Saint Stephen’s restaurant in Germantown celebrated its first anniversary last March. In a normal year, the chief RJ Cooper may have commemorated the opportunity with a special menu, live entertainment or at least a festive Facebook publication.

On March 8, 2020, however, Cooper was more concerned with navigating his fifth day without power than celebrating his 366th day in business, after a tornado tore through the city on March 3. The restaurant was only able to reopen days before the Metro Nashville Public Health Department ordered all restaurants to temporarily cease dine-in services to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s heartbreaking to watch,” Cooper said. “I got into this business 33 years ago. We went through 9/11. We went through the real estate crash of 2008. There’s nothing like it.”

Business owners generally expect their second year in business to be their first profitable year, but for restaurants that “celebrated” an anniversary in 2020, it’s been more of a nightmare than a godsend. As Nashville’s restaurant scene has helped Music City become one of America’s most popular destinations for tourists and out-of-town transplants, the city’s restaurateurs have been forced to adapt to a very different economic landscape from the one they entered. in 2019.

“It’s going to take three years for a restaurant to get back to normal,” Cooper said.

Like all restaurants in Nashville, Saint Etienne must operate at 50% capacity and must stop service before 10 p.m. The restaurant was able to generate revenue by launching a new Sunday take-out grocery store, and loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program helped pay enough employees to stay open.

But Cooper said those measures weren’t enough. More than 60,000 leisure and hospitality workers lost their jobs in the Nashville metro from March to April 2020, and as the economy began to recover, the hospitality industry was slow to recover. to sort out.

Cooper plans to rehabilitate all its staff as soon as possible, but for the moment, 35 of the 50 staff members receive unemployment benefits.

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“We don’t need a band-aid. We need a tri,” Cooper said. “We need people in our corner that fights for us at the federal level, at the level of the states and at the local level, saying:” These restaurants need help “.”

Move the business

When Bar Otaku closed in the Gulch in June, the Nashville Post wrote that the 18-month-old bar was “likely the latest restaurant and bar to fall victim to the COVID-19 pandemic.” The truth was less dramatic. While the loss of restaurant sales hurt the restaurant’s bottom line, owner Sarah Gavigan said she planned to sell the Japanese-style izakaya pub even before the pandemic hit to focus on her Otaku Ramen brand.

“Great concept, bad location,” Gavigan said of Bar Otaku. “It was just an internal business decision. COVID accelerated that.”

That’s not to say business was business as usual for Gavigan. Otaku Group. While the brand’s other restaurants have remained open with a focus on delivery and takeout, Gavigan said the loss of restaurant customers has fundamentally changed how its restaurants operate.

“Creating moments for people, creating hospitality for people, that’s our lifeblood. It’s our fuel,” Gavigan said. “To function without it, it takes a lot of adjustments.”

Metro’s public health department has largely left it to individual businesses to enforce COVID-19 guidelines. That means restaurant workers are the ones making sure customers wear masks and social distancing — and the ones taking complaints from customers who refuse to do so.

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“Because of the obviously political nature of this issue, it’s been very difficult for restaurateurs to be able to stand up for what they believe in, one way or another,” Gavigan said. “The hardest thing for me was trying to make the best decisions without being polarizing.”

These decisions have huge implications for employees, most of whom depend on hourly wages and tips.

“Our number one goal is always to support our employees. Our number two goal is to support our customers,” said Gavigan. “We are all facing daily with the notion of, is it safer to close, or is it more important for me to stay open and make sure everyone has a job?”

Engage the community

Steamboysa fast-casual meatball restaurant in Germantown, burned through its stock in a single day when it opened on March 21, 2019. When the tornado knocked out the electricity in their kitchen a year later, they used gas stoves to cook their excess stock for other residents without electricity.

“We did our best to make sure people could be fed that day, even though we couldn’t even open. They remembered,” said Steamboys co-founder Michael Olatunji Junard. . “When we told them we would reopen after we had power, they couldn’t wait.”

Marketing and community outreach have always been part of running a business, but rapidly changing state and local government coronavirus regulations mean restaurant owners have been responsible for more only advertising in 2020. They also need to communicate if they are open or not. and, more importantly, what coronavirus safety protocols customers will need to follow if they want to patronize the business.

“We need to teach our customers how to interact with us now,” Junard said. “(With) social media, you have to put a real effort into it.”

Steamboys customers have been receptive to the new social distancing guidelines, said co-founder Brandon Lin. The flagship Germantown location has remained busy with take-out and dine-in orders, and its founders plan to open additional stores in Nolensville and the upcoming Assembly Food Hall.

“We have a lot to give Nashville, we have a lot of support and we’ll do our best to make it happen,” Lin said. “It might not be this year, it might not be next year, maybe in three or four years. We have a lot of plans.”

Cooper isn’t so sure, especially if the restaurants don’t get direct stimulation.

“I hope the dinosaurs didn’t suffer as much as the independent restaurants did right now before they disappeared,” he said. “It’s a slow burn.”

Cole Villena covers business at The Tennessean, part of the USA Today – Tennessee network. Contact Cole at [email protected] Follow Cole on Twitter at @ColeVillena.