of two people due to budgetary issues.
“We have to struggle with the hurdles of being a small business owner, of which there are several,” said Brewer. “And on top of that, we’re dealing with the psyche of the customer. They’re thinking ‘Oh, I don’t even want to go in there, I might get a disease’. It’s like everybody got a bad health report in March and now we’re all trying to recover.”
What winter brings
Right now, the temperature is rapidly dropping in Virginia. Winter is right around the corner. And while people are trading their tank tops for turtlenecks, this could spell out even worse news for restaurants like Brewer’s. Brewer’s Cafe is located right on the corner of 12th and Bainbridge St, relying heavily on foot traffic. When the weather gets colder, it’s likely that less people are going to be walking past.
“Sales for us were terrible in March. It spiked in June. And its progressively getting worse as the weather gets colder,” said Brewer. “September was slower. October was even slower. Now, with me not being able to physically work because of my condition, I have to hire more people. And then I lose more money.”
Plus, with winter coming, less people could be willing to sit outside. Outdoor seating was a huge saving grace for many businesses upon reopening. Under CDC guidelines, restaurants can allow customers to eat outside as long as they remain Kevin Liu, who’s the co-owner of three separate Richmond restaurants, thinks that most owners have already accounted for this issue.
“Most people who are operating patios have already made their plans. They’re either just going to shut it down because they know it won’t work,” said Liu. “Or they’ll have heaters, coverings and other things.”
To get ahead of this problem, Brewer is bringing in new products to keep people coming into the store.
“We’re starting to roast our own coffee at the top of the year. We’re cold-pressing our own juices and starting to bottle those. And those things are happening because there’s a neccesity,” said Brewer. “Now we have to create products that will bring in revenue that doesn’t require anyone to sit down and eat food.”
The Green Olive team is remaining hopeful as the pandemic persists. For them, business has remained surprisingly steady. Being a market/ restaurant that operates completely indoors, Tuppince has outfitted the building with helpful COVID-19 safety measures, including floor markers indicating social distancing.
Leaning on each other during a crisis
The community of business owners on Hull Street is pretty tightly knit. Often times, they lean on each other in times of crisis. And now, more than ever, these businesses are giving each other helping hands.
Green Olive is the official new kid on the block. And since their arrival, they received nothing but help and support from their new neighbors.
“Whether its bringing supplies, like boxes of gloves, or bringing customers into each other businesses, we all communicate. We check on each other. It’s been nothing but love. We all help each other,” said Tuppince. Often times employees from shops like Pig and Brew will help Green Olive take out their trash and connect them to suppliers.
Outside of Hull St., restaurants are also banding together to create a support system to help each other out during the crisis. A cluster of Richmond restaurants formed Richmond Restaurants United, an informal community group that allows owners to receive business advice from other people in the same boat. While there is no official leader of the group, Liu has been involved in the process of putting it together. So far, over 30 restaurants have joined, including RVA favorites like Casa Del Barco and the Boathouse.
Call to action
Right now, there’s not much else restaurant owners can do besides sit and wait for another stimulus check from the government.
“On the one hand, we’re all holding our breath, waiting for relief because that the biggest help that could come,” said Liu. “But, on a day by day level, it really depends on your restaurant.” Brewer applied for COVID-19 relief in June.
“As a Black business owner, I can say with confidence that it was a lot harder for me to get than another person,” said Brewer. “To qualify for city money, you have to be in great financial standing, which is hard for a Black business. The system is foul.” However, he’s grateful for the assistance. Without it, Brewer’s Cafe would likely be closed.
“I have no idea how it got through, but it did. And we got a little bit of money and it was very helpful. I’d be closed if it wasn’t for that money. And I’m at risk of closing again without Congress acting,” said Brewer.
Recently, Sen. Mark Warner co-sponsored the a bill that would direct $120 billion towards restaurants in the state. Last month, the senator met with several business owners, including Liu, to discuss the bill, dubbed the “Restaurants Act”. So far, the Senate hasn’t held a vote on this or any other stimulus bill over the last 30 days.
But, for the time being, restaurant owners can lean on each other for advice and emotional support. Liu recommends joining the Richmond Restaurant United mailing list. With this mailing list, restaurant owners will get access to a list of a resources as well as helpful tips on staying open in the pandemic.
“We’ll email each other to say things like ‘Have you guys heard about this new ordinance’ or ‘Does anyone know a good place to get patio umbrellas?’ That sort of thing,” said Liu. The city also offers relief through the RVA Strong program, which provides local businesses with COVID-19 relief.
If you’re a restaurant owner interested in joining their mailing list, you can reach them at richmondrestaurantunited.com. If you’re in need of any financial assistance, visit the RVA Strong website for further information.
Arianna Coghill is a content producer with the Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].