Athens might look a little different this year — maybe you’ve noticed more outdoor seating options, some shuttered windows and different menu offerings from the eateries that line every street and avenue.
While everyone was lurched into pandemic-era confusion, local business owners were forced to adapt to new rules for the safety of themselves and their customers. They also had to find new streams of income and ways to make it work while dining and shopping became increasingly dangerous.
Some businesses didn’t make it, others kept their doors closed for months and some started new in the wake of empty storefronts. For those that have hung on this long, innovation and adaptation have been essential.
“I think even culturally, we gained a lot by having to face a really intense global event together,” said Kara Brown, general manager at the Daily Groceries Co-op on Prince Avenue. “But I really hope this staff, this store, never has to see that level of fear again.”
Daily is a staple on Prince Avenue, with its humble, homey appearance and attentive staff. It specializes in offering a selective inventory of organic brands, locally-grown produce, bulk foods and homemade meals for most all dietary needs. The co-op opened in 1992 as a community-owned cooperative that gives its owner members discounts in exchange for working.
Brown, who joined the Daily staff in 2018, recalls the difficulty in finally deciding to pivot to curbside pickup, which meant no more shoppers on the store floor. For a grocery store that prides itself on an intimate experience, stopping customers at the door changed the environment completely. Daily started taking online orders through email in mid-March followed by the launch of its website shortly after.
It was “incredibly stressful” for different reasons, Brown said. Her staff was packing over 100 orders during busy weeks and constantly updating inventory while managing online orders. The Daily staff decided to open back up in October while still maintaining its online ordering system, which in the long run has turned out to be a game changer.
“We wouldn’t have even felt like we needed to do that, but now it’s just a hugely popular, viable part of our business, which is really exciting,” Brown said about the online system.
Brown admits that summer 2020 was tough on the store, financially. Most businesses normally feel the strain of those slow months in Athens without students or tourists — combine that with a pandemic, and it becomes an unprecedented challenge.
Over on the East Side, Rashe Malcolm of Rashe’s Cuisine was starting from scratch. Malcolm was in the process of preparing the new location of her restaurant on Vine Street before she was forced to halt operations indefinitely.
“My name wasn’t even on the building yet,” Malcolm said. “When people were passing around all these names of people to call and support and help keep these businesses open, nobody was mentioning Rashe’s.”
She pivoted to a model focused on delivering home-cooked meals in and around Athens-Clarke County with help from her son. It got to be “too overwhelming” for the two-person team, so Malcolm was grateful when her restaurant opened in May.
Malcolm said most of her projects have been self-funded. Before this past year, she wasn’t even comfortable applying for grants. Regardless of circumstance, Malcolm said there was “no hesitation” on her part to feed her community, even if it hurt her own pocket.
“It took a very long time for me to become confident enough to believe that I could actually work with these two hands and still be able to provide for me and my family,” Malcolm said. “Now that I’m able to do that … It’s very difficult for me to stop doing it.”
Meanwhile, Malcolm had been operating her food truck as a mobile pantry for Farm to Neighborhood. Homemade meals and seasonal produce for pickup — all wrapped up in Malcolm’s “Delish Bags” — became the mainstay of that program this past year. But Malcolm said her original vision for Farm to Neighborhood was a mobile grocery store that she can physically bring to a wider area. Fundraising for this expansion is ongoing.
In September 2020, the ACC Mayor and Commission approved an amended version of the Parklet Pilot Program, first introduced months before in June. This program gave business owners an opportunity to use up to 100% of the parking spots in front of their buildings for outdoor seating. The adopted memorandum included specifics — prohibited parklet activities, social distancing rules, etc. — but overall created entirely new options for CDC-compliant dining.
Paired with the College Avenue dining plaza established in October 2020, these outdoor parklets changed the landscape of local dining. Downtown eateries with limited indoor seating and otherwise tentative plans to re-open quickly took advantage of the program, adding artificial turf, heaters and other personal touches.
The Rook & Pawn on West Washington Street — owned by husband-wife duo Tim and Carrie Kelly — experienced a cosmetic and internal reinvention last year reflective of the 2020 narrative. A new mural and updated sign by artist David Hale complements an extensive outdoor patio where guests can dine on sandwiches, get bar drinks and play board games.
Tim Kelly said it was on his birthday, March 16, that everything started to seem “super real.” In those early days, the first thing to go was public access to The Rook & Pawn’s extensive “wall of games.” A few days later, the cafe was closed for about three weeks.
In the process of “coming up with ideas” to stay relevant, Kelly and his staff decided to offer week-long game rentals and game sales from their expansive collection. Customers could also purchase grocery-style items for pickup. Customers can still order food and games to the Creature Comforts pavilion across the street. This model was more of a “novelty” than a permanent solution, Kelly said, but it helped pay the bills.
“It’s all sort of tied to being around that table, and being there in that environment,” Kelly said about what makes The Rook & Pawn special. “So when you kind of divvy them up and divide them, it doesn’t quite work as in the way that our original intent was for it to work.”
The combination of the games, the drinks and the food was essential to the true Rook & Pawn experience. So in August 2020, after months of planning and troubleshooting, The Rook & Pawn reopened for outdoor dining and service with its full menu and an online version of the wall of games. The Rook & Pawn also launched a subscription model in February for ultimate game play.
“I feel horrible for all the places that have closed so far,” Kelly said. “But for those that are open and can kind of get through this last stretch...people are going to be excited to get back out again.”
This article was originally published in The Red & Black's spring 2021 Eat & Drink special publication.