I’ve been waiting tables for 13 years, and I’ve never been scared to go to work. That changed last Thursday, March 12, one day after COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. We’d also learned by that time that there were six positive cases here in Arkansas. I worked last Thursday, Friday and Saturday. All three shifts were busy, and our dining room filled up each night. We did our best to sanitize everything, and we washed our hands until they dried up. And as I ran around serving food, clearing dirty plates, handing beers to people, I felt overwhelming anxiety. Like, I shouldn’t be doing this.
As the virus is spreading throughout the country and Arkansas, I wanted to talk to other service industry workers here in Little Rock about how they’ve been feeling, and what changes their restaurants or bars have had to make to try to deal with this pandemic.
I started with my own workplace, Pizza Cafe. Earlier this week, I gave all my shifts up because I didn’t feel comfortable waiting tables. So I only have a vague idea of what’s going on down there right now. I asked my fellow waiter Jen Shaw about what work has been like this week.
“It’s been very anxious. Not just concerns about the virus, concerns about everyone keeping their job, everyone getting enough hours. Exposure, definitely. Worrying about getting sick or transmitting it. You know, you have a job where you seat a bunch of people, your chances are way, way higher of getting it. So I’m glad that we switched. I was anxious for them to switch to carry-out only. We closed the dining room Tuesday night, and I’m pleased that it has finally been commanded by the mayor.
How’s the transition going up there?
It seems like business has definitely dropped off, but people are stepping up and trying to support local businesses. We’re accommodating waiters by having them work the counter and giving them a better base wage.
Are you doing curbside service?
Yeah, we’re offering curbside and to-go. No one had specifically requested curbside and the day before, kind of as a lark, we talked about getting one of those T-Rex inflatable suits that I’d seen people in China wearing and other people for memes and stuff. When we looked at Party City they only had the inflatable unicorn, and I had spoken with my manager about a positive pressure suit for germ protection. She thought it was hilarious, so she went ahead and got the unicorn, even though it didn’t have the facemask that the dinosaur did. The Dinosaur is almost like a sealed costume, but with the unicorn your face is exposed underneath the neck, and even though you can pull it up a little bit, it’s not going to protect you from any germs. But it did bring a lot of levity to us, and the people that work on the restaurant strip. We walked around wearing it and made everybody laugh, and there were some cars that slammed on their brakes and screeched to a halt to take pictures. But if people want curbside, they can totally have it. We may not always have someone in costume, but we’re trying to make it available.
And we’ve had some tables that want to come in and sit down, and I don’t understand that. I don’t know if it’s just denial or if they’re trying to be supportive, but I would rather not have to wait on people. I had a table the other night and the mother, father and daughter all coughed one at a time, and I couldn’t help but be terrified of every plate and cup on their table. Even just taking them their credit card back. And I’m young, my concern is about helping my family. If I get sick, who’s going to get groceries for my mom or take care of my kids. I’m not worried about myself as much as I’m worried about the people that are in my perimeter.
I also interviewed Sarah Clarke from Flyway Brewery.
What’s work been like the past couple days?
Reality for me started to set in around the middle of last week. As an events coordinator, I memorize dates without even realizing it. I probably know a date eight months from now, what’s happening, and what day of the week it is with no hesitation.
When I saw things like beer festivals, other fundraisers, and giant gigs at Simmons Bank Arena start to cancel or postpone 4-6 weeks or more from now, I realized how much closer to home this has gotten.
I’ve worked around 35 hours in the past three days to sustain our current plans and I’m not alone in that —we’re running on a skeleton crew as we navigate and transition into our new and ever-changing “normal.” We are dedicated to trying to solve this, no matter the hours that are put in. It isn’t business as usual. It wouldn’t be uncommon to find someone sitting alone shedding a few tears in a silent panic, or literally feeling the bags under your eyes intensify as time drags on. Sometimes time feels like it’s moving at an insanely rapid rate, too.
