Over the past few weeks, several Little Rock restaurants have announced temporary closures due to employee exposure to COVID-19 — Kemuri, The Pantry, Trio’s and Dugan’s Pub, to name a few. “I would be shocked if every single restaurant didn’t have at least one case,” said Bart Barlogie, owner of The Fold: Botanas & Bar and Raduno Brick Oven & Barroom.
“I only have two smaller restaurants and it hit one of them pretty quickly, you know?” he said.
On Sunday, after lunch service at The Fold was already underway, Barlogie was informed by his business partner, Chef Alex Smith, that a member of his staff had tested positive for COVID-19. Barlogie said it was around 1 p.m. when he got the call from Smith. “We had people sitting already. The restaurant was pretty much full,” he said. With reservations in the books for later that afternoon and evening, Barlogie turned off The Fold’s online reservation platform and called everyone that had reservations that night.
“Right after I got done doing that, I went to each table and gave them a heads up and let them know that ‘I just want to be transparent about what was going on. I don’t want you to read in a post later today and then you freak out because you were here today.’ And I just said, ‘Look I’m not trying to rush you to get out of here, but you guys are our last group of people, and we’ll be shutting the restaurant down.’ ” No one panicked. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
“Everyone was so thankful and there was no one upset or worried, you know what I mean?” Barlogie said. “Luckily for us [the infected employee] hadn’t been there in about a week’s time, so I think that helped reassure some guests.”
A friend of Barlogie’s who was lunching at The Fold that afternoon told him about Kavanaugh Pharmacy’s rapid antigen test for COVID-19. The test detects active infection quickly, but is not as accurate as the molecular PCR tests done by the state Health Department and others. Anne Pace, pharmacist in charge and co-owner of Kavanaugh Pharmacy, and her husband, fellow pharmacist and co-owner Scott Pace, went through everything with Barlogie: “Risk factors, some guidance, disclaimers of how we should treat this,” Barlogie said. They offered to meet Barlogie and his staff at the pharmacy later that afternoon for testing.
“I got all my employees, we went up there and one by one got tested. It was the higher up nasal swab, but the interesting thing with this test, because it’s a little more expensive I guess, the false negatives results are a lot better — lower chances than a lot of the other tests out there. So I was like, ‘Man this is great, we’ll pay for everybody, let’s just get it done.’
“Just knowing that we could get some pretty solid results back by 7 that night made me feel better, regardless of if we had a positive case. At least we could know and handle it. There were, I think, seven people that could make it, and we said, ‘You can’t come back to work until you get a negative test result back.’ ”
On Monday, a company called bioPURE sanitized the entire restaurant.
“The way it works, I was told, it’s an electrostatic and leaves no residue and it clings to everything and kills the disease rapidly on the spot,” Barlogie said. “They were very great; they were able to get to us Monday, and we’re already closed on Monday, so it worked out. We got really lucky and fortunate with people around us that were willing to help and get us back open, which kind of tells you and gives you more comfort to what a great community you have around you. People that are willing to stick their necks out there on their days off and help another person get back open and get back to business in a safe manner.”
Barlogie said transparency with customers and staff is “the only way to go, the absolute only way to go. Number one, I think it’s extremely irresponsible to try and operate with possible positive cases within your business. It’s reckless. If someone is so worried about the financial pain that’s going to come after it for having to close for a week or two weeks, think about the places that have gotten some really bad results of trying to stay open and now look at the reputation they’ve been left with.” One such restaurant, Brewski’s Pub and Grub, was shut down earlier this month for violation of the state’s pandemic reopening directives.
“I just think at this time, take everything seriously, and be open and honest with the public about what you’re dealing with. I don’t think it’s worth the little bit of money or putting people’s lives at risk. I’ve been trying to be very clear with my staff too. It’s like, ‘Look, we have to realize that when you go out and do something and you’re out in public, you’re not being responsible. It’s affecting everybody here and quite possibly a lot more people. We all want to hang out with our friends, we all want to see people again. It’s just we all have to buckle down, you know.’”
The community response to The Fold’s transparency has been very positive. “I don’t think we’ve had one negative response, I really don’t,” Barlogie said. One Facebook user commented “Thank you for your honesty. Thank you for putting humans before the almighty buck. You will forever have my business.” Another Facebook user said, “Thank you for being transparent and responsible! I hope the rest of your staff is negative and your positive employee is okay!”
Barlogie added, “There were some comments from people like, ‘Hey, I was just there last week, just wanted to ask a couple questions.’ But no one was upset, no one was pissed off, so to speak. Just a little concern, which I understand. Just trying to give people the most honest, transparent answer. People couldn’t have been more respectful and nice. I think [that] right there proves that honesty is the best policy.”
The Fold reopened yesterday at 3 p.m. Hours are 3 p.m.-9 p.m. Tue.-Fri. and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sat.-Sun.