Black-owned restaurants fight to survive COVID-19

Loans may not be enough to overcome steep losses, owners say

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By La Risa Lynch

Contributing Reporter

Neighborhood streets in Austin that once bustled with life are now sparsely populated as residents shelter in place to help curb the spread of COVID-19. And local restaurants are feeling the effects.

Gov. Pritzker first ordered all bars and restaurants to scale back operations after St. Patrick's Day revelers took to the streets ignoring calls for social distancing. That order ceased in-person dining for two weeks, but allowed pickup and delivery. Then a shelter in place order left streets eerily devoid of foot traffic, which added to struggling businesses' attempts to stay afloat amid the outbreak. That order will last until at least April 7.

As of March 30, there have been 4,596 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Illinois and 65 deaths, according to state public health data.

As the crisis persists, small Black and family-owned businesses – already operating on thin margins – will be in a fight to survive. Some business owners are trying to adapt to a new way of doing business.

Charmaine Rickette, the owner of Uncle Remus Saucy Fried Chicken, has seen a 40 percent dip in the business her parents started more than 60 years ago. To lessen the blow, Rickette cut store and staff hours across her three stores located in suburban Broadview, Grand Boulevard and on Madison and Central. Store hours were reduced between 27 and 30 hours a week. Now, she opens later and closes earlier, but her biggest dip in business came Sunday. Many restaurants like hers rely on the church crowd.

"Sunday was pretty bad overall, because all of us are driven by church traffic. There was no church Sunday," said Rickette, who closed two stores early because of it.

But her biggest concern is ensuring her staff stays safe and employed. Determined not to lay off any of her 35 employees, Rickette went without her paycheck to ensure staff got paid. She even ordered extra supplies of milk and eggs to share with employees.

"I could probably maneuver with my suppliers much better than [my employees] can maneuver with their landlords," Rickette said. "That's a sacrifice I have to do as a business owner to make sure that the business and the employees survive this."

Sit-down or cafeteria style restaurants like MacArthur's are really catching it, said Malcolm Crawford, executive director of the Austin African-American Business Networking Association. He noted it takes a lot of money and man hours to produce the food.

"Soul food is a production," Crawford said. "It is not like Dunkin Donuts where it is just coffee and donuts massed produced. You got to have somebody doing greens. Somebody doing chicken. It is a production just to get it out the door."

And they need volume, he added. Restaurants need a certain amount of customer turnover that can't happen with a shelter in place or social distancing order, Crawford said. But a major hurdle for a lot of small mom and pop shops is the failure to innovate, he added. Many small businesses do not have an online presence and need foot traffic to sustain their business, he said. And some have been slow to embrace delivery service or won't delivery in certain areas, Crawford noted.

"It's rough on a lot of businesses right now, especially African-American businesses," he said.

Turkey Chop owner Quentin Love has also seen a drop in customers.

"So far we are looking at 25 percent," Love said, of his shop located at 3506 W. Chicago Ave. "In the restaurant business, your profitability is 20 percent. If my business drops down 25 percent, that means I'm operating at zero profit. I'm only operating to keep the doors open to pay the bills."

At this rate, Love doesn't know if the restaurant will stay open if the governor's order goes beyond April. Love also had to temporarily close another business, Bikettle, an indoor cycling bootcamp on North Avenue, since it is not an essential business. He has a second location on the South Side he opened with a business partner in 2018. For now, he's working without a paycheck.

"If we are not able to open that up by a certain time, I would lose that business too," Love said. "That is my current reality at this time."

Despite his circumstances, Love still manages to give back to the community. Every Monday, he prepares and serves free meals to the community. In these times, everyone, especially businesses should do a little extra to help, Love said.

"Everything is not about profits," he said.

To help businesses, Mayor Lightfoot announced the Small Business Resiliency Fund. The $100 million fund will provide eligible businesses with low-interest loans and applications will accept beginning March 31. Gov. Pritzker also announced $90 million in state emergency assistance for small businesses.

Business owner Erwin McKennie said he's unsure if he will take advantage of the assistance. Even a low-interest loan "just adds on to the bills that you are paying," said McKennie who along with his business partner Tina Cook opened Creed on Lake, 2806 W Lake St, in September.

"It's just a temporary fix," he said.

When McKennie and Cook opened, business was brisk and they were looking to expand to another location. Those plans are on hold now as business has dropped about 50 percent. The majority of their business is carry-out, but he said people are "afraid to come out, so it is affecting us pretty bad." And while they have delivery service with Grubhub and UberEats, orders have not increased, he said.

To get hit like this after being in business for six months has been trying, said McKennie, who has dipped into his personal finances to keep the business afloat.

"It is frustrating when you spend your money, get yourself up to par, buy equipment, pay employees and then six months in, you have to shut down," he said.

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