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Katie Button On Saving Her Business During The Coronavirus Shutdown

Cutting costs, worrying about employees, trying to stay focused, and getting loud about aid for small businesses.

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On March 17, 2020, the governor of North Carolina ordered all restaurants and bars in the state closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic. Katie Button is a chef and restaurateur in Asheville. See her previous interview in Zagat Stories, and see also our ongoing coverage of how the industry is coping with the pandemic.

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Obviously this is devastating for the restaurant industry and hospitality. It’s been impossible for many of us to come up with ways that would be viable to maintain our staff, with no income. Even if you go to delivery or takeout, it still might not be enough. So many of us, including myself, have been forced to lay off our entire workforce, and hold on for dear life to whatever capital we have, so that we have the money to reopen.

I recommend that anyone in food, or even just anybody—call your bank, ask them what they are doing in terms of loan deferral for small businesses that are going to be out for who knows how long. Push the banks to get loud for whatever federal aid they need to get businesses what they need. We all have to be in this together.

Customers can help by getting takeout and delivery from businesses that are doing it. Buy gift cards from the ones who are not. What you really need to do is call your senator and email them and ask for the hospitality industry to be part of federal aid, for both the employees and businesses. We need funding. We need capital to be able to reopen. We need mandates for banks to be required to defer loan payments. And we need better unemployment compensation for our workers depending on how long this can go on.

We are emptying out our walk-ins and packaging up that food for our workers to come by and pick up the perishables we won’t be able to save. They’re coming in at 11am, and we have our entire management team here, just a few people to package things. Little brown paper bags for vegetables and proteins. We’ve set up a line so workers can come in one door, grab individually packaged items, circle around, and go out the other door without contacting each other.

I am a one-day-at-a-time kind of person. I’m all right, but what we are in right now is financial triage. Which I recommend every business owner should do. We are calling our banks, and they’re saying, “Oh, your 504 loans will be deferred.” And I’m like, “Yes, but what about our commercial loans?” We really need to fight about how unfair it is, and how important it is, and how we can’t have everything collapse if they’re not going to let us wait out this time.

Every restaurant or small business owner should limit their expenses. Call about every single monthly payment you make, whether it’s the reservation system, or your POS system. Many of them are allowing grace periods for nonpayment. And cancelling things like parking in a deck that we pay for every month. We’re trying to just reduce. We can’t have expenses and no income. Particularly in light of not knowing how long this is going to last. Everything will be faster if we can get the aid that we need. Recovery will be faster.

I’m trying to stay upbeat. At the end of the first day of all this, I was like, I need a glass of wine. You know when you’re drinking and you find yourself enjoying your moment. You’re just trying to forget, and then it’s two or three glasses of wine. Now I’m trying not to do that. Somehow we have to maintain our sanity and be calm, but drink tea instead. I had a cup of tea last night.

I worry for my employees. I feel like they could make it four weeks because of when their next paycheck is coming to them. Maybe they could stretch it a week or two after that, but it’s going to be really hard the longer it goes. And the longer it goes on, the more aid we’re going to need, the more we’ll need for employment compensation and benefits. Here in North Carolina, the governor did a great thing and has really taken away the hindrances for receiving unemployment. But even the maximum payout is really hard for people to live on.

I don’t think people realize how much money restaurants spend in their community because we have small profit margins. Our costs to run our business are all spent in our community. I have three spaces, and I spend $8 million a year in my community. And that’s just me. All of that has come to a screeching halt. Low-margin businesses like ours are a big part of the local economy, in every single town, city, or community there is.