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ADAPT AND SURVIVE: In uncertain times, restaurants find creative ways to pay their staffs

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Wrightsville Beach Brewery has begun selling groceries as a way to keep its kitchen staff employed during the COVID-19 crisis. Courtesy photo


Running a restaurant or bar can be trying, even in the best of times. Doing so during a pandemic can feel almost impossible. 

“It’s amazing how vulnerable restaurants truly were without even knowing it,” says Dean Neff, former PinPoint chef and owner of the forthcoming downtown seafood restaurant Seabird. Neff is one of hundreds of Wilmington small business owners left scrambling right now. Already, social distancing and a statewide stay-at-home order have made it difficult for local bars and restaurants to cope with the dramatic downturn in business. Still, a few intrepid entrepreneurs have found creative ways to keep their staffs paid during uncertain times.

James Beard quality in your dining room

The coronavirus crisis was only a couple weeks old when chef Dean Neff, a 2019 James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef Southeast, posted the following plea to Instagram: “I want to do your dishes!!!”

With his new restaurant, Seabird, still several months away from opening, Neff was looking for ways to help the South Front District bakery owned by his fiancé (and former PinPoint pastry chef) Lydia Clopton.

COVID-19 forced Clopton to lay off the entire Love, Lydia staff earlier this month. Afterward, she and Neff sat down to discuss how they could both save their businesses and keep Clopton’s workers afloat.

“It does not feel good to stand up in front of people and say, ‘Hey, we’re closing and we don’t know what to tell you,’” Neff says. “We knew [about the] slim margins on restaurants, and especially on bakeries, and we were going to make sure we were doing everything we could to let people know that we weren’t going to disappear. We were going be available and do everything we could to support them.”

They decided on an auction, which started March 23. Supporters bid on Facebook for Neff to come to their home and cook a four-course dinner with wine for up to six people. (As stated on Instagram, he’d also do the dishes.) Proceeds from the auction would be distributed among the eight Love, Lydia staffers. Bidding started at $750 and ended Sunday night. The winning bid was $1,750, from Suzie and Nick Trivisonno.

Neff and Clopton were sure to include a stipulation that payment be made within 48 hours of the auction closing, so relief could be provided to staff as quickly as possible. “We figured if [a bill] passed that was going to provide some assistance, it was going to take a little bit of time to kind of get to everyone,” Neff adds.

It’s a novel solution and one that brings the chef joy. “I’ve done a lot of these dinners in people’s homes, and it’s always so much fun,” he says. The Trivisonnos will get to choose the menu, as well as how much interaction they have with Neff while the meal is being prepared

During a fundraiser in Charleston earlier this year, the dinner party spent the entire evening in the kitchen hanging out with Neff and his staff. Neff says it only heightened the experience. “If they’re into it, I’m all about that.”

Groceries with your growler

Wrightsville Beach Brewery owner Jud Watkins never thought he’d be selling groceries out of his brewery. That’s just what he and his staff have been doing since the coronavirus took away a large portion of their business. “We’re basically reinventing the business by the day,” Watkins says. “The mentality is adapt and survive.”

Groceries being sold by the brewery include items its kitchen would typically stock, like fresh mozzarella and North Carolina jumbo lump crab, as well as essentials­, such as bread, fresh produce and beans. There’s also a selection of “immunity boosters,” such as fresh peeled garlic and elderberry syrup, and the brewery’s usual selection of six-packs and growlers of beer. (They also sell wine.)

The brewery has been posting its inventory on Instagram and Facebook each morning. Orders must be emailed to at a time specified on social media, and are typically available for pickup the following afternoon.

The approach has allowed Watkins to continue to pay a large portion of his staff, many of whom have been with him since the brewery opened in 2017. He says the overall kitchen volume is down 75 percent, but at this point, every little bit helps.

“I’m really proud of them,” Watkins says of his staff. “Everybody has done a great job keeping a positive attitude. We’ve always said everybody in this building has to wear multiple hats, but that’s especially true right now.”

Watkins says all customers can rest assured the brewery is taking necessary precautions during their takeout/curbside pickups. For the past two weeks, he has been taking each employee’s temperature the moment they walk in the building. In addition, workers wear masks and use a fresh pair of gloves for each customer. “As a brewery, we’re in the business of sanitation—same goes for the kitchen,” Watkins says.

Tipping made easy

For every service industry worker receiving assistance from his or her employer, there are many more who aren’t so lucky. The website allows users to tip unemployed service workers with the click of a button.

First launched in Tennessee, the site has expanded to over 200 cities across the country, including Wilmington. When users click their city, it randomly selects a service worker who has signed up to receive tips through CashApp or Venmo. As of last Thursday, more than 300 people had signed up in the greater Wilmington area.

Help is on the way

Wilmington restaurants may be left largely to fend for themselves, but in New York City, hospitality executives have launched a “dining bonds” initiative to help restaurants ravaged by coronavirus. The concept is simple: Diners can purchase a $100 “bond” for $75 that can be cashed in for full value after its redemption date. (The money, however, is nonrefundable should the restaurant be forced to close permanently.)

Locally, encore launched its own initiative that pays out businesses, the majority of which are restaurants, half of everything that sells on in cash. The other half can be used as ad credit when the business is up and running again at full speed. The DEALS platform sells half-priced gift certificates to locals, so they also save a buck. As of press, the magazine has paid $2,000 to local businesses who participated in this relief program.

Neff encourages people to continue to think creatively about the current crisis, especially when it comes to continuing our culinary output. “I don’t think anyone wants to have to imagine a landscape in the United States without independent restaurants.”

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