With that said, we’ve found that our already intensely tight-knit community is bringing out the big guns. We implemented curbside pick up, and it has been a huge success. So far, we’re feeling pretty optimistic about things and we are working to intertwine our hopes with our fears.
Today, the sun came out and we had a small family traveling through town throw a blanket out onto our parking lot and have a picnic right there. I’m uplifted when I hear the phone ring for a to-go order, I’m reassured by supportive commentary on social media, and it is a light at the end of the tunnel to see a familiar face walk up to our curbside tent asking for beer and some food to take home.
The people we know, and the ones we don’t know yet, are the ones making this feel right, and moving and powerful.
Our community, our people, they have helped build Flyway Brewing from the beginning. They are the ones at the forefront fighting for us. They always have been. For that, we are indebted for life.
What changes are you making at Flyway to adjust to the pandemic?
At this rate, our changes have been literally hourly, if not less. We had a big company-wide meeting on Monday and two hours later, most of our plans were shot and we had to shift gears completely.
Moving forward, we’re open for curbside pick up 11 a.m.-8 p.m. every day of the week. We’re offering 10 percent off growler sales and also offering daily food specials. Stay tuned for a few more surprises that will for sure bring you out of the house.
Blake Wilkerson and Andrew Graham own EJ’s Eats and Drinks in downtown Little Rock. I talked to them Thursday by phone.
So, how’s it been the past few days?
Blake: “It’s been slow. We’ve been focusing a lot on our takeout, local delivery and pickup. It’s [business has] taken a hit.
Andrew: It’s been a complete shift in the way we do business down here. EJ’s is unique because we’re a walkable business for all of these companies and corporations in downtown Little Rock. And since this hit, we’re not getting that walk-in service, and there was no way around us keeping the dining room open, even for limited seating. We want to take care of our employees. Our No. 1 goal, since this whole thing, started is keep those guys comfortable and paid and safe. Just trying to get as creative as possible to get people through that door and to find ways of building our almost nonexistent delivery service because we relied so much on the walkability of our business. It’s been a challenge all the way around.
Luckily we have a really good team of people here who all care about seeing us survive this thing. We’ve been able to get this far, but with the closedown of dining, though, it’s going to be even more difficult without the support of vendors we pay every month, like our landlord. If they’re not willing to cut rent more, which I know they have their own problems to worry about too, so … It’s really about what the bottom dollar is everyone can take, and are we going to be able to bring enough money to cover that? You know, nothing’s off the table. We’re thinking big about everything and discussing everything, and just trying to make it work. It’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be real difficult.
I just saw that today the mayor announced they’re cutting dine-in service.
Andrew: Yeah, today they announced no dine-in, but the silver lining is they’re also letting us do to-go beer, and wine and champagne, so that should help.
What are you doing about gift certificates?
Blake: So with that, we set it up on our website or you can pick it up in-store. Thirty percent of anything that we take from gift cards, we put into a fund that goes directly to the employees to kind of bridge some gaps and help get them through this tough time.
Andrew: The thought behind that is, it’s all about community here for us, you know. We’re all about culture. We’re a very, very small mom-and-pop business, but we try to think like some of the bigger guys in that respect because we want our employees to really enjoy working here. We’re family, you know. We’re all friends. It’s important that everyone feels safe and comfortable, and knows we’re going to do everything in our power to take care of them and protect them as much as we can. We’re going to get to a point, I mean we have a whole chart. (Blake laughs). We do math, like, every single day on an Excel spreadsheet now, which is our new norm. It kind of charts out how long we’re going to be able to keep this up. We’re keeping everything super honest with everyone that works here that this is what we’re going to be able to do up until this final point, you know. Just so everyone knows what’s going to happen.
Blake: We’re going to start offering to-go brunch items during the week. Certain different things to maybe entice some more people.
