COVID-19 forces Chattanooga restaurants to cut staff, make tough decisions

Owners, staff deal with loss, layoffs and uncertain future

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 7/8/16. Aby Caloca bartends at the Bitter Alibi on Friday, July 8, 2016.

Chicken Salad Chicks franchise owner Josh Patton says that customers who choose to eat inside his five restaurants make up far less than half of his business, but he still wonders why Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke has mandated that all city eateries shut down their dine-in option.

"Our restaurants are already clean, but now they are even cleaner. We are wiping door handles and countertops and tables every 30 minutes. We've always been fanatical about washing hands, but we are doing it more than we were.

"But it's crazy that grocery stores have a hall pass. People go in there touching everything all the time.

"People have to eat, but what's the difference?"

Like every other restaurateur here and elsewhere across the country, Patton is fighting to keep his business alive and his employees working and paid. He said about 40 of his 92 employees worked last week. The rest either chose to stop working or were let go as business has fallen off about 50% he said.

Goodman Coffee Roasters owner Ian Goodman closed his retail store and let all 10 of his employees go.

"Yeah, it was really hard. As an owner, you feel responsible to take care of employees."

On Thursday, he was roasting beans for area wholesalers, "But even that has been hit pretty hard." He added that roasted coffee has a shelf life of about three weeks, so he can't even the use coming weeks as a way to get ahead and stockpile inventory.

"Plus, this is lost revenue. It's not like when this is over people will be buying five cups of coffee at a time to make up for it."

Bluff View Art District Director of Operations Michael Vasta had to issue separation notices for 60 workers and partial notices for another 15 employees this week. That's half of the staff for the district that features Tony's Pasta, Rembrandt's, Back Inn Cafe, a bakery, and a coffee roasting business, Bluff View Inn and a popular venue for weddings and parties.

Vasta said it is his hope that 75 of those displaced workers will be back "when this is over. Hopefully in a couple weeks. We want them all back."

He said the reality is that for the wait staff at Bluff View, issuing separation notices is probably better than keeping them on.

"At least they get get unemployment (benefits) and have some money coming in," Vasta said. "We could not pay them what they make as servers on some nights in tips."

Samantha Williams, 25, is a full-time waitress at Tony's who was given her separation notice from Tony's this week. She is filling out the paperwork for unemployment with the help of her parents to ensure she gets it right to avoid delays.

"This is how I'm going to have to pay my bills," she said. "I can sometimes make enough to pay my rent in two days sometimes and now I need this. So, it is scary."

Vasta also said the district will use the time to do some maintenance and repair work that would be difficult to get to with a fully functioning operation.

"It can be difficult to pull equipment out and clean it or repair a floor, for instance if you are open all day," he said. "So, we will take advantage of the opportunity."

(Read more: Chattanooga area restaurants changing menus, service due to coronavirus fears)

(Read more: Chattanoogans get creative to help their neighbors during the coronavirus crisis)

More Info

In metropolitan Chattanooga, 24,200 persons work in food preparation and serving-related jobs, or 9.2% of the total employment in the 6-county area, including:* 4,140 waiters and waitresses* 7,620 food preparation and serving workers* 2,130 restaurant cooks* 980 short order cooks* 830 fast food cooks* 670 dishwashersSource: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2018.Tennessee’s restaurant industry* 330,000 - Number of restaurant and food service jobs in Tennessee* 11% - Share of Tennessee workers employed at restaurants and food service* 11,693 - Number of eating and drinking establishments in Tennessee in 2018* $14.2 billion - Estimated sales in Tennessee’s restaurants in 2018Source: National Restaurant Association and the Tennessee Hospitality and Tourism AssociationEvery dollar spent in the table service segment contributes $1.82 to the state economy.Every dollar spent in the limited-service segment contributes $1.62 to the state economy.

Champy's owner Seth Champion has pledged $100,000, or $700 per hourly employee, to its staff. Mike and Taylor Monen through their Monen Family Restaurant Group has launched an Employee Relief Fund through GoFundMe to raise money for all of our employees that have lost their jobs due to this national health crisis that is ripping our industry apart.

Tim Hennen has been in the restaurant business locally for five decades, most notably with Yesterday's, Big River Grille & Brewing Works, and currently Bones' Smokehouse, Hennen's and Greyfriar's Coffee & Tea. Late this week he was meeting with partner Rob Stickley and managers to figure out a path forward.

"I've done this through the Vietnam War, SARS, Swine Flu, the recession," he said. "I've never seen anything like this."

He said the plan is to continue to pay the staff, even at Hennen's, which is closed, and to find ways to keep people working. Bones' has 35 employees and Greyfriar's has two.

"Hennens is closed currently, but we will keep them working. Bones is drive-through only and Greyfriars is open and doing some curbside."

He said he hopes to have Hennen's 48-member staff pressure washing equipment and painting, among other things while the downtown eatery is closed. He said the decision will cost between $10,000-$15,000 per week, but it's the right decision and one he is able to make because of the people that work for him.

"It's all about the staff. If the staff doesn't make money, we don't make money. It's the right thing to do for our staff."

One encouraging sign has been that the Hennen's phone "has been ringing off the hook. We might look at doing some fruit basket-type things with steaks that you can take home and cook. It's day-to-day and hopefully this won't last too long."

Jason Bowers, owner of Bitter Alibi and Daily Ration, said he cut his staff of 52 people by about 75% and started offering togo food and delivery using Uber Eats this week.

"We have a board out front with our phone number and people can call in their order and we will leave it on the table out front for pickup."

He said the plan has been working well because of a social media push they've instigated.

Daily Ration in North Chattanooga is just open for breakfast and lunch and Bitter Alibi on Houston Street has changed its hours. Both will be open for Sunday brunch for takeout items.

None of the owners interviewed said they have any idea how long this will last, but said the ripple affect has not been fully realized.

"My goal is to break even or lose a little bit," Patton said.

He added that he's already cut back on trash pick-up and ordering product and worries that he might not have a large enough order to meet certain quotas demanded by some suppliers. There are also the people that supply and clean mats, aprons and towels that will be impacted as restaurants cut back.

"Plus, people mistakenly think that chains have unlimited money. We are a franchise, responsible for the restaurants we have," Patton said. "There is not a ton of margins in this."

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.