What You Need To Know: The Impact On Restaurants

Apr 3, 2020

Georgia Public Broadcasting’s new series What You Need To Know: Coronavirus provides succinct, fact-based information to help you get through the coronavirus pandemic with your health and sanity intact. 

Hugh Acheson, celebrity chef and restauranteur speaks with Rickey Bevington, host of GPB's All Things Considered, about the impact COVID -19 has had on the restaurant community and best practices when using takeout.

So people in the South, we love our locally-sourced, owner-operated restaurants. This is going to be hugely impactful on your industry. What do people need to know about how this crisis will impact local restaurants that they love? 

You know, across Georgia, there are just so many great independent restaurants and that's all restaurants. And the big thing about this crisis is it's not just affecting us.

We know that it's impacting absolutely everybody now. But restaurants were the first thing to fall. And the destruction that it tore through the restaurant industry because we had to shut down for public safety was something that's insurmountable to build back to what it was. So, nationwide hospitality employs 15 million people, 4% of GDP. I mean, it's a huge impact on an industry that right now is all darkened restaurants. 

And you said restaurants were the first to fall. What has been your experience with your restaurants? What did you have to do?

We were a little bit before a lot of other people decided to shut down. We closed down on a Monday three and a half weeks ago. And we shut down Five and Ten completely. We went to shut down by George. We went to just to-go offerings at Empire State South and Empire State South is also feeding first responders and the medical community as well.

And I do want to ask you about to-go food in a minute because that's something I think a lot of people are having on their minds right now. But let's actually talk about the coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress. $377 billion of this relief bill actually goes to small businesses. This includes emergency grants, forgivable loans and relief for existing loans. What impact will that have on the small risk restaurants that you say have already shut down or are on the frontlines of this?

I think it's a huge impact. And I really commend Congress and for really getting that done quickly. And I think they really didn't let down small business at all. And I think that that's a lifeline that we're gonna need desperately to reopen. A lot of people just will not reopen, though. Before the stimulus package came out and before the CARES Act got passed, somebody like Tom Colicchio — he's a very famous chef— was saying this will probably see the demise of about 75% of restaurants. 

And I think that we've all served looking at that differently now because of this help. But I still think that 20 to 30% of restaurants are never going to see the light of day again. It's just people get freaked out and they don't want to go through this ever again. Laying off 120 people is not easy. 

I was speaking with a small business owner and she said, "It's nice to have loans, but I don't want to take on debt just to get out of this." It's really hard decisions for all business owners, big and small. You mentioned that your restaurant in midtown Atlanta. Empire State South is serving a to-go menu. Obviously scaled down from your traditional offerings, but walk me through steps that people should take to know that to-go food is safe to bring into their homes.

First, you have to use your logical radar and we just need to think about like, "Is that restaurant safe? Is it clean? Are they taking steps to do that?" On the restaurant side, it's our job to show you what we're doing. So we have a crew of five people— two people in the room, the house and three people in the kitchen. That is the only crew allowed in that restaurant. It is one crew. They go in in the morning and they clock out and they go directly home. 

They have created systems where they're checking in. We take temperatures every morning of individuals before they start working. Anybody that's symptomatic that calls in is not allowed to come in. We haven't had that happen yet. So we've got a really clean scenario. On pickup, people call in, they pay for it completely with gratuity before they come and pick it up. When they come and pick it up, we open a little window, announce that the food's ready. They approach a corded off area. Once the window is closed, they pick up their food and they're on their way.

You can't congregate in the area. You can't come in, use the bathroom. All those things are just measures that we're taking to keep our staff safe and keep giving us an environment where we can provide food and nourishment to people. I think that's the most important thing.

A lot of people can still get food and you can get a frozen pizza and all this stuff, but the difference between nutrition and basic food and nourishment is really what we're out to conquer.

And you've been doing that for your entire career. I did notice that the servers at Empire State South — which is near the GPB headquarters in Atlanta — they were all wearing gloves. So just to reiterate that consumers should be looking at the business practices of any business that they're interfacing with to see if they're taking this seriously. As you mentioned, people not only need to be fed, they need to be nourished. And millions of Americans are finding themselves cooking at home a lot more than they're used to and probably comfortable with for many people. So what advice can you give to the many people who are cooking at home right now? 

I just think this pandemic has spawned some goodness. We're going to have millions of young Alison Romans out there now cooking different dishes, which is great. When I went to the supermarket a couple of days ago, the dried beans were totally gone. And I was like, "Wow!" That gives me heartfelt hope that America is actually learning how to cook from scratch. Conversely to that, I talked to my friend José Andrés who runs World Central Kitchen the other day for about an hour and he was really scared that if you give an Italian woman ten pounds of lentils and two ham hocks, she'll make food for days. But José was like, "They don't know how to do that here." And we've lost something in food and we're very honest about that now, but I think this is driving people to cook nourishing meals at home.

And it's hilarious some of the results you see on Twitter and Instagram, but it's good [that] people are trying, but they understand that food is this thing that we gather on the table for. Well, granted, you're going to be gathering around with the same two people you live with for a long time on hand right now, but so be it.