In Atlanta, one of the top cities in the nation for Black-owned businesses, the uneven effects of the coronavirus pandemic have been pronounced.

By Kelundra Smith
July 07, 2020
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Credit: Twisted Soul

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On any given Sunday, you would find the line wrapped around the building of The Beautiful, one of Atlanta’s oldest cafeteria-style soul food restaurants. Patrons patiently waited for their beloved pork chops, oxtails, creamed corn, butter beans, and other Southern staples. The telltale line, and just about everything else, vanished when they were forced to close for three months due to COVID-19.

The Beautiful, which opened in 1979 and is owned by The Perfect Church, joins thousands of restaurants across the country that were forced to temporarily or permanently closed. Those that have remained in business have transitioned to takeout or delivery only, though often at a loss. The shift away from in-person dining presented a unique set of economic and logistical challenges for restaurants whose concepts revolve around intimate experiences and atmosphere—a problem that's especially pronounced in the South, where comfort food is communal.

As if COVID-19 closures had not presented enough of a challenge, Black people are an estimated four times more likely to die from the coronavirus than white people, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The markedly high death rate from COVID-19 among Black Americans and the continued killings of unarmed Black people while in quarantine have made the state of race relations in the U.S. a boiling pot. For Black-owned restaurants, the combination of pandemic and civic uprising brings a unique set of challenges.

Atlanta, which has a population that is roughly 52 percent Black, is one of the top cities in the nation for Black-owned businesses, and the disparity has been pronounced. In the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Black-owned restaurants tell us they saw a 90 percent drop in business and were forced to lay off most of their employees. This was the case for many restaurants, but the difference for Black-owned restaurants is that their patron base, which is mostly Black people, suffered more losses during the pandemic. As of June, the unemployment rate among Black people is 15.4 percent—over 4 percent higher than the national rate, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Lucy Sims, chief financial officer of The Beautiful, says that they wouldn’t reopen the dining room on July 1, when Georgia Governor Brian Kemp allowed it, but will wait until they see a decrease in cases across the city. The owners delayed their reopening longer than most to keep employees safe and to protect their customer base, which is largely in the elderly at-risk population. However, they did reopen for carry-out only in June.

In Midtown, chef Deborah Van Trece, who owns Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours, has remained open for takeout the last few months. The restaurant, known for modern, Southern cuisine and craft moonshine cocktails, quickly adapted by adding takeout and delivery options for food and cocktails. They also removed steak from the menu due to beef shortages and started collaborating with more local Black farmers who didn’t have the same supply chain issues as larger operations. Van Trece admits that the transition has been rough, having to reduce staff, tweak the “slow food” experience that Twisted Soul is known for, and adapt recipes to hold up in takeout containers.

Credit: Twisted Soul

“We were also able to utilize things like neckbones and oxtails that other people might not know how to use—we went back to our roots to things that my mom and grandma were using,” Van Trece said.

Van Trece says that they lost 90 percent of their business and had to lay off 75 percent of their employees in the first month of shutdowns. While they secured a Paycheck Protection Program Loan (PPP) from the Small Business Administration, what they received came out to just one month of revenue. She says that after they reopen, she’ll have a better idea of how much more they can withstand.

In the meantime, she’s giving back to essential workers by feeding them dinner. The project started to feed the employees she had to lay off, and then expanded to healthcare workers. A customer called and offered to donate 150 meals; then, a local attorney and entrepreneur, Juanita Baranco, pledged to purchase 300 meals for healthcare workers every month. They now have an ongoing partnership with Grady Memorial Hospital where they deliver dinners a couple of days each week.

“When the pandemic hit, I just started asking how can I help, and recognized that I have food and I can cook,” Van Trece said. “It’s been cool to give back to the community, because we are the community. That’s part of the blessing that I’ve been given.”

Shellane Brown, who co-owns Apple Butter Bakery and Gilly Brew Bar in Stone Mountain, GA, with her husband, Daniel, also had to quickly adapt their menus. After shutting down for two months, they started selling frozen cookie dough, cake mixes, and gift cards to drum up business.

