Set to Simmer
After a difficult and stressful year, local restaurants and bars are hopeful about the coming months.
by jesse fox mayshark • March 17, 2021
Whitney scott, a manager at bernadette's crystal gardens, torches an orange garnish for a cocktail on Tuesday night. (Photo by Compass)
As unpredictable and uncharted as much of the past year has been for Knoxville restaurants, there were things about it that felt familiar to Martha Boggs.
The industry will be watching the actions of the Board of Health tonight.“I started out when downtown was really down,” said Boggs, who became manager of the Bistro at the Bijou on Gay Street in 1993. “So I just dropped back down to first gear like I was in 1995.”
Boggs, who has owned the Bistro since 2009, was in better shape than many of her fellow restaurateurs when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived last March. Having navigated numerous downturns and shakeups over the past three decades, she was prepared to adapt as needed.
Still, it has been a trying time. Restaurants in Knoxville closed last April during Gov. Bill Lee’s “Safer at Home” order, and then reopened at restricted capacities and hours, retooling their entire operations to accommodate mandated distancing, face masks, hand-sanitizing stations, meals to go and curbside pick-up.
“I have more sense than to try to argue with microorganisms,” Boggs said. “By following rules, I have only had two employees who caught COVID, and they got it from family. Thankfully they wore their masks to work and got tested quickly, so none of the rest of us got sick.”
As the Knox County Board of Health meets tonight to review its public health orders in the face of declining active cases and hospitalizations across the county, a sampling of restaurant and bar owners showed a range of opinions about how it should proceed from here. But all agreed on a few things: They are fatigued by the stresses of the pandemic, but they are hopeful for the future.
“I would say that we saw a good turn probably in the middle of February,” said Holly Hambright, owner of Holly’s Gourmet Market & Cafe in Bearden, “and it’s been encouraging ever since.”
For Matt Gallaher, the pandemic effects have varied depending on which of his businesses you’re talking about. Paysan, the small bread and bagel bakery he owns near Old Gray Cemetery, successfully switched to an online-ordering-only model and offered window pick-up service.
“The retail part of Paysan has actually picked up,” Gallaher said. “The wholesale part has dropped off, but that’s not a big driver.”
The bakery’s biggest impact has been from lost business at the displaced Market Square Farmers’ Market. Gallaher said the market’s temporary relocation to Mary Costa Plaza next to the Civic Coliseum, combined with its necessary distancing precautions, has not drawn anywhere near the crowds that typically throng the stalls.
Emilia, his Italian restaurant on Market Square, struggled as a takeout-only operation for four months before reopening to limited in-house dining. “It was not sustainable by any stretch,” he said.
Funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program helped keep the business afloat, and expanded unemployment benefits took care of his staff until he could bring them back in. In recent months, Emilia is doing more than 50 percent of its pre-COVID revenue despite operating at the 50 percent capacity mandated by the Board of Health.
In terms of staff, Gallaher said, “Emilia is pretty close to where we were. In a restaurant, somebody’s got to work the grill. You can’t be like, ‘We’re working at half capacity, we’re going to cut half the kitchen out.'”
His trickiest property has been Knox Mason in the Embassy Suites downtown. The restaurant had just relocated from its original home on Gay Street’s 100 Block in the fall of 2019 and was still adjusting to an unfamiliar business model as a hotel restaurant.
By the time he felt safe reopening last summer, he had a new manager and several new staff members, essentially opening the new space a second time. Through the winter, Knox Mason has cut its days of operation to Thursday through Sunday.
None of Gallaher’s locations have substantial outdoor seating. Neither did Boggs, until the adjacent Bijou Theatre agreed to let her place tables in its covered entryway. The historic setting has proven popular with diners.
“They don’t mind, they’ve been great through all of this,” Boggs said of the theater. “I think I might have the prettiest patio in town.”
Hambright’s Gourmet Market already had a large outdoor seating area, and she converted five spaces in her parking lot to provide more al fresco seating. And because the restaurant occupies a former retail space, it has always had a lot of floor space indoors, which can accommodate a lot of people even at 50 percent capacity.
“The other thing we’ve had to do is figure out where we can make money selling food,” Hambright said, including by offering “family meals to go.”
Still, she said nothing in the past year has been as bad as last April, when she had to cut her staff to two people — herself and her director of operations — providing curbside pick-up service all month. “It felt like we went to war,” Hambright said.
