As the ripple effects of the pandemic spread throughout the economy, keeping contact with farmers, suppliers, and friends in the community.
By Blake Hartley as told to Chris Mohney
After training under iconic southern chefs Chris Hastings and Frank Stitt in Birmingham, Blake Hartley moved east to become sous chef at South Main Kitchen, one of the early outposts of inventive southern cuisine in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta. As the local restaurant scene took off, South Main’s owners appointed Hartley executive chef of the new Lapeer Seafood Market in 2019.
When I came into town three years ago, I started at South Main Kitchen as a sous chef and worked through the seasons there. I did that for a little under two years, and then we opened Lapeer Seafood Market in March of last year—actually this week a year ago, which is crazy. Lapeer focuses hyper-seasonally on sourcing not only just seafood, but vegetables, everything. We work directly with a lot of local purveyors to help sustain the operation.
We are there to operate a business and set a table for our guests to have this fabulous experience, but it goes beyond that to make the operation sustainable. It’s the staff, it’s the relationships with your farms, it’s all the artisans. With Lapeer ending our annual cycle of seasons, even before the coronavirus closures, we’d already been contacting a lot of our farms that we work with about what to do for the next season. Initially, there was just a lot of uncertainty.
We’ve had conversations with our farmers, with our fishmongers, and with our purveyors on the coast, like oyster farms and hatcheries. Some are so small that if they closed down, we’d no longer have that supply chain of oysters. We try to source the best oysters we can—two from the eastern seaboard north of us, and then, with me being from Alabama, we get oysters from Bon Secour or Mobile, Alabama, or Pensacola, Florida. I like to celebrate oysters from that area, and let guests know they’re great to have all year round.
When we caught wind we were actually closing down, it was on a Tuesday night two weeks ago. Everything is day by day. It’s all revolving around Congress and politics, and when they make a statement, people freak out. There was a press conference held, I want to say Monday two weeks ago, when Trump said you don’t need to be in the same vicinity with more than 10 or so people. In that week alone, we had three drops in private parties we had scheduled. These were corporate events. One of them was for a hotel chain.
On the Tuesday we made the call to close down, we were left thinking, okay, wow. Here we are making this call. It could be different next week. It could be the same in a month. We were very uncertain, but we knew we had a walk-in cooler full of food. What’s the legitimate thing to do here? We opened up our walk-in to our entire staff. We knew that we were going to be letting some people go. There were cuts being made left and right leading up to this. I had to lay off four people over the weekend. And that’s just not in my heart to do. It was for the betterment of the business at the time, but these are people that come in and work for you.
We opened up our walk-in, and that was an emotional experience because it just puts it in perspective. Families that work for us are coming in with their kids. For us as a business to be able to do that, it’s such a small thing, but it’s a beautiful thing in a sense, because if other businesses were to practice this model in a time like this … Two blocks from your supermarket that’s out of eggs, there could be an entire case of eggs in someone’s restaurant walk-in cooler that could be going to waste.
We probably had a few hundred pounds of food. The majority of that was given out, anything perishable or prepared. We had a few things left over that we donated to another restaurant friend of ours down the road who is doing the take-out model. They were getting ready to feed a school that was closed but still had children that needed to eat.
Our suppliers and purveyors are all in good spirits. We’ve been working with these people for season after season, and they know what we’re all going through. They’ve been pretty upfront and honest. Luckily, some farms that we’re working with are in a transitional season of operation with their crop fields, and some of their harvest isn’t till the coming months. In our area there’s been a lot of pushback on the opening dates for farmers markets, where they were supposed to open in the coming weeks. That’s all been on hold as well.
For our own restaurant, we are definitely trying to get a to-go model off the ground. It’s going to be a very streamlined menu. We’re trying to focus on family meals, where we can do a larger package for a family of two or a family of four, and try to have it ready curbside where they’ve just got to make an online transaction. And we’ve got a designated spot, so there’s no contact. It’s thinking about the wellness of others in this time. We are that industry that people come in and they spend money with us to sit down in our establishment for a great time. It should be a time where they’re not having to worry about anything. But right now, all that’s flip-flopped, and it’s affected us tremendously.
My hope and desire are for things to be normal again for this industry, for us, for chefs, for restaurateurs, so that people can come in and have that experience, and for us do what we love doing, which at the end of the day is curating, sourcing, and making delicious food.