On a typical Friday, Tyger Bullock is pouring beers and making shots at Alchemy Tavern. Last Friday, she cleaned her house because concern over the spread of COVID-19 had all but dried up the bar and restaurant business in downtown Mobile.
“It’s scary,” she said. “I don’t think anybody isn’t scared to some degree.”
State officials, as well as the Mobile County Health Department, have ordered all restaurants and bars to stop serving guests on-premises. Even with the allowance of curbside or to-go service, many establishments and service workers are, or will be, feeling the pinch when the next paycheck comes.
While owners of some establishments have adapted to the order and offer to-go, delivery or curbside services, others have decided it best to close up shop and wait it out. One such owner was Frankie Little, of Roosters Latin American Food downtown. Little said instead of offering to-go service, he made what he felt was the socially conscious decision to close up and encouraged other owners to do the same so the virus wouldn’t spread as rapidly.
“I wish everybody would do that,” he said. “We need to all agree. We need to hunker down for two weeks and maybe it’ll subside.”
The more sacrifices business owners make now, Little said, the sooner everything can get back to normal.
“I don’t want this to go on for two months,” he said. “I want this to be over as quickly as possible.”
This is typically the “busy season” for Roosters, Little said. Under normal circumstances, he would be bringing in enough money now to survive the slower times in the year.
“Now is the time we bring in a lot of cash,” he said. “I’m really afraid of how we are going to survive in the slow season.”
Todd Henson, owner of Cafe 219, also shut down temporarily, but is paying his workers to help clean, paint and do other maintenance around the restaurant.
“It’s a lot of the little things I need to do,” he said. “It was a way to feed them and pay them.”
Henson hasn’t shut the door completely on opening back up for service, if the strict regulations remain in place for the foreseeable future.
“There might be a time, if this doesn’t clear in two weeks, that I pull in a kitchen person and myself,” he said.
Other owners, like Matt Lamond at O’Daly’s Irish Pub, made an early decision to close, but haven’t fully decided how to handle things moving forward.
The pub “pulled the plug” on its St. Patrick’s Day festivities, but Lamond decided to close indefinitely after that.
“With everything that is happening in the city, state and world, I thought it was the best decision,” he said. “Our customers’ safety is number one and we couldn’t keep the business going until the dust settles a little bit.”
That being said, Lamond hasn’t decided if the bar will provide curbside service at a later date. He has tossed around the idea of selling full bottles of alcohol and pre-made mixes, so that customers can make O’Daly’s cocktails at home.
David Rasp, owner of Heroes Sports Bar & Grille and others, said he decided to close all three of his restaurants after giving to-go orders a try.
“The scene has just changed, not daily or weekly, but by the hour,” he said. “I’ve put all my hope and all my efforts into ramping back up on the other side of this thing.”
Although the veteran restaurant owner tried to “push” to-go service at his restaurants, it didn’t work out in the end.
“I was highly skeptical it would work,” he said. “It wasn’t there. What we needed to see just wasn’t there.”
Rasp was already working with a skeleton crew at both Heroes locations and at The Royal Scam, with just about two to three employees per place and management. He laid off his managers earlier this week, he said.
“I’ve been doing this 21 years and I’ve never done anything like yesterday,” Rasp said. “I’ve had to fire people before and had some emotionally charged conversations, but I’ve never had to tell 12 people you’re not getting a paycheck anymore.”
There are some Mobile restaurants better suited for takeout, or curbside service. Moe’s Original BBQ owner Mark White feels his place is one of those. The Moe’s location in West Mobile even has a drive-thru already.
“Our product is tailor-made for take-out anyway,” White said. “We have a lot of employees who depend on work and as long as they let us sling barbecue we’re going to do it.”
Like other establishments, White said Moe’s is offering unopened alcoholic beverages to-go as well.
“I feel confident we’re going to make it through this,” he said. “Drastic times call for drastic measures.”
The Spiffy Fox Pizza and Pub in the Leinkauf Historic District is also well-suited for takeout orders. Owner Zack Morgan thanked the neighborhood, which has really stepped up to help his employees through generous tips on the curbside orders in this time of need, he said.
“For us, it’s hard because the people who have taken the biggest hit are our servers,” he said. “You usually see less tips with a to-go [order], but some people have been tipping as much as 100 percent of their bill.”
Morgan added that a number of customers have purchased gift cards to help the restaurant make it through the crisis.
“I’m humbled by how much the community has supported us,” he said.
On a normal weekday, Morgan said he would make extra pizzas to distribute for free to Leinkauf Elementary School students when classes let out. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Spiffy Fox has taken this idea and run with it. Morgan said the restaurant is now offering free lunches to anyone, no questions asked. Through the help of donations, the restaurant gave out 125 bags of food on Thursday, March 19, Morgan said.
“We saw a need and we were able to help fill it,” he said.
Bullock, of Alchemy Tavern, said many of the service industry folks she knows have been applying for other jobs, like at Amazon or Costco. Those folks will be ready, though, when establishments can come back online.
“Service industry people have learned to adapt and overcome,” she said. “I believe a lot of people are going to get through this.”
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