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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Allen Corey, CEO of SquareOne Holding Co., talks about the new Stir restaurant on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020.

Perhaps as much as any industry, fine-dining restaurants and bars have been hard hit this year by the coronavirus and its restrictions.

"Our whole business is built around social gathering," said Allen Corey, CEO of SquareOne Holding, the Chattanooga- based restaurant company that operates the STIR restaurant at the Chattanooga Choo Choo, the State of Confusion on Main Street, and nine other bars and eateries in North Carolina, Georgia and elsewhere in Tennessee. "Unfortunately, what has happened this year has been the exact opposite of that."

A study done this spring by the Boston consulting firm Compass Lexicon for the Independent Restaurant Coalition estimated that the virus "risks permanently losing as many as 85% of independent restaurants by the end of the year" without more relief or a vaccine cure for the spreading disease.

Despite the unprecedented challenges from COVID-19, Corey says he is determined to keep his restaurants going and to continue to give back to the community and his employees. So during the pandemic, SquareOne restaurants have continued to support community nonprofits, including the Community Kitchen in Chattanooga. Two months ago, the restaurant company created a nonprofit foundation to support local nonprofits in each of its markets and to allow employees to donate part of their wages and pool their money together through the Hope Fund to help other employees in need.

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Restaurant group gives back

"All of us have been hit by this virus and we're obviously concerned about the health of our business, but I believe this is really the most important time to stay focused on your core values and you can't shy away from your community focus," Corey said. "This is part of our business and what we do."

From the employee-supported Hope Fund, two employees have already been aided — one during a medical emergency for one and another after the death of a family member. The fund is controlled by non-management employees and has attracted widespread donations from workers eager to help those they work with.

Adam Smith, a cook at the State of Confusion restaurant, pledged to give $500 to the fund in the next year, a gift that Corey acknowledged was pretty generous. Smith said his fellow workers "were like family to me" and he wanted to help out those staffers in need.

"The root of the hospitality industry should be just that; a welcoming and generous environment that thrives on supporting others," Corey said. "SquareOne believes hospitality should extend far beyond our dining tables and into the communities in which we live and the SquareUp Foundation is doing just that."

Chattanooga Community Kitchen CEO Jens Christensen said the local restaurants are offering some of the first event-sponsored aid during the pandemic with a campaign in November to allocate a portion of company revenues to the Community Kitchen and to provide payment options for STIR and State of Confusion customers to also donate to the Community Kitchen.

"STIR and State of Confusion have been long-standing supporters of our mission and we're grateful to continue our valuable partnership through this new opportunity," Christensen said.

STIR, State of Confusion and other SquareOne restaurants were closed to any indoor operations from mid March to May and some of the company's North Carolina properties kept their inside seating services limited even longer.

When staff cuts were made to adjust for the spring closings, restaurant managers personally met with each of the displaced workers, gave them an extra week's pay, and helped them apply for unemployment benefits. All of the nearly 1,000 workers who are employed across all of the SquareOne restaurants have since been called back to work, Corey said.

The restaurants are now back to full staff and nearly back to normal business volumes, including the growth of new take-out and delivery options, Corey said. The restaurants are still allowed to only operate at about 50% of seating capacity and bar seating is not generally available, but Corey said take-out business and shifting work hour patterns have helped to offset the loss of seating capacity.

During the pandemic, the company added its biggest restaurant this summer in Charlotte, North Carolina, when SquareOne opened a 350-seat STIR restaurant in July.

"We delayed the opening by six or even weeks, but we decided to plow ahead and try to make it work," Corey said.

With its focus on regularly sanitizing common facilities, wearing masks and keeping social distancing, including more outdoor venues, Corey said the food and drink appeal on the SquareOne restaurants has kept diners coming back, even while other restaurants have struggled.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340.

 

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