Andrew: Starting Saturday, so any time a day from 11 a.m.-8 p.m., people can call and get brunch items. We’re going to sell the champagne at the exact price we’re buying it for to try to entice people to order it with a meal. And I will say, even if it’s not enough for us as a small business to be able to make it, everyone has been pulling together as a community. Everyone that we spend money with every single month like Ben E. Keith, our landlord, you know, everyone has really pulled together to try to do their best to help us while still trying to run their business like a business. I can’t complain about that one bit. It’s been humbling to see everyone come together and try to work toward a common goal. It’s a strange and fast environment right now. [Laughs.] We’re having to jump through hoops to try to survive.
Clay Grubbs works at Diamond Bear Brewery in North Little Rock.
What’s work been like the past week?
It’s been day to day, like, every day is different. On one hand, you know, you want your servers to make money and you feel bad for them because it’s tough, but at the same time, every customer that comes in, I’m like, “Why are you here? Like, this is not good, you’re making this worse.” And you just kind of see where people’s heads are at. Like, how much of the population thinks that this thing is not serious? All the way from “It’s not a big deal,” to “It’s a hoax.” And yet, people aren’t spacing out. People are crowding around the bars. Everyone’s just kind of having a laugh about it, too. And it’s been kind of good for some of the servers. We’ve scaled back to where you just have one person on the floor, and in the kitchen we’ve run a light crew. But, yeah, I don’t think people are taking it seriously enough. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better, and I think a lot of the dine-in customers are contributing to that.
Did it scare you going to work? Did you feel anxious?
It made me anxious, particularly the first two days when it was on everyone’s mind.
Thursday and Friday when it had been declared a pandemic?
Yeah, right. I have one server who has two kids and an autoimmune situation, and she didn’t want to work anymore, which is totally understandable, so I took her off the schedule. And another that had school and stuff, so she said she preferred to not work. So there’s a couple of people who didn’t want to be in the building whatsoever. And then our other people just kind of had to, because they needed the money. And maybe because they weren’t as concerned as I was. I removed a lot of the barstools, and I tried to space the tables out more, but, I mean, at the end of the day, I don’t think that really helped. Especially with the volume of people that were coming in. It was actually getting busier and busier. Saturday and Sunday were kind of slow, we were closed Monday. Tuesday night and Wednesday day were actually quite busy, and I was like, “How is it getting busier, it should be scaling down.” Yeah. All week the business kind of escalated, and it was pretty clear that it wasn’t a good idea to have an open space for folks.
Now that the governor has issued that all bars and restaurants suspend dine-in service, what is Diamond Bear’s plan moving forward?
This morning, when they announced that, we decided that we’ll do the to-go orders, and we’ll try to do small scale delivery. But then after hashing it out for a little while, our owner came to the decision, which is probably right, that he’d just rather close the restaurant completely until at least April 1, but I think it’ll be longer than that. I think April 1 is optimistic. But, in fairness to him, he’d be spending more money than he’s making. Like pizza places and a lot of those kinds of restaurants will probably do well in this situation, but a place like Diamond Bear is really a place where people come to drink the beer, and they’ll have a bite while they’re there. So he’s probably made the right decision, but it is unfortunate that now our entire staff is out of work. We’ve told them all to feel free to file for unemployment, which is what I’m doing as well. Yeah, just like I said, we’re just taking it day by day and seeing what comes, and trying to make the right decision.
So all of you are done until April 1?
Right. They’re still going to sell beer on Sundays, but they’re going to have one of their brewers do it. So, yeah, as of right now, I’m unemployed.
I’m sorry, man. So what do you think you’ll do? Do you have any plans yet? I know it just happened.
Maybe it’s because it’s day one, but I mean, obviously, this is a horrible thing. People are dying, people are getting sick, the economy is falling apart, but as of right now, I’m optimistic. I actually could use a little short vacation. I’ve been working a lot lately. But I’m sure in about a week I’ll start to have a little panic. I don’t know if the stimulus checks are coming through or not. I’ve still got one more paycheck coming next week because we just ended our pay period, so I’ve got another full pay[check], which is great. And maybe in April if they can reopen, and everyone’s still available, we can get the whole crew back together. Yeah, it’s just odd times. But at least I’m not getting breathed on or coughed at by customers.
