Despite a lack of customers patronizing the bar area or the dining room due to social distancing requirements, Southern Hart Brewing Co. owner Susanne Barfield is still hard at work in her downtown Hartwell restaurant.
Like many restaurants across the country, Barfield is struggling from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on dine-in eating, but thankfully, she says, several local businesses are still supporting the brewery by calling in catering orders. Nestle-Purina is placing some of the largest orders they’ve seen, around 425 meals per order that have sometimes required Barfield to take four car-loads of food to the factory, and it’s helping Southern Hart stay afloat.
“It’s helped us make payroll,” Barfield said over the phone Friday. “It really has, and they know that. They know how much we appreciate them.”
Barfield said several local businesses including, Rose Acre Farms, B&C Mechanical, the Van Dora Law Firm, and Synovus Bank, which bought lunch for Hartwel Family Practice employees, have recently made catering orders that are helping as well.
The restaurant industry is undoubtedly one of the hardest hit sectors impacted by the novel coronavirus pandemic, resulting in closures, temporary or permanent, and for some, a change in the business model itself as eateries turn to takeout and catering to weather the storm. Nationwide, the COVID-19 crisis has cost three million restaurant employees their jobs and sliced $25 billion in revenue from the industry since March 1, according to the National Restaurant Association. The association estimates 15 percent of restaurants have or will within two weeks, permanently close with total job losses projected at seven million before the crisis is resolved.
“It’s a different world now,” Barfield said. “But we’re working ourselves into this new world.”
Rachel Miller, Nestle-Purina Factory Manager in Hartwell, said the company is doing several things to help out locally, one of those being the purchase of a free lunch everyday for all associates and truck drivers at the factory with all the lunches coming from local restaurants in an effort to support them. Purina has also provided a donation to the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia to support local relief efforts.
“Purina is proud to support organizations in our community that are helping our friends, neighbors and of course our pets. We are all in this together,” Miller said in a statement.
Some restaurants, however, haven’t been as fortunate. Hannah Whitsel, owner of Bobbers and Beer, was forced to temporarily close her restaurant after attempting to stay open for several weeks. Whitsel said some of the big companies like Purina have gone out of their way to help local restaurants and so have her loyal customers, but the overhead costs were just too much for her business.
“It’s not that people weren’t trying. It’s just that there’s so much overhead for restaurants and between workers (compensation) insurance and payroll, and just labor and expenses and general food costs,” Whitsel said. “It’s helping, it’s appreciated greatly, but for a lot of restaurants … it’s just not enough.”
Bobbers and Beer has done some catering for Purina, a doctor’s office in South Carolina and large family orders, to name a few, but the restaurant is still closed for dine-in or takeout because it’s not “financially feasible,” Whitsel said.
Whitsel said she is optimistic the local restaurants are going to bounce back when things return to normal.
“Once this is all said and done, I think the restaurants won’t have any issue as far as bouncing back,” Whitsel said. “I think everything will be fantastic. I think it’ll be like Black Friday as soon as the restaurants are able to open back up for dine-in … But until they’re able to do dine-in, I think we’re actually going to stay closed until then because it’s just hemorrhaging.”
At Southern Hart, Barfield said they plan to try to push on and keep the brewery open for now.
“This is mom and pop to the core,” Barfield said. “It’s me and my husband. We’re here. We’re here early, we’re here late and we’re going to hang in here.”