SC Biz News is speaking with small businesses and community leaders about the impact of the new coronavirus on business and industry, and how this is changing how they operate.
Contact Andy Owens, [email protected], with any questions or ideas.
The past month as been “a bit of a shock,” according to David Howard.
Howard, president of The Neighborhood Dining Group, closed all of his restaurants starting on March 17, forcing him to lay off nearly 500 people.
“This is just a situation I don’t think any business person has ever planned for or prepared for,” he said.
The Neighborhood Dining Group has eight restaurants across South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia, including four in Charleston: McCrady’s Restaurant, Husk, Minero and Delaney Oyster House.
Howard said he decided not to offer any to-go food because that’s not what his restaurants are accustomed to. He was also concerned about having people working in close quarters at the restaurants.
“We didn’t feel like we could provide a safe place for the staff while cooking next to one another, serving the public,” Howard said. “I didn’t think there was a safe place and I didn’t think it made economic sense. I felt that the few dollars we potentially could make on to-go wasn’t enough to offset putting people at risk.”
As anxious as he and other restaurateurs are to reopen, Howard said it’s important to proceed cautiously because a restaurant only gets one shot to reopen.
“A restaurant cannot afford to reopen twice. Period,” he said. “It might be able to afford to do it once, but it’s not going to be able to do it twice. … That would be an economic disaster.”
Howard added that not only could it be financially devastating, it would be morally irresponsible to reopen too quickly.
“I wouldn’t know who’s well,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m sick or if I’m well, and we’re going to invite guests to come in and eat in our restaurants, and we’re not able to test or verify if a person’s well, and that’s just not OK.”
Even when restaurants are able to reopen, Howard said he’s anticipating at least a 50% decrease in business, which will require him to reevaluate the business hours, management levels and menu sizes of his properties.
“We have to adjust our business … to provide us with a new version of our restaurant that we were operating in six weeks ago,” he said.
Howard said he plans to be “cautious and deliberate” when reopening because his company will have had no income for several months.
“We’re going to have a huge responsibility in managing our cash flow,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to reopen and then have three to six months of negative cash flow. It’s not going to be possible.”
Howard said reopening his restaurants will likely feel like opening a brand new restaurant because of how different things will be. Facilities and seating may have to be reoriented, and he may have to consider introducing takeout options based on customer preferences or health guidelines.
“We don’t know what the playbook will be for us,” he said.
Despite the anxiety and uncertainty in the restaurant industry, Howard said he’s optimistic that it will bounce back.
“It’s going to take time,” he said. “Just because a hurricane’s over doesn’t mean it’s back to usual the next day. … And this will take time. Even after we reopen, it’s going to take time. So we need to stay patient and hopefully support small independent restaurants.”T