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A recent Journal of Health study about the pandemic’s effects on the restaurant industry paints a bleak picture for rural family-owned eateries in the wake of the Coronavirus. But as the news reports raise concerns of more rural eateries on the brink of closure, numerous state Restaurant Associations cite signs of hope.
“Less than 5% of our membership have shut down (in contrast to nearly 13% nationwide). Many of those that have closed have been sold and reopened or have rebranded,” said Pat Fontaine, Executive Director of the Mississippi Restaurant Association. In a state with the country’s 4th largest rural population,, “Some have actually increased their sales this year,” he added.
Country Platter in Cleveland, Mississippi, is one of Mississippi’s success stories. Prior to the pandemic, the restaurant was buffet style, reliant on in-house dining. As shelter-in-place orders loomed, Elbert Smith and his partner Jimmy Williams swiftly transitioned to a take-away ordering system.
“I figured if we just regrouped, catered to those who catered to us, and followed the CDC guidelines, we had God on our side,” he said. “We still do fried chicken and pork steak every day. We serve chitlins just on Saturday. It’s been that way ever since we bought Ms. Lily’s café 34 years ago.”
Once the restaurant shifted to take-away only, the Country Platter owners noticed that although food costs were rising and they were paying their employees more to keep them working, profit margins grew.
Ashkii’s Navajo Grill in Farmington, New Mexico, saw increases in their business as well. Danny Begay, a second-generation restaurant owner, was working overtime as a health worker in a residential facility on the Navajo Nation in addition to his shifts at the grill. Working on the front lines, he saw firsthand the devastating losses to families and patients. On the eve of the shutdown, his family had a meeting. Would they stay open, or would they close?
“A lot of our customers were like, ‘Are you guys gonna stay open? It’s easier for us to get restaurant food curbside than wait in line for hours with grandma in a wheelchair at Walmart,’” explained Renee, Danny’s wife. “They love their mutton and fry bread. We decided we can’t stop giving them what little comfort they have.” They replaced their old-fashioned push button register with a hi-tech portable swipe card, suited up with plenty of bleach, got to-go boxes and created curbside pickup.
The Journal of Health study noted that “Family-owned restaurants had slower rates of change and were the most likely to fold.” Renee disagreed. “I think our restaurant survived because it’s family owned. We knew we were going to do whatever we needed to do as a family to keep our family restaurant, period. If you had a business that wasn’t family, I think it would have been hard because of the struggle to make the paycheck.”
Ten hours south of Farmington, Jennifer and Richard Harrod bought the Old Drug Store Café in the tourist-driven town of Fort Davis, Texas, just months before the pandemic hit. A first-time restaurant owner, Jennifer said, “We stayed open partly out of pride, partly because I knew people needed somewhere to get food, and mainly because my staff needed their paycheck.”
By the time Governor Abbott announced Texas’s state-wide shutdown, a deck for outdoor seating was underway, their menu offered to-go friendly foods, and a new, online ordering system was nearly in place. “To this day,” Jennifer said, “online ordering doesn’t exist anywhere else in Jeff Davis County and hardly in the tri-county area.”
Quick pivots and agile shifting were essential to keeping their restaurants solvent, but at the center of each of these businesses was the determination to tend to their community, whatever that meant to each owner. At Country Platter, all patrons and staff still always wear masks because, as Mr. Smith stated, “Mississippi has the lowest vaccine percentage in the country.”
“I am going to feed everyone as if they had just walked into my home,”Jennifer vowed the day she bought her restaurant.
“One day I was asked if everyone was welcome at the Old Drug Store Cafe,specifically Mexicans. While I was shocked on one hand, I immediately said ‘of course!’ And now, walking in my dining room seeing it full of every race, creed, religion and age, especially locals, I’m struck by what a beautiful thing this place is; somewhere everyone is welcome and feels welcome is a treasured thing to be.”
At Ashkii’s Grill, the family strives to create a larger community of understanding. Their menu includes items priced to suit a tourist pocket book while also offering affordable options for locals, who might only be able to afford the corn mush special with unlimited fry bread..”At the end of the month, we have customers come from all these reservations, from Utah, Arizona, from Colorado and New Mexico, they all come to see us. We get travelers from all over the nation,” said Danny Begay.
“Young vegans come wanting to learn about our culture so we modified our menu to create a hybrid of traditional food with non-traditional ingredients. We want everyone to come and feel welcome so they can learn our story, learn our traditions and experience our culture.
Carol Wright, CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, has fought alongside restaurant owners like the Begays to keep eateries alive during the pandemic. “New Mexico is still having a difficult time economically,” she said. “Costs keep rising, people are gun shy to come back to work, and daycare is hard to find.”
Pat Fontaine in Mississippi agreed. “Once all the funding stops and these owners look at it, with increased food costs and labor costs, you might start to see people say it’s not worth the effort.”
For now, these three restaurants are holding strong while proceeding with caution. This week Jennifer wrote a post to her Fort Davis community: “In December, the box of chicken breasts we use for our chicken strips was $39.22. This week it costs $74.98 – almost double in six months. Fryer oil has gone up by 68%. Gloves have gone from $58 a case to $230. I could keep going but you get the idea. Something has to give.”
She outlined how they would be adjusting portion sizes and prices to adapt to the skyrocketing costs. Tourists and locals alike responded with ‘heart’ and ‘care’ emojis and responded with understanding and commitment to support their business.
Mr. Smith, the owner of Country Platter who was once a schoolteacher, offered a teacher’s wisdom: “If you stop learning, you stop living. We want our restaurant to keep on living.”