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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Mindy Benton boxes up meals to deliver to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga at Mindy B's Deli on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Well before the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March of this year, Mindy Benton was concerned about the perception of the boxed lunches she creates at Mindy Bճ on Georgia Avenue. She started sealing the boxes about a year ago as more and more people chose to have their meals delivered via a third-party delivery service such as Dinner Dash and Uber Eats. She doubled down on the practice after COVID-19 entered the public mindset when she decided to deliver meals as part of a meal called Front Line Meals to front-line workers such as nurses, doctors and first-responders.

Well before the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March of this year, Mindy Benton was concerned about the perception of the boxed lunches she creates at Mindy B's on Georgia Avenue.

She, like a lot of restaurateurs, wanted her customers to feel certain the boxes had not been tampered with, so she started sealing the boxes about a year ago as more and more people chose to have their meals delivered via a third-party delivery service such as DoorDash or Uber Eats.

She doubled down on the practice after COVID-19 entered the public mindset, and she decided to deliver meals as part of a program called Front Line Meals, which delivered food to front-line workers such as nurses, doctors and first responders.

The tamper-proof boxes, complete with stickers she gets from the same place she gets the boxes, are a practice she plans to continue going forward.

"The biggest change we will see is that more boxed lunches will be sealed and tamper-proof," she said.

"We've been doing it for the Front Line Meals. I just got my first order from [the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga] this week. We are a vendor for [them]. We will be delivering boxed lunches welcoming the undergrads back."

Benton said she and her two employees have been keeping their business open since the pandemic started "and haven't changed our hours, and we've never closed. Well, the dining room did for awhile, and now our small dining area is even smaller, but we've been doing delivery and takeout."

Charlie's Quik Stop BBQ & Bakery on Main Street has also ramped up its take-out business, but it has not been cheap, and those costs keep rising. Co-owner Wes Agee said costs for meat have tripled, and he is spending thousands of dollars each month on takeout supplies, additional labor and other costs of shifting from a self-serve dine-in model to a full-serve carryout.

"We have absorbed in excess of $60,000 in operating costs since April 1," he said. "We've been able to keep our rent paid and our grocery bills paid and payroll paid and sales taxes paid, but it's taking every penny we're bringing in."

Sales have been strong and the customers are as loyal as they come, Agee said, but with costs up 40%, it might not matter.

"At the end of last week, we surpassed our entire sales from last year, with five months left in the year," he said. "But it has taken every penny of that plus some more to keep the doors open."

He worries that with winter coming and no end to the coronavirus crisis in sight, small businesses that have been barely hanging on for months will go under.

"I think a lot of the smaller businesses come January and February will shutter for the winter or shutter forever," he said. "I don't think people understand — come January, Chattanooga will probably lose half of its restaurants."

Rodney Billups has converted Herman's Soul Food & Catering in Brainerd into takeout only, and has been relying on his wife, son and three grandkids to keep the restaurant open. It hasn't been easy.

"It's just me and my family," he said.

He said going to takeout-only has allowed him to stay open, barely, and he's fighting to keep it open because of his loyal customers.

"This COVID is real. I have a sickly mother, so I know it is real. This [takeout] is a survival tool for us. My customers have been with me 28 to 30 years, and I want to please them. Plus, it's a little income for me."

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Coronavirus bringing lasting change to Chattanooga area restaurants

He said he looks forward to getting back to being able to serve diners in the restaurant.

Takeout and delivery has become a new source of much-needed income at Naked River Brewing, according to owner Jake Raulston, especially since it had previously relied heavily on people attending UTC football and Chattanooga Football Club games at Finley Stadium or the Chattanooga Market at First Horizon Pavilion next door.

Raulston said he plans to continue takeout when the pandemic slows and dine-in options get back to whatever the new normal becomes, but he doesn't know when that might happen. With colleges reopening in the area this week, Raulston said he expects to add a few new staff members to handle weekends, but doesn't expect a real push.

"We are actively hiring new people and will continue to, especially on the weekends, but overall what we've seen is people have become real accustomed to not eating out as much or they are getting takeout. Especially during the week.

"And, I don't think we are gonna see those things come back anytime soon, as far as the stadium and the market are concerned."

As the staffing has increased, he said Naked River has also added more delivery options. He believes the newly installed touchless ordering and payment system will be the future for restaurants.

"You never have to interact with menus or cash or even signing your check," he said.

Over at the Flying Squirrel off Main Street, co-owner Max Poppel said being able to adapt the green space between the architecturally unique restaurant and the Crash Pad hostel he co-owns has helped him and partner Dan Rose to offer safe dining to customers.

He said he believes being nimble during this pandemic has been important, but the real key to survival is and will be quality.

"I think our food and drink program and staying on top of our game is the key. We've put some tables in the side yard, and that has helped, but I think putting out the best product will be what wins people back.

"Quality is extremely important in the hospitality business. It's the overall experience. We have a beautiful building, but the food and drink and the experience all have to be great."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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