An Open Letter to North Carolina Residents, Support Independent Restaurants

The following was published via NC News Network today. This is a repost and is fully-owned by NCNN. A great piece written by our very own Claire Calvin from The Porch, Alma Mexicana and Canteen Market and Bistro:


Claire Calvin (©NCNN)

I am a small business owner and resident of an incredibly resilient city; I own three restaurants in Winston-Salem – The Porch, Alma Mexicana and Canteen Market & Bistro.

Independent restaurants are the economic engine for so many other local businesses – family farms, vendors, suppliers, and service companies. Chipotle is not hiring your neighbor’s graphic design firm for a new logo or a local attorney for legal advice. 

We support the state and local tax base, donate to local charities and schools, and invest our time and money into improving the community.  Collectively, we employ our neighbors who in turn pay rent, buy cars, shop, go out to eat and otherwise participate in our local economy. 

And, of course, we feed people in ways both physical and emotional. These past few weeks, while our dining room and two of our three restaurants have been closed, our kitchen at The Porch has continued to make and sell food for take-out and delivery, and that has felt so amazing to be able to provide a service to the community in these dark days.

Every person and every industry will have much work to do in the next year to rebuild and restore some sense of normalcy, and the challenges to each are unique and complex. Some industries will be more disrupted than others, but all will face new and difficult problems.

For independent restaurants, the challenges are many and survival depends, in large part, on how federal agencies, state and city governments proceed. Like airlines, hotels and entertainment venues, independent restaurants – particularly ones primarily sustained by dine-in sales – are still in free fall. Simply re-opening is not a solution that will address the needs of most restaurants, so if we care about saving them at all, we need action that specifically targets the issues they face.

As states begin to move away from total lockdowns, there will be many bumps in the road, and no one knows exactly what will happen. We’re all in uncharted territory, and we must observe and learn from others.

In the past weeks, I have been working long days in the restaurant trying to keep our business afloat doing take-out and delivery, and before and after work reading as much as I can to learn best practices on re-opening safely from around the world, talking to restaurant owners and industry leaders around the country who are trying to re-imagine their businesses, and creating one scenario after another for our own restaurants. I am exhausted, mentally and physically, and I know that the next 12 months will require even more of all of us.

I am willing to do the hard work ahead, and I expect the same from our government leaders. “Allowing” restaurants to reopen without financial help, stringent regulations and public (government) support is unconscionable and it will bankrupt small businesses.

Many years ago, I was asked to write about my “why” for getting into the restaurant business, and I remember that I wrote the line “This was never about food.” It is about building community, and food is the tool we use to do it.  The work we do is about building up and serving the collective community and the people in it. We use food to gather you to our spaces, but then we get to watch magic happen when you all are there with us in that noisy, chaotic and living space.

Please join with us in the hard work it will take to bring back that magic. I really do believe we can get there and beyond, but we need you all to make it happen.

Claire Calvin is a founding member of Triad Food & Beverage Coalition and owner of The Porch, Alma Mexicana, and Canteen Market & Bistro. Reach her at clairecalvin@gmail.com

Putting In Some Perspective…

©Claire Calvin

From Claire Calvin (owner of The Porch, Alma Mexicana and co-owner of Canteen Market and Bistro) and her truly infinite wisdom:

A few more thoughts before I try to meet this new day.
Since the government closed down bars and in-restaurant service today in North Carolina, you may have seen many of your favorite restaurants post on social media that they would move to take-out/curb-side and/or delivery service, and you may have thought, “great! I’ll have so many options whenever I get sick of cooking all of this massive amount of food I just bought!” Maybe you also thought, “great! They’re going to be able to save jobs and stay in business.”
The reality is this:

• many restaurants will only have a few days to determine whether this model is viable, and if they don’t have a high volume of that business right away, they will close that service and shut down completely. If you wait until you’ve cooked through all of your homesteading recipes you’ve got planned, those options will be gone.

• Delivery and take-out, even in a best-case scenario, likely would only require between 50-20% of the back of house staff, and without drink sales and dining room service will not generate the tip income to keep almost any servers. So that’s a ton of employees people are still having to face letting go.

• Transitioning to a completely new service model is not as simple as just shoving the same food into boxes and taking it to your house. Among other things that make it hard are putting in place the technology to get a menu online, figuring out what hours, how far away can you deliver, what menu items, and what containers you’ll put everything in, and on and on and on. Trying to resolve those questions and implement new systems in a 12-24 hour window against the backdrop of laying off at least half of your workforce is challenging, to say the least.

So if your favorite restaurant is trying to throw this Hail Mary, here’s what you can do:

• Order right away for a week or so – you could take a meal to a friend who is struggling with homeschooling three kids while trying to “work from home” (😫😫😫) or an elderly person you know who is nervous to leave his or her home

•. Be patient when your order is messed up/cold/late/difficult to pay for because your favorite restaurant is hopefully not a big chain and not freaking amazon. They may literally be doing it for the first time.

• If you have a skill set that might help (ability to build web pages, graphic design ability to make signs and posters to help them advertise, social media savvy, or knowledge about setting up online credit card payments) and time to help, offer those skills.

• Be patient.
• Be patient.
• Be patient.

• Understand that it may not work anyway, and be supportive either way. Also, understand that there is grief going on behind the scenes either way.

For our businesses, we have one restaurant (The Porch) where a lot of this was already well-incorporated into our system and process, and we will hopefully be able to continue providing that service throughout this time. At Alma, we have made the decision to close completely after two nights of offering take-out only. At Canteen it was simply not feasible to even try because of the overhead of running even a bare-bones operation there because, without drink and product sales, nothing works. It is incredibly, unfathomably hard to watch something you just poured everything into essentially burn down in less than a week, and even harder not to be able to help the creative, hard-working, funny, talented people who helped build it with you.

Thank God we have the window of opportunity that we do at The Porch and Dinners on the Porch, but many independent restaurants do not. So support this last-ditch effort and maybe some independent restaurants will make it to the other side.

(And as a note, I am writing about restaurants because I run restaurants, but I know people in every different situation are suffering the same, so there is no hierarchy of hardship where I’m suggesting you owe anything to restaurants in particular. much of this applies to so many other small businesses and organizations – retail, schools, small non-profits, artists, etc. This horror is facing all of us even if we don’t get sick, so being patient and sticking together is all I can think of to help us weather this season of grief we’re all living through.)
Love to all & thank you again for all of your tremendous support thus far. Onward!

The Man Who Ate the Town Podcast Episode 56

In Episode #56, proudly recorded at Test Pattern Studios:

  • Fainting Goat Spirits and Greensboro Distilling win prestigious awards.
  • Eric Swaim and Claire Calvin to open a new gourmet market in old Community Arts Cafe location.
  • It’s Thanksgiving, ya’ll!
  • Food Holidays and History.

Don’t forget my sponsors:

Washington Perk & Provision Company. Better than a convenience store but not quite a grocery store, in the heart of Washington Park and Downtown WSNC.

The Humble Bee Shoppe is challenging your perception of scratch made and leaving you with an experience you couldn’t possibly forget! With inventive flavor combos and a sense of artistry, The Humble Bee Shoppe isn’t your average bakery.

The Man Who Ate the Town is part of The Less Desirables Network. Give it a listen on iTunes, Stitcher, Podcast Addict and TuneIn, basically anywhere you can listen to podcasts. Or you can listen here (at the bottom of the post).

Bon Appetit!