Less than two weeks after St. Louis County health officials announced the first local case of coronavirus, the restaurant and bar industry completely changed.
Regional government officials last week called for restaurants and bars to halt dine-in service, a move aimed to force social distancing as the number of cases in Missouri climbed past 20.
Only those that offer delivery, takeout or curbside pickup can remain open.
For some that’s a big shift, and many restaurant owners are wrestling with what to do. They don't know how long they’ll have to operate in this limited capacity — or what that means for their employees and the survival of their business.
Andy Karandzieff’s restaurant, Crown Candy, has operated in Old North St. Louis for more than 100 years.
He said he hasn’t been sleeping much and his anxiety is through the roof. He’s struggling to figure out how to keep payroll as business declines. Some employees have worked at the restaurant for decades.
“We’re literally making this up as we go,” he said. “Maybe I need more help because we’re busier; maybe I need less help because we’re not as busy. I just don’t know, and it just makes me want to throw up.”
Early last week, Karandzieff began shifting to curbside pickup for food, and ramping up his online sales of Easter candy.
Since his family owns the building and he doesn’t have any big loans out on equipment, he’s optimistic about still being in business when everything goes back to normal. Or, “the new normal,” as he puts it.
But Francis Rodriguez is terrified that weeks, or even months, of limited money coming in will ruin his two Cherokee Street businesses — Yaquis and the B-Side.
Rodriguez switched to a carryout-only model last week. He said he made that decision because he can’t afford to shut down entirely. He and his family live above Yaquis, and they don’t own the building.
“If we close, we’re going to lose everything. We don’t have a rich family we can depend on, we don’t have a bank we can depend on,” he said.
Rodriguez said he doesn’t have much of a financial cushion to fall back on. He spent most of his savings on a medical marijuana dispensary license, which he did not get.
He hopes the carryout business can sustain him at least for a while, though he’s been having trouble finding all the materials he needs at local restaurant supply stores.
Closing the doors
While some restaurants are adapting, others are closing entirely. That includes HandleBar, which sits on Manchester Avenue in the Grove neighborhood.
Owner Tatyana Telnikova said she struggled with the decision for days, making financial models to plan for what would happen if sales went down by 50% or even more.
Eventually she decided to close for the safety of customers and her employees. “By being open, we’re helping spread it, and we don’t even realize it,” she said. “But at the same time, I have a moral obligation to my staff who are relying on this for their income.”
Telnikova rounded up about $8,500 for her employees — about two weeks' pay — and promised to hire them back as soon as possible. In the meantime, she’s filing for mass unemployment on their behalf.
Since she owns the building and has savings, she figures she can stay closed for about six months without losing her business.
“My priority definitely has been like trying to take care of my people and make sure they’re OK, because so many people in this industry are just not set up. They don’t have PTO, they don’t have insurance,” she said.
Calling on government aid
Upscale restaurants like Taste and Brasserie, in the Central West End neighborhood, also closed in the past week.
Gerard Craft is the owner and executive chef of Niche Food Group, which operates those restaurants and others. He said the more he communicated with friends in Italy and Seattle, hotspots for the coronavirus, the more worried he became that thriving restaurants in St. Louis could be spreading the virus.
“Watching really busy restaurants during this time should feel really relieving, but it actually was just incredibly scary to watch,” he said.
Unlike many other restaurants, he said his is better positioned to close, at least for a while, because he has flexible business partners willing to give him loans.
But he still has almost 400 employees between his restaurants. Craft said he gave them all two weeks' pay and is trying to figure out to help them bridge the gap after that.
He’s also calling for immediate financial relief from state and local governments.
“Start thinking hard, fast and aggressively about how we can provide relief in order to give people the ability to do the right thing. And the right thing really is to not have employees coming in,” he said.
During a press conference announcing the restrictions, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson said about 88,000 people in the St. Louis region work in the hospitality industry — including restaurants, hotels and other businesses.
She did not mention any local resources for affected workers, but said those who may be laid off could apply for unemployment benefits. She also called for federal action.
“There has to be direct help to individuals and to small businesses from the federal government in order to get through this crisis,” she said.
Many employees are already feeling the pinch.
Zonkaria Burns hasn’t gotten hours at McDonald's, where she works, for more than a week. And she’s starting to worry about her bills.
She’s a single mom, and her two kids will be out of school for at least a few more weeks. She said even if she could go back to work, she needs to be home to watch them.
“It’s like a tight spot. It’s like you’re fighting in the middle of a wall with no help, no one to scream for help at all. It’s like no one has answers for anything,” she said.
Burns, like many other employees and business owners, is struggling with the uncertainty. Until things turn around, she said she’s leaning on her family and prayer to get her through.
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