Restaurants and bars like Local Joe’s in downtown Sanford are relying solely on take-out, delivery and to-go orders during this period of social distancing. Joe’s employees have seen their income drop dramatically since Gov. Cooper’s executive order in March.

Eighty to 90 percent. That’s the amount of business essentially all of the restaurant owners and staffers The Rant spoke to for this told us they’ve lost since Gov. Roy Cooper ordered dine in service suspended while the state and nation deals with the coronavirus pandemic.

The silver lining is that many of these restaurants are still able to offer take out and delivery while much of the rest of the state is locked down. But it’s not enough, and virtually all restaurateurs in the area told The Rant that they don’t know how long this can go on.

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“We’re literally 90 percent down,” said Brian Moser, head chef at Cooper’s Restaurant and Wine Room, which opened on Steele Street in downtown Sanford in 2019. “We’re struggling.”

Moser and the rest of the staff at Cooper’s have had to think outside the box for ways to fight back. In addition to offering family style takeout meals that aren’t typically on the restaurant’s regular fine dining menu, Moser said he’s started ordering individually packaged items like ground beef, chicken, pork, and even toilet paper that he can sell to customers who might have trouble finding those things at the grocery store.

“It came out of a brainstorming session,” Moser said. “What could we do to keep up?”
Orders for prepackaged items need to be placed in advance. Cooper’s can be reached at (919) 292-1505 or at http://www.facebook.com/cooperswineroom.

Dean Papageorgiou owns Bay Breeze Seafood on North Horner Boulevard and said he’s seen similar numbers to Cooper’s, although he noted that the final week of March had been “a little better.”

Still, he’s had to change his hours, opening only at night during the week, and he’s gone so far as to not take a salary so he can continue paying his staff.

Asked if he wonders how long he can sustain business under those conditions, he said he didn’t know.

“It’s new to us. This has never happened before,” he said. “And we’re not really hearing anything from the government. It’s just what I see on the news. We don’t know whether it’s like what Trump said, where things will be back by Easter, or if it’s going to go on for months.”

Jeff Towson, who owns downtown’s Smoke and Barrel, said his numbers are in line with what others are reporting.

“We’ve had days where we’re doing $200 — that ain’t gonna cut it,” Towson said. “I said to myself at the beginning of this that if I could do 40 percent of what I’d been doing, it could be worth it. But I don’t want to end up in a position where I order $1,000 worth of food that’s just going to sit in the fridge for a month.”

Towson, like others, has gotten creative, offering family style and bulk takeout, as well as growler fills of the craft beers he keeps on tap, which hadn’t been part of his business before. But for now, he’s taking things day to day and seeing what happens.

“I don’t think I’ve noticed a pattern yet,” he said. “One day we’ll do $200, and the next day it might be $500.”

Not everyone’s been able to weather the storm. On the first day of Cooper’s order, La Dolce Vita Pizzeria announced via Facebook that “it is painfully clear we cannot sustain on takeout only” and that they would be closing until further notice. Golden Corral followed not long after that, laying off 45 employees and shutting down. The latest announcement as of this writing came from Davison’s Steaks, which said via Facebook on March 25 that closing “is the best thing to do to keep our staff and our family safe.”

Those closings are part of the reason Katherine Klish feels lucky, even as she’s watched her income drop dramatically. Klish is a server at Local Joe’s on Steele Street who makes just $2.13 an hour and has to rely on tips for the rest of her income.

“We’ve definitely had cut hours,” she said. “I’ve never been here when we’ve closed at 9, and that’s the way it’s been since all this started.”

Klish, who has a child to support along with bills just like everyone else, said she’s beyond grateful for regular customers who have stepped up to help out, maybe making a small order and then adding a $200 gift card, or ordering nothing at all and bringing her and other servers a $20 bill or even $100. But she said that given her line of work, she doesn’t know whether to be more scared of catching Coronavirus or going broke.

“I haven’t talked to a lot of (other servers), but the great thing about social media is you can kind of see how things are affecting people, and right now everybody’s scared,” she said. “And I love my job. I’ve always loved coming to work, and — everybody’s calling it social distancing, but I call it social disruption — I just really miss the sound of a full bar.”

— Gordon Anderson