Chattanooga club and restaurant scene is murky as coronavirus persists

'I feel like a boat out in the ocean with no motor,' says Comedy Catch co-owner

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Workers can Chatty Light beer at Heaven & Ale on Tuesday, June 23, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Like a lot of entrepreneurs and self-made people, Comedy Catch co-owner Michael Alfano is used to being in charge and doing things his way. Whether his way forward is the right way or not, it is the way he is going. That's how he has always done things.

He, like many others, has been doing all he can to save the business he co-owns with his former wife Cheryl Alfano. They've slowly reopened their businesses in recent weeks and are following recommended guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state of Tennessee and the Hamilton County Health Department.

Michael Alfano has cut the capacity for the main showroom and the inside area of Backstage Bar in half, added extra cleaning procedures and anything else the guidelines call for. None of that guarantees a future for the restaurant/club, however, and for a man used to being in charge, that is the hardest part.

"Quite frankly, that has been my biggest fear," he said. "I don't know what to do, I don't know what I can do. I don't know what the future holds.

"As an entrepreneur who has almost always been in charge, I just do it. I get it done. I don't ask questions. I don't ask permission, and there is not a vote or a democracy. But I don't know what to do. I feel powerless. Entrepreneurs tend to chart their whole path or their whole career, but I feel like a boat out in the ocean with no motor."

Alfano's concerns are just some of the challenges facing local restaurant, venue, brewery and club owners as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Most focus on getting through today and then tomorrow by dealing with making things work with dining rooms reduced by social distancing or declining sales because more people are staying at home.

Naked River Brewing Company owner Jake Raulston said while the brewery once supplied 500 to 600 kegs of beer to local bars and restaurants, that number has dwindled to nearly zero. But, he said, his staff has managed to adapt quickly and even take a hard look at what the future might look like. That has helped the 18-month-old restaurant survive and even put itself in a good spot for when the pandemic ends, he said.

"I've been very impressed with my staff and how quickly they managed to convert to a walk-up window and delivery-style food service," he said.

Raulston said his managers also recommended they look into a contactless point-of-sale-system called Tabbedout that lets people start a tab, order and close out a tab via their phones. It can even keep track of your visits and orders. Through it, Naked River can offer discounts and free items to loyal customers.

"I think it is the future. It's safer for customers and my staff, and the loyalty points option is exciting," Raulston said.

"This has been difficult, but in some ways I think we will come out stronger for it. We now have our own online store, and curbside pickup. You can order with the press of a button and order food and beer and be on your way.

"We have a whole new business model with new services, and I am thankful for a lot of it."

One thing some owners say they probably didn't anticipate when they first reopened their business was dealing with customers who simply don't want to hear about wearing a mask or social distancing. Policing was not part of the job description.

"That's not what [my staff] signed up for," said Joe Winland, owner of Heaven & Ale on Cherokee Boulevard and Main Street.

"One of my biggest challenges is finding a balance between a safe environment for my employees and our customers. There is a fine line between enforcing without angering our customers.

"There are people out there who are just over it. They don't care about wearing masks or using hand sanitizers or bleach wipes."

Winland said he spends a lot of his time talking to his employees about ways to deal with not only the customers, but the mental fatigue that comes along with that.

"The staff is not immune to the stress that COVID-19 has put on their shoulders, so maintaining a certain amount of enthusiasm is tough."

Like Alfano, Winland said the future is a scary thing to think about. He is taking a hard look at his businesses and what the future might hold. He said the brewing industry is in an especially precarious spot with many experts predicting it will take years to recover, if it ever does.

"It's a challenging industry from a cash flow aspect to begin with," he said. "You invest so much up front for materials and ingredients and then don't see any return for weeks in between."

The ingredients and the beer have a shelf life, so brewers can't use the downtime to stockpile merchandise, even if they could afford to.

"If another wave comes this fall or a mandatory shutdown, I don't know if we can make it," Winland said.

Vic Williams' family has owned Memo's Grill on M.L. King Boulevard for 54 years. He said the majority of his business has always been takeout, and he and his co-owner and sister Mona Hammonds haven't opened the dining room back up for safety reasons.

"We just don't feel safe yet, but we are still doing curbside," he said.

"Business is always up and down, but we are surviving. In fact, we've got a reduced menu because of the situation, so that has helped with costs."

Williams also said adding some of the new guidelines regarding cleaning procedures was no burden either, "because we've always been very concerned with that because of the way we were raised, I suppose.

"My mother and father were always very concerned with wiping down the tables and the doorknobs, so we've always done that. That's not to minimize the new rules, but we do it that way anyway."

Winland and Alfano agreed.

"It's just the cost of doing business," Alfano said.

Alfano has the added issue of booking acts. He has concentrated on booking local and regional touring acts "and not asking anyone to travel," he said.

Comedian Steve Hofstetter recently announced on Reddit that he has canceled all of his shows, including those scheduled for the Comedy Catch, until at least September.

"I cannot in good conscience tell people it is safe to come see me," he wrote. "Frankly, I don't know if it is safe [and neither do you]. None of us do."

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.

photo Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Cans of Chatty Light beer are packaged at Heaven & Ale on Tuesday, June 23, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.