Knoxville’s food service industry tries to adjust to the fast-changing landscape of coronavirus restrictions.
by jesse fox mayshark • March 18, 2020
a mostly empty gay street in downtown knoxville on Tuesday afternoon.
When Matt Gallaher went to bed Monday night, he thought he had a plan. On Tuesday, his Market Square restaurant Emilia would honor a few existing reservations and then close its doors until further notice.
Urging to-go and delivery orders to make up for half-empty dining rooms.
But after sleeping on it, Gallaher decided that even that was too much to ask from his staff, several of whom had expressed growing concern about the potential for exposure to the novel coronavirus. So Gallaher, who also owns Knox Mason in the Embassy Suites Hotel on Gay Street, called the customers who had booked tables for last night and regretfully told them Emilia was closed.
“They were really understanding, but that’s super tough,” Gallaher said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “This is a service industry, and we do this because we love taking care of people.”
How best to take care of people — customers and staff alike — has become a question with few clear answers this week for the food service industry in Knoxville and nationwide, as public health guidance has emphasized the need to limit gatherings and social interaction.
On Monday, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon declared a state of emergency in the city and issued recommendations that local restaurants move to mostly delivery and to-go orders, reduce their seating capacity by 50 percent, and make sure diners are no closer than 6 feet to each other.
Yesterday, several local food service professionals said they were taking the recommendations and the underlying public health concerns seriously, even though the impacts for their businesses are potentially severe.
“We’ve blocked off half the tables, we’re trying to promote to-go orders,” said Alexa Sponcia, CEO of Hard Knox Pizza, which has locations in Bearden and Hardin Valley. “We’re doing everything we can for the safety of our employees.”
She said customers seem to be getting the message. On Monday, Sponcia said, “70 percent was to-go orders in both stores. So people are listening to what the mayor says and only getting to go and not coming in.”
She said her employees will run orders out to customers’ cars so people don’t even have to come into the stores, protecting both customers and staff.
Downtown Knoxville was unusually quiet Tuesday afternoon, with vacant parking spaces lining Gay Street and few people visible on the sidewalks or in local businesses.
Eric McNew, who runs the KnoxFoodie website with his wife, Mandee, said restaurant owners across Knoxville are trying to figure out how to keep their businesses alive while addressing public health concerns.
“My hope is that the property owners will give some sort of relief to the independently owned restaurants,” said McNew, who also does restaurant marketing and consulting. “Because two weeks’ closure would be absolutely devastating to 75 percent of those restaurants.”
KnoxFoodie is compiling a list of local restaurants offering to-go and curbside pickup options. McNew also recommended the local Gateway Delivery, which does home delivery for many local eateries and unlike other services charges customers but not the restaurants.
Another much-discussed option on local social media is buying gift cards, which McNew said is helpful for immediate cash flow but is essentially a deferred cost for the restaurants. “It just delays the impact, spreads it out,” he said. “I think if you can, actual purchases would be best.”
Knoxville’s food truck scene will feel the impact too, since the trucks rely on exactly the kind of mass gatherings and events that have been canceled left and right in recent days. Rebecca Saldivar, owner of the popular Tootsie Truck, said the timing is especially bad because the crisis is hitting just as the spring festival season is starting.
“We’re just coming out of a time when we had no money coming in for months,” Saldivar said. “If we have to be closed for months, which is our main season, I don’t know what we’ll do.”
For now, she’s working on setting up order and curbside service where she and her husband, Daniel, can run food out to waiting cars from whichever location they happen to be parked at. They are planning on being at the Central Filling Station food truck park this weekend, which as of yesterday is still scheduled to be open. Saldivar said Tootsie Truck fans should follow its social media accounts for updates.
“We’re fortunate that we don’t have a brick and mortar (location), so, A.) we’re not paying rent, and B.) we don’t have a place where people get together,” she said.
‘No Right Answer’
Gallaher has two brick-and-mortar restaurants to worry about, which in normal times are among Knoxville’s most popular and highly rated. Knox Mason was open last night, but as of today both it and Emilia are closed indefinitely.
“This is unprecedented, for any of us,” Gallaher said. He said he is part of a local chefs’ text message group with the operators of other restaurants including J.C. Holdway, Kaizen and A Dopo, and they have all been trying to find the right balance in recent days.
“My business partner and I have tried to just keep up with the news, because everything’s changing so quickly,” he said.
Unlike some of his peers, Gallaher said take-out or delivery options don’t really work for his restaurants, which are built around the sit-down, dine-in experience. But he said each business has to find the formula that works for it under the circumstances.
“There’s no right answer,” Gallaher said. “There’s no room for judgment at this point. What’s right for us might not be right for everybody else.”
He said his restaurants are financially positioned to continue to pay staff during the short term. But if the closures extend beyond weeks to months, that will become difficult to sustain.
At Hard Knox, Sponcia said that concerns for her staff were a primary motivator to keep the stores open as long as possible.
“A lot of our employees, they need to make money,” she said. “And we need to keep serving our customers.”
If there are further restrictions, she said, the restaurants could move to take-out or delivery only. She’s encouraging customers who want to help support the business to order extra pizzas, which can be frozen and reheated whenever they want.
One thing everyone interviewed for this story agreed on is the strength of community support. Several mentioned a GoFundMe account started to create a Knoxville Service Industry Relief Fund, intended to help local bar and restaurant workers seeing reduced or vanished paychecks in the coming weeks. As of yesterday, it had raised a little over $5,000.
The East Knoxville-based Riot Printing Co. last night debuted a new T-shirt that says, “I support my Knoxville service industry.” Proceeds from sales will go to the relief fund.
“We do have a strong sense of community, both in Knoxville as a whole and within the service industry,” Saldivar said.
Gallaher said, “The current situation is just shining a light on something that’s always been there, and that’s the support within the industry for each other, and the community really rallying around.”
He added that he hoped people who are having to cancel parties, celebrations or date nights in the near term will reschedule them when the time is right.
“People are delaying birthday parties and anniversaries and all those things people are having to put on hold,” Gallaher said. “So hopefully the pendulum will swing back pretty quickly.”