Restaurateur Carl Sobocinski saw COVID-19 case rates spiking in his community, so he took action—and took care of his people.

By Kat Kinsman
January 15, 2021
Advertisement
the bar at Soby's
Credit: Courtesy of Table 301 Restaurant Group

Restaurateurs live their lives by the numbers, and when Table 301 Restaurant Group founder Carl Sobocinski saw COVID-19 case rates racking up in Greenville, SC, he knew he had to take action. Even though it wasn't mandated by local or state law, he voluntarily closed down all but one of his restaurants for a period after the holidays in an effort to keep his team and his diners safe and stop the spread. It was a tough decision that carried a price tag, but for him, it was the right thing to do. He joined the Communal Table podcast for a discussion about the mechanics and money behind this move, and the good that has come from it. Listen to the full episode here.

Tell me about the restaurants you have in Greenville and what you have been seeing there.

We are battling through COVID and this pandemic like everybody else. My group, 301 Restaurants, has seven restaurants, and one is a plant-based juice bar called Southern Pressed Juicery with 100% plant-based, cold-pressed juices, superfood smoothies, and acai energy bowls. That brand is actually up about 25% year over year. Our full-service restaurants struggled last year, but we're all still here and we've learned to adapt and are going to be here when we come out of this, on the other side. But they're all down 25% to 30% and our catering operation is off over 50%.

We were told after Thanksgiving and family gatherings and people traveling that things were going to spike. Sure enough, they did. Unfortunately, a report came out recently that we are number one or number two in positive cases per 1,000 residents in our community. So right now Greenville is not doing the best job of either avoiding gatherings, quarantining, staying put. It's a little bit frustrating, but we also understand the fatigue and the need for people to work and support their families and get kids to schools. We're just imploring everybody to band together and do the right things to minimize these cases as much as we can.

Portrait of Carl Sobocinski
Credit: Courtesy of Table 301 Restaurant Group

What actions did you take?

When we reopened in May, we got as stringent as we could with the guidelines, took every precaution, and we have followed those to a T. Nobody's perfect, I'm sure there's been days when a staff member or two missed a step of service with cleanliness or cleaning tables, but I'm confident that over 99% of the time we are nailing every step. We're socially distancing our tables, our employees have been in masks 100% of the shift since the day we reopened. We're taking extra steps in cleaning our tables, letting them sit and dry and sanitize, putting hand sanitizer at all entry points and throughout the restaurant. We have not had or known of any outbreaks within our restaurant staff that have occurred in the restaurant. Now of course, with over 300 associates, we have had associates test positive, and I'm proud to say that it's fewer than 20 people since we reopened. So 6% of our workforce essentially has tested positive over that time. Every one of those has been able to be traced back to outside of work, family gatherings, family interactions that did not have to do with work. Point being, that restaurants that are taking these precautions are creating the safest environments that they can, allowing us to be open. 

We've been in business 24 years here in Greenville, expanding our company, and we feel we need to take the lead and set precedent in a lot of situations. As we heard about the spike that would come after Thanksgiving—and actually saw it—and we knew that similar things would happen with people gathering at Christmas and New Year's, we just took a long, hard look and said, "What can we do to protect our associates, to protect our guests and make a statement to the community? That listen folks, if we all do our part and we all just take a little bit of a suffering or a little bit of the pain, it's going to slow this thing down faster." 

So you shut it all down?

We made the decision in early December that once we got through the New Year, that we were going to close our restaurant for the first week of January. We ran through New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, did brunch on January 3, and then shut the restaurants down to give everybody the opportunity to self-quarantine, self-monitor and stay at home. We weren't drawing customers into our restaurants and gave a pause until we reopened January 11.

How did that all work financially?

We have always taken the approach that this is not a transient job. This is not a transient business, and we want professional associates. We have benefits of health insurance, 401k, and vacation pay. So the close down was a 100% on us, on the company. We paid our salaried managers and asked them to do some kind of administrative work or something for two out of the days that we were closed—maybe come in and clean your restaurant, do some inventory. The rest of it was vacation pay that is not accumulated against their vacation time. Hourly associates were permitted to use their vacation pay to continue to get compensated for the time away. With giving them a month's notice in early December, they knew that if you don't have enough vacation time or you don't want to use it, go ahead and do your financial planning knowing that those seven days, the restaurant will be closed.