“A large portion of our income is custom cakes for lavish events,” Brown said. “We tried to figure out if we would stay open, and one-by-one people canceled events—and people order cakes from us three months to a year in advance. We were flipping out because rent was due in a couple of weeks. We tried to do curbside service before everything shutdown, but the flow of business would not sustain us. It was a fraction of what we would typically make and we couldn’t cover payroll to stay open.”

Like Twisted Soul, they also secured a PPP loan and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) to cover two months of rent and pay the employees that they had to lay off. Brown says there wasn’t anything left for them, but they had savings and help from family. Family has been the backbone of Apple Butter and Gilly Brew from the start. When they opened their two businesses—in 2013 and 2018, respectively—they did so with money from family and friends and the support of their church. Before COVID-19 hit, they were preparing to open a third bakery in Fayetteville. They are moving forward with the new location, but the timeline is uncertain.

As much as restaurants are trying to adapt by leaning into takeout options and even adding drive-thrus, the reality is that some places will not make it.

Chef Will Turner recently closed the brick-and-mortar outfit of his popular food truck, The Blaxican. The soul food/Mexican fusion restaurant serves street eats like collard green quesadillas, jalapeno mac and cheese, and buffalo chicken tacos. He says that his business was mostly the lunch crowd, and as more people started working from home, their walk-in business disappeared.

Credit: The Blaxican

Turner sees the adverse effect of COVID-19 on Black-owned businesses as an indicator of systemic issues that disadvantage Black entrepreneurs. Due to centuries of discrimination, many Black people do not have access to the credit, capital, or collateral required to start a business, according to data collected by the Federal Reserve. In Turner’s case, he was unable to secure a bank loan to start his food truck a decade ago, so he purchased everything he needed on credit cards. His story isn’t unique. Black business owners often start and end in debt because of inequitable lending practices and high interest rates. Because of this, Turner was unable to access the EIDL assistance needed to keep his doors open.

“I’m not crying the blues because I’m Black; I’m successful because I’m Black,” says Turner. “What I want to relay is that all things are not available to everyone. When they denied my loan, they really missed an opportunity to make a difference in my life and in the lives of the 20+ people I have hired and trained that have gone on to become managers and head chefs at other restaurants.”

Right now, Turner is going back to basics and booking gigs wherever he can with his food truck. Plus, his son launched a GoFundMe to help keep the business going. His hope is to be able to re-open his restaurant and launch the MexSoul Sauce line he was planning before the pandemic.

Credit: The Blaxican

On top of COVID-19, these entrepreneurs are dealing with the emotional impact of high infection rates among African Americans, as well as seeing repeated killings of unarmed Black people. As people around the world have taken to the streets in protest, there has been a renewed enthusiasm for supporting Black-owned businesses. Influencers such as Erica Key, who runs the popular Atlanta-based lifestyle brand Eating with Erica, have published lists of Black-owned restaurants in recent weeks. Restaurant owners say that those lists have helped to increase their business. Key says that moving forward, inclusion will be key for restaurants to survive.

“It’s great to support now, but I want this to be a permanent thing, not a trend,” said Key, who is releasing her first cookbook, Confidently Cooking, this summer. “I support Black-owned businesses because they’re great, and then the bonus is that they’re Black. I don’t want people to be shocked because they’re Black and they’re good.”

Chef Sim Walker, who owns the Caribbean brunch hotspot Ms. Icey’s Kitchen, shares that sentiment. Walker was also preparing to open a new restaurant, Apt. 4B, before the pandemic. He says that he plans to start out only doing small dinners on weekends and then expanding as safety regulations and demand allow.

“A lot of Black restaurants are frequented by Black people,” Walker said. “With this new interest in supporting Black businesses, we’re seeing more Caucasian and other non-Black people wanting to join the party. I hope that does not change, because we support all other races. That would be a tremendous impact and gain to these businesses.”