This might be a crappy thing to say, but a lot of the people that are going out right now are overconfident. It is a risk, and I don’t want to say you have to force people to stay home, but people are going to go out if they can. Either they don’t watch the news, or they watch different kinds of news, or they just think they’ve seen it all.
I talked with Sonia Schaefer, co-owner Boulevard Bread Co.
Sonia, what’s work been like the past week? What’s it feel like going into work?
I’ve gone in every day for the past week, and it’s been pretty anxious for me, personally, because I did kind of see this coming a little bit. I’ve been following it for a while now. And, a little over a week ago, I was talking to my partner and some of the front people and I said, “This is about to change our business.” I mean, we all talk, it’s all open over there, and one of my employees was like, “I don’t understand why everybody’s freaking out about this. This doesn’t seem like that big of a deal.”
I was like, “Well, you know, our business is a food service business. It highly depends on people coming into it.” I said, “I personally am not worried about getting sick myself because I’m healthy. But, this will destroy a business like ours because we’re a small business. I mean we don’t have a ton of revenue. We don’t have debt, but we don’t have a ton of revenue coming in to sustain us for a long period of time if we were shut down.”
So that was kind of my first reaction and my first thinking. And then a couple days later, it started coming out. You know, the first Arkansas case was discovered. And then I just started paying more attention to it. I was supposed to go skiing this coming Monday, and every day I was starting to feel a little weird about it. And, I finally was about to call it and some of the people I was going with were saying “Oh, no, it’s going to be great, we’re going to be fine. We’re going to get over there, and it’s a good place to be.” But I, in the back of my head, I want them to cancel this trip, you know? And finally I was like, “I’m not going, I can’t go. I have to be here because of my business. I have to be there day to day right now, because things are changing daily. And we’re making decisions at night for the next day.” And then the next morning I’m waking up and we’re making different decisions and new decisions. Just to try to keep us viable, first of all. Second, when it starts to become a reality here in Arkansas, it’s not only trying to keep your business alive. It’s that and trying to balance out the responsibility you have with the community, as far as health awareness. Especially because a lot of our clientele are older people.
And I went into work on Sunday. … And I went there and was watching it. And it was a lot slower than it was before. And I usually don’t go in or work on Sunday. But I called my partner and I said, “We gotta shut it down.” I know it’s not my responsibility if people make the choices to come in and sit next to each other. But if any of our customers or employees contract this, you can’t help but feel a sense of guilt or responsibility about it. And then when your clientele is a little older too and you’re reading and you’re hearing about who is affected by this. I mean, that’s our clientele. Those are the people who have supported us for so long. And if something were to happen to them, it would be sad, you know. You’d feel a sense of responsibility about it. But you’re trying to weigh it with the fact that you have a lot of employees who are healthy, who want to work, who see that something is about to start happening, but they’re not really sure what it is. And finally, we went into Sunday saying maybe we’ll try to open next week and see what business is like. And then by Sunday night we decided “Nope. We’re closing it [the bistro side of the restaurant].”
And every day what I’ve been doing is I’ve been going in the morning, leaving work, and then if something bothers me at night before I go to sleep, I know I need to change that thing the next day because it’s probably, you know, not right to be doing that anymore.
And yesterday, this is one of the things, you know we’ve been doing really good at Baptist Hospital, that’s one of our locations. And our employees that are there, we check in with them. We say, “If you don’t want to work there, you don’t have to work there anymore. Whatever. Not a big deal, we don’t want you to feel pressured.” But then finally last night I was watching the news and I was like, you know “We have to close it down.” I cannot put them, even if they don’t see that it’s that bad, or maybe they feel like they’re fighting for a good cause, or helping out. I just don’t feel like they need to be there. It’s not their responsibility to be around people who are sick. And if any of them got sick, or contracted the virus, I’d feel terrible. So we shut it down. And it was doing well, not as well as it was doing before this, but it still was maintaining pretty good business. So that was the decision we kind of made today.