What was the team's reaction?

I thought that might be somewhat of a concern, but the response on our internal Facebook pages and Schedulefly (an employee scheduling system) has been overwhelmingly positive. "Thanks for doing this, great company to work for." "They care about us." "First time, I've had a vacation in 10 years." I mean, just overwhelming support. We also have a fund that was created early on in March and April where we put some money aside, and we had some customers contribute. We have a fund that's available for someone who might be struggling, have power bills, require some help with rent, different things that they might need. So those monies are there as well.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from the dining public?

From the hospitality industry standpoint, we've got to do some better advocacy of telling our story and showing the faces of our associates and who they are and what they do for their community. But the phones began ringing in mid-March when we shut down and I had one individual–I'll never forget—he had bought a gift cards at Christmas of 2019, and he bought like $4,000 worth to give out to his customers and employees. He still had $800 worth of gift cards. And he said, "I want to give these back to you and you do whatever's best. You want to get meals for your employees. You want to give the money directly to your employees. Do you want to create meals and give them to those that are struggling?" 

Another restaurant here in town had a customer come in and write them a check in the thousands, high thousands of dollars, tens of thousands of dollars. They said, "Use this as long as you can to buy the produce and ingredients from local farmers to keep them going. Put your employees back to work, creating meals, and then distribute these meals through food banks and Meals on Wheels and homeless shelters and all that." These are all customer-driven types of things and that just multiplies.

And how are you taking care of yourself during all of this?

In the beginning stages, it was leaning on my faith and reading daily devotionals and putting things into perspective. It was springtime in South Carolina when this thing hit and it's a beautiful place to be year-round. But in the spring, there was lots to be thankful for. So taking long walks and meeting neighbors and connecting with people. It might've been by email or text or phone, but connecting with people that we hadn't necessarily connected with on a regular basis. And then as the businesses got back open, and during that time, when the businesses were closed and our staff was furloughed, I was checking in on them. A few people individually, but collectively as a group, staying in touch and letting them know where we were. And when we anticipated coming back and did they need to dip into this fund that we had created and what could we do for them?

I was just really trying to humanize it and be there for our team, knowing that nothing lasts forever. We've never seen anything like this, but we are going to get through this and your jobs will be here. Fortunately, we were a strong company when this thing started and we had the resources to muscle through. We were fortunate to get in line early on the PPP funding. And so that those funds came in and that was a 100% used for wages and our employees. For me personally though, I just really leaned on family, friends and faith and got through it.

On a personal note, I really wanted to thank you for what you did. My mother died of COVID-19 in Greenville County and the rest of my immediate family lives there. This has been hell to endure—especially as I see people gathering unmasked there and acting as if this is all over. But I know we're not alone and that a lot of other people are suffering. What other measures have you taken in the community?

There've been lots and lots of lessons and I know some people that aren't masking up and aren't taking this seriously. But honestly, the majority of the people have really shown the true human spirit in taking care of others. One of the greatest things that came of this was a partnership with one of our customers who had to cancel an event that he had planned here locally. A conference, where he brought in his software clients from around the country. He canceled that event, but he had some funds set aside for the catering portion of it, which we were to be the caterer. And so we put our heads together and we created this program called Connect for Good. He said, "I've got the money to buy the catering, but I don't need the catering. So let's make meals and give them to our community where there's a need."

This thing grew from a goal of hoping to feed 3,000 to 5,000 people with about $15,000 that he had, to expanding, getting other private contributions. And then some public Cares Act money. We have now served over 130,000 meals. It's not just the meals portion—that's been amazing feeding these people that are struggling and that have needs, as well as feeding some first responders—but to create 130,000 meals over the last several months has allowed us to increase from just our restaurants to over 30 restaurants in our community, preparing those meals. Putting people back to work to make the meals, and then receiving not our typical dinner and lunch margins, but enough money to pay for the food and the servers or the cooks and the preparers of the food. We've created jobs, we've fed a need that we had, and we've put people back into their kitchens, into the workforce. So that's been great. Our managers have learned to really manage their financial statements much more closely. And so coming out on the other side, I think a lot of the fat that we might've had in our budgets and in our financial can be trimmed out and cut out and we can do things much more economical. And hopefully that leaves more margins for continuing programs like this Connect for Good and getting food to those in need.

Learn more about Connect for Good.