Two things can bring The Expat co-owner Jerry Slater to tears during the coronavirus pandemic — more devastating news about the coronavirus and thank you notes from customers.
“These are customers who want nothing in return other than seeing the longevity of my restaurant,” said Slater.
The Expat is one of many businesses in Athens that have adapted their business models due to the pandemic. Since mid-March, The Expat has provided curbside pickup meal kits on a limited basis.
Governor Brian Kemp announced that restaurants could reopen dine-in services on Monday, April 27. On April 24, the Georgia Restaurant Association released guidelines restaurants should follow if they decide to reopen. Guidelines include thorough cleaning and sanitizing of the building, rearrangement of seating to maintain 6 feet of distance and removing items from self-service drink, condiment, utensil and tableware stations, according to the GRA’s website.
Following CDC guidelines and local mandates to ensure public health and safety by Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz, Slater said he has chosen to not reopen The Expat’s dine-in services. Other businesses including The Grit, Pulaski Heights BBQ and Chops and Hops have also elected to not reopen.
“Our mayor has been doing a really good job of leadership here,” Slater said. “I know that the state supersedes local mandates, but as long as there’s a state of emergency in the state and the nation, then I don’t see a reason to open back up for dine-in.”
Slater said an interesting aspect about the restaurant business is that they already follow strict public health and safety guidelines.
“We’re constantly handwashing and wearing gloves. These new precautions that people want to put on there, we’ve been doing 24/7,” Slater said.
Jessica Rothacker, co-owner of Heirloom Cafe and Fresh Market, shares the same mindset as Slater.
Rothacker said her restaurant will not be opening back up on April 27 because Heirloom Cafe was already scheduled to remain closed from April 21 until May 2. Rothacker said she still doesn’t believe it’s time for her restaurant to open, for the safety of her staff and the profitability of her business.
“We haven’t changed our minds since the governor’s order,” Rothacker said. “Depending on the state of the world and current regulations that are in place, we’ll decide if we should reopen after May 2.”
Since March 17, Rothacker said Heirloom has offered to-go orders and curbside pick-up until deciding to close its doors on April 21. The closure was intended to last a couple weeks so the Athens community could get through the peak time of COVID-19 cases.
Even if Heirloom were to reopen for dine-in, there would be a maximum number of people allowed in the restaurant and it’s hard to say whether it would be profitable for the business at that point, Rothhacker said.
“As far as the money coming in, it wouldn’t be enough for us to staff the employees that we need to make dining in possible,” Rothhacker said. “For the people dining in, it wouldn’t be safe for them because they can’t wear masks while they’re eating and it’s safer to wear a mask.”
Rothacker said this would put customers and employees at risk, and it’s not the right time to risk anything.
“Any other business that decides it’s the right time for them, that’s their decision. It’s just not the right time for us,” Rothacker said.
Rothacker said she is using social media to stay connected with customers and keep them updated about Heirloom’s hours of operation and short-term closure.
Other Athens restaurants and local businesses are utilizing social media to keep customers updated about when they will be reopening. In the Five Points area near The Expat, businesses such as Donna Chang’s and Avid Bookshop have announced they are staying closed on their Instagram pages.
“When we were open, we pretty heavily posted on Facebook and Instagram to get the word out there about what we were serving and how we were serving the community,” Rothacker said. “I think it’s a great medium to reach out to people.”