What other changes have you made?
So every day has been different and you have to think pretty rapidly. But we’re fortunate enough that before we had the bistro and the restaurant, we were already a business that primarily depended on pick-up and take out, that kind of thing. So customers already knew us for that, so we do have that in our favor. And we’re also a small market and deli as well, so we already have some of the amenities you would get at a grocery store on a much smaller level. So we closed the bistro side and we’re just going to have the other side open. So people can just take out. We pulled all the chairs and seating in there. We’re also doing curbside delivery. And started out doing $50 or more delivery within a two- to three-mile radius. And we’re trying to let our employees that aren’t working do the deliveries. But we really haven’t honestly gotten a lot of deliveries. We charge the people a $10 fee and that goes towards the delivery person. But yesterday, I was like ‘We need to define our curbside a little more because I feel like people are going to be trying to stay away from contact to contact more than anything. So we’ve kind of laid it out. If people call in and they don’t want any contact, they’ll tell us what they want, we’ll put it in a bag with their name on it, and leave it on the front bench. They can leave their credit card, we’ll run it through, and then they can grab it from the front bench without having to make contact with anybody. I think that’s probably going to be the next step for this, I don’t know. It’s different every day.
Our business is down about 80 percent, but I think if we’re able to stay open on this level, it may be able to sustain a few of us and a few of our employees and keep us going.
One of our landlords has forgiven us payment for a month, which is really great. It’s our landlord in the Heights, and you know, it’s expensive to be up there. So it’s really nice and we’re thankful to her. Our customers are trying to support us and our employees as much as possible, giving tips and stuff like that. We gave our employees the option of getting unemployment as quick as possible so they can bring in some money. And you can also get unemployment for missed wages. You don’t have to be totally unemployed to apply for unemployment. I think that was one of the things as well.
As far as looking forward, I don’t know what’s going to happen. And the uncertainty is the hard thing. I’d like to think on this level if we can keep on bringing in what we’re bringing in every day with a minimal amount of people and food cost, I feel like we can sustain the business for at least three months, maybe longer. But I don’t know. And right now, we’re in the process of getting a loan in place in case we have to go longer. And that’s all we can do, you know? It’s weird, I’ve been in this business for 20 years, and I’ve never been through anything, I mean a lot of people haven’t been through anything, nobody’s been through this kind of thing before. They don’t know what the outcome is going to be, you know. You like to think that you have help, but I think, as a restaurant we’re dealing with the public so much, we’re dealing with kind of the first line of this. I do feel like we are an important business, but there’s probably more, I don’t know, there’s probably much more important services that are going to lose out along this, too. And I don’t want to sound like I don’t think we’re important, I think we’re important. But with things like childcare, there’s a lot of services that people really need that are going to wind up shutting down. And we’re just feeling it because the public can’t come out.
It’s weird, at the beginning of the week when this started to become a reality, there were so many people out. And everyone was still trying to figure it out. And I talked to a few different restaurant people. Some of them were kind of dismissing it like it wasn’t a big deal. And some of them were like, “I don’t know, we’ve lost a lot of business.” And I asked some of those business owners, “Do you feel like you have any community responsibility to have people stop coming into your business?” They didn’t say no, but they were like, “We’re just trying to get as many people as possible in here right now.” But by the end of the week I’ve talked to some of those people as well. And I thought to myself “Why are restaurants having people sit in there still?” This is crazy. And there’s lots of people in there. Are they not watching the same news that I’m watching? Are they not seeing what’s happening? Do they think because it’s still not reaching them yet that it’s not happening, that it’s just some kind of weird imaginary thing? It starts to make me feel crazy. Like, what the fuck is going on here? Why are there people still in all these public spaces when the only thing we’ve heard since day one, time and time again, is to distance yourself?