She said her patrons have for the most part been deeply appreciative of the restaurant’s efforts both to provide service and abide by safety guidelines.
“The confidence level is important to me,” she said. “I think we got a lot of support from the community because we were doing the right thing.”
Planning a Launch
Starting a new business in the midst of the pandemic isn’t something a cautious person would try, but no one has ever accused Scott and Bernadette West of undue restraint. The colorful couple, Market Square mainstays who own the Preservation Pub, Scruffy City Hall, the Lost Tavern and Tommy Trent’s Sports Saloon, have spent much of the past year preparing their latest venture: Bernadette’s Crystal Gardens, which opened March 1.
“We always make lemonade from lemons, as you are well aware,” Scott West said in an email. “Bernadette simply shifted into working 15 hours a day instead of eight hours a day, since there were no employees or customers to get in the way of her creating her four-level namesake lounge.”
The new space, parts of which are still under construction and not yet open to the public, occupies the entirety of the building at 26 Market Square, adjacent to the Preservation Pub (the two share a now expanded rooftop seating area).
The Wests kept their businesses shuttered for much of 2020, with help from PPP funds and unemployment benefits for their staff members.
“We lost 100 percent of our previous year’s sales for almost seven months, due to the fact that we closed completely,” West said. “We did no takeout and did not even participate in food deliveries.”
Overall, he said, 2020 revenues were down 86 percent from 2019. Now reopened at 50 percent capacity, the businesses are still straining to catch up. West, like many other bar and restaurant owners around town, thinks the hospitality industry has been unfairly singled out by public health orders.
“We would understand complete lockdown/stay-at-home orders where every non-essential business was shut down and people could not interact,” he said, “but these half-measures through which we have suffered have essentially picked winners and losers.”
One bright spot has been the city’s temporary conversion of public space on the square for outdoor dining and drinking. West is lobbying the city to permanently allow open consumption of alcohol on the square.
Looking for Help
As the Board of Health gathers this evening, the business owners offered mixed thoughts about its next steps.
Hambright said she thinks restaurants have shown they can operate safely and should be allowed to increase to 75 percent capacity.
“The Health Department counts on us to prevent food-borne illnesses 24/7,” she said. “We’re good at taking precautions and preventive measures.”
She said the demand is there. “A lot of our older regulars are coming back inside,” she said. “It’s because they’re vaccinated and feel safer.”
Gallaher is more cautious, saying he’s not sure it’s time to loosen restrictions just yet. But he said he has also been frustrated by the seeming arbitrariness of some of the rules.
“There’s no evidence that restaurants are the source” of COVID transmission, he said. “I don’t know what the difference between closing at 10 and closing at 11 and closing at 12 is.”
He added, “I will be happy with whatever they decide, as long as they have metrics to support it. I know nobody has the right answer 100 percent.”
Hambright said one area she would especially like to see opened up is public events. Most rental venues in town have been closed throughout the pandemic, limiting business for restaurants like hers that do a lot of catering. In normal times, she said, catering makes up about 40 percent of her business. Most of that dried up last year, although it has started to pick up again lately.
Terry Turner, owner of All Occasions Party Rentals, said he plans to address the Board of Health tonight to advocate for event spaces to be able to operate at the same capacity restrictions as restaurants.
“We think we can open safely and do social events,” Turner said. “Open up the venues at 50 percent capacity, and do social distancing.”
He estimated that between 750 and 1,000 jobs have been lost in the local events industry because of the closures.
One restriction none of the owners suggested lifting for the moment is the countywide mask mandate, even though it is also the one that has caused the most conflict with customers. Patrons are expected to wear masks inside restaurants and bars except when they are seated and eating or drinking.
“The mask thing is just exhausting and it is relentless,” Gallaher said. “I’ve been physically threatened multiple times. I’ve been called every unsavory homophobic thing you can think of, I’ve had things thrown at me.”
Hambright said her customers are mostly respectful of the mask rules, but she did have to ban one abusive patron.
“The other issue we’ve had is people coming from surrounding counties that don’t have mask mandates,” she said. “That’s been a challenge.”
West said he would like to see the midnight curfew lifted to allow later service at bars. But, he said, he will live with whatever he has to — as he and the other business owners have for the past year.
“We are survivors first and foremost,” he said, “so we will play whatever hand we are dealt as always, and we thrive when we are able.”