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After Gov. Roy Cooper closed restaurant dining rooms at 5 p.m. March 17, many workers quickly lost their jobs, and many more saw their hours slashed.
“We’ve never experienced anything like this,” said Dalton Stocks, who owns the Golden Corral in Smithfield.
Before the governor’s order, Stocks said his buffet restaurant employed 85 people who served about 8,000 people a week. The staff has since fallen to less than half that number, and Stocks figures they’ll serve no more than 1,000 to 2,000 diners a week.
“It’s not good, no matter what anyone says,” he said. “When you got 85 coworkers and you’re only doing to-go, you’re going to lose over half your staff. You just don’t have enough hours for them.”
Stocks said his restaurant is providing displaced workers with free meals while helping them navigate the process for receiving jobless benefits. “We’re doing everything we possibly can do,” he said.
Like other Johnston County eateries, Golden Corral has moved entirely to takeout, including curbisde pickup, and delivery. But Stocks fears those options won’t sustain the restaurant long term.
“We really don’t know what we’re getting ready to face on that,” he said. “We’re hoping to see an increase in the to-go business. People will eventually get cabin fever and want to go out and eat.”
On Wednesday, the first full day with no dine-in customers, owner Terry Barefoot figured Holt Lake & Bar-B-Que & Seafood near Smithfield actually lost money. “The bigger restaurants like us have a bigger overhead, and we have to make so much money per day to operate,” he said.
Like Stocks at Golden Corral, Barefoot said he has had to sideline many of his workers. “I have 30 employees and am now trying to run the business with only six of them working,” he said. “I have told most of my employees to go ahead and sign up for unemployment benefits.”
Barefoot understands the threat the coronavirus poses, but he thinks the governor treated restaurants unfairly.
“I am kind of disgusted with how they have done it,” he said. “How can you let crowds of shoppers go in grocery stores and people are not allowed in restaurants?”
Adapting to change
At Under the Oak, one of several downtown Smithfield restaurants, owner Blake Gotliffe has laid off servers and has changed his business model, offering prepackaged meals for delivery.
“Currently, I’m working on a prepared meal menu where it will be partially cooked to fully cooked menu items,” Gotliffe said, adding that he also offers takeout.
Gotliffe figures some 90 percent of his business comes from the nearby Johnston County Courthouse, home to county government, which has told Johnstonians to conduct business online, not in person. “With that being shut down, the whole downtown Smithfield kind of comes to a halt,” he said. “We all kind of rely on that.”
Like Stocks at Golden Corral, Gotliss is providing former servers with free meals, and he is offering them delivery jobs. “We are offering that delivery position to them so they can get some cash coming in, but it’s definitely not enough to survive,” he said.
In Clayton, Vinson’s Pub + Eatery is among the many restaurants in search of a new business model. “We’re all trying to figure out what we can do differently in our model,” said general manager Mike O’Dowd. “Obviously, our full menu is going to be available to go. Now we’re looking at larger meal-planning kinds of things.”
Vinson’s is also among the Johnston restaurants offering displaced workers free meals. But perhaps the best thing any restaurant can do now for employees is hit upon a new business model that’s profitable and sustainable, O’Dowd said.
“Creativity is going to be the key to this whole thing, but we got to make sure we’re taking care of them,” he said of employees. “People are scared right now.”
James Lipscomb is the owner of Vinson’s, and like Barefoot at Holt Lake Bar-B-Que in Smithfield, he thinks the governor went too far in telling people they couldn’t have a meal in a restaurant. “If I want to go out and risk something myself, I ought to be allowed to go out and risk something myself,” he said. “How many more things are they gonna take away from us?”
And like O’Dowd, Lipscomb is in search of new ideas, figuring that even if Vinson’s doubles its to-go business, sales will still be half of what they were.
Not far from Vinson’s, at Venero’s Pizza on U.S. 70 Business, owners Jimmy and Liz Venero are trying to be creative too, deploying their restaurant’s food truck to the Glen Laurel and Portofino neighborhoods in search of hungry customers.
Still, with sales down by half, they have laid off all but 15 of their 58 employees, the couple said, and they have closed their Smithfield restaurant, at least for now. “We can only do what we can afford to pay,” Jimmy said. “Who knows how long it will last. I’m thinking maybe a month.”
His wife wasn’t optimistic. “It’s probably gonna get worse before it gets better based on the way it’s been going,” she said.
At Jones Cafe in Clayton, business was starting to slow even before the governor banned sit-down dining. “It’s not normal,” owner Chrystal Jones said as she surveyed an almost empty dining room on the morning of March 17. “We are off.”
But Jones, who planned to offer takeout, said she had faith. “We just got to put it in God’s hands and go on,” she said. “There’s nothing we can do about it. We’re taking precautions and not interacting with the customers like we normally do. We’re just doing our best in trying to serve the public in this time and trying not to overreact.”
Customers chime in
Kelly Ross, who works at the barber shop next door to Jones Cafe, was among those few customers at breakfast last Tuesday. “I think people are overreacting,” she said.
If folks washed their hands often and sanitized their homes and workplaces, they wouldn’t have so much to fear, Ross said. “It’s a normal part of life to wash your hands, to keep everything sanitized, but you have some people that don’t sanitize well,” she said. “I know this pandemic is serious, but I think it’s blown way out of proportion.”
Larry O’Bryan was a customer last week at Smithfield’s Little Brown Jug, a bar that is offering packaged beer and wine to go. He said the state should have placed its curbs on bars and restaurants sooner.
“I have diabetes, high blood pressured and COPD,” said O’Bryan, who lives in Troy, N.Y., but was in Smithfield visiting his daughter. “I’m one of the guys who’s going to be in real trouble if I get it.”
Karen Walmsley said she would miss the tips she received as a bartender at the Little Brown Jug, one of her two jobs. “When you make $2.13 an hour, the tips are what we rely on,” she said.
And Walmsley knows she’s not alone. “I just feel that, unfortunately, a lot of people’s lives are being put in disarray,” she said. “It’s definitely going to hurt the restaurants and the smaller businesses in this area.”