When considering the impact of a scenario like COVID-19 that operates on a global scale, it’s easy to lose touch with the humanness of its repercussions. We lean on stats and numbers, percents and profit loss, simultaneously receiving and subduing the unfiltered truths of our reality.
But the real truth is that behind each of those numbers is a person. When the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce released its COVID-19 Business Impact Survey in the third week of March, 26% of responding businesses had already laid off or furloughed employees; that’s a shocking stat, but when we consider that number implicates hundreds of members of our local community, and that the number has only risen exponentially in the intervening weeks, it’s calamitous.
The good news is that, in addition to augmented unemployment resources being provided by state and local governments, many small businesses are also offering support — monetary and otherwise — to their employees, or now-former employees, to help them navigate this tunnel to the other side.
Many small businesses are also offering support — monetary and otherwise — to their employees, or now-former employees.
Employees of the service industry — which formerly comprised some 30,000 jobs in the Asheville area in January 2020 — were hit hardest and swiftest by the pandemic. When Governor Roy Cooper ordered restaurants to close dine-in operations on March 17, it instigated the closure or severe curtailment of operations for many restaurants as they shifted to carry-out and delivery, which in turn instigated a swift series of layoffs or reduction of hours for team members. But even when belts were tightened, local restaurateurs still find ways to provide for their staff.
For Charlie Hodge, who made the difficult decision to close his three customer-facing ventures in mid-March, it’s as simple as helping employees navigate the resources available to them (he says he’s dedicating most of his time these days to help them access unemployment benefits) and offering them a little joy. “I have created a special Facebook page to share information and to keep connected,” says the multipreneur. “We post any available support we find for staff, updates on what is happening and how to deal with this crazy time. It has also been a place to share a little humor and saves me.” Hodge, like many local restaurateurs, is also buoying the supply chain and providing for his employees by funneling food orders into their pantries. “We have also used our wholesale accounts to support our employees with food; each week we have created grocery bags with local veggies, meats, and dry goods to help, even just a little bit, to keep our staff healthy.”
Jael Rattigan of French Broad Chocolates expressed a similar sentiment when asked how the business — whose profits are primarily based on its consumer-facing ventures like its cafes — is providing for its employees: “Like most restaurant workers, most restaurants are living paycheck to paycheck,” she says. “We do not have the resources to do much more than try to survive this storm as a business right now. It’s heartbreaking. We’ve been sending out information about relief options as we get them, and we shared our perishable food stores (eggs, milk, flour, beer, fruit) at no cost, but honestly it’s not much. It’s hard to live with that.”
Many restaurants, like Vivian and Chai Pani, kept what employees they could working part-time during the first weeks of quarantine, but by April, delivery and to-go were no longer viable reasons to keep the neon glowing. “We had to lay off our staff for financial reasons, but more so to keep them and our guests safe during this stay home mandate,” says Shannon McGaughey of Vivian, adding that last week she and husband/co-owner Josiah ran their grocery single — or rather doubly — handed, a feat that was difficult without a staff; they’re now working on a simplified takeout plan while balancing restaurant improvements and working with DES to make sure employees receive unemployment benefits.
While the Chai Pani Restaurant Group closed all of its restaurant operations last week, the net the Iranis put in place to catch employees goes well beyond scheduling. Like Hodge, they recognize the value of keeping the team united, emotionally if not physically; in the early weeks of the pandemic, Molly Irani, cofounder and hospitality director, started an internal family newsletter to keep the company’s more than 250 employees connected. “After years of building a team into a family, it’s important to care for that bond even in uncertain times, with the hope that we will be a united team once again,” Chai Pani’s Kelsey Burrow said at the time. The restaurant group also cared for and connected employees in-person, at a distance. “We’re offering all of our employees a free meal every day whether they are working or not. We’re doing that because we want to feed them through this, but also so that they can see each other’s faces when they pick up their meal,” Molly said (this service closed with take-out operations).
Chai Pani Restaurant Group’s greatest pivot was truly in the support it provided to employees. In addition to keeping them connected and fed, they also quickly shared a resource guide to help them navigate the transitions ahead (and made it available to the public: http://www.chaipanirestaurantgroup.com/resources), and hosted a live auction, proceeds from which directly benefited employees. The auction, which included items like limited release merch and private cocktail classes and a backyard BBQ party with pitmaster-owner Elliott Moss, ran through April 2 and raised $23,000 for the group’s employees.
A common refrain among our Going the Distance entrepreneurs and business owners was that they would continue paying their employees as long as possible, even once they’d flipped their open signs. “We decided to keep everyone on the payroll through the end of March, even after closing our doors in the middle of the month, to give everyone some breathing room and because we love our team here, and also to give ourselves time to figure out a plan since everything with COVID-19 has been shifting daily,” Mark Capon of Harvest Records noted. Cultivated Cocktails has also been able to continue to offer their staff employment, even if parttime, and even if their job making hand sanitizer looks a little different from normal.
Emily Copus’ employees at Carolina Flowers also faced a sudden shift in their job descriptions as the business pivoted to a broader spectrum of deliveries: “Molly, the head florist, and Ben, the farm manager, didn’t bat an eye when I walked into work last Monday and said, ‘We’re starting a grocery store!’” Copus laughs. “It’s not what they signed up for at all, but they shrugged and went with it. We’ve had to develop new systems on the fly, which makes everyone feel like a failure. There’s so much failure in figuring things out. But they’re handling it really well. We’re trying very hard to keep each other’s spirits up. I think it’s working so far.”
We’re trying very hard to keep each other’s spirits up. I think it’s working so far.
With two months of operations costs at the ready (see last week’s Going the Distance: Financial Impact for more information), East Fork Pottery has been able to accommodate its payroll, even for new employees, in ways that once again set it apart from other local businesses. But the connective support system the leadership team has created aligns it with others like Chai Pani. “The first day we sent everyone home, I woke up in the middle of the night with this idea to do writing prompts for the whole team,” says Connie Matisse, CMO. “It’s called “Claycation,” because we’re vacationing from touching clay. I’ve been sending out questions like, ‘Tell us a moment when you felt really connected to nature.’ ‘Tell us about your first concert that you went to.’ The entire team has been participating and sending the most beautiful personal essays.” Matisse says that the series has provided an opportunity for their staff to get to know each other in ways they might never have if not for the current circumstances.
While it’s not business as usual for local small businesses and their employees, the entrepreneurs behind them are consistently working to provide for their staffs however possible — sometimes through innovation, sometimes through connection, but always with dauntless humanity.
Every week we’ll bring you updates on what they’re doing to adapt, week-by-week data shifts, and insight into their impact on our community.