Asheville independent restaurants struggle to stay in business

DRESSED FOR BATTLE: Hector and Aimee Diaz, owners of Modesto, Bomba and Salsa's, expedite takeout from Modesto while also navigating complicated applications for federal assistance. Photo by Thomas Calder

“I’m living the dream,” says Michel Baudouin with a wry laugh. These days, asking a restaurant owner how he or she is doing is a rhetorical question, so the Bouchon and RendezVous chef and owner clarifies: “You have to keep a sense of humor and positive attitude or you’ll jump off a bridge.” Instead of taking that leap, Baudouin has focused on keeping the RendezVous kitchen running, offering pickup and delivery five days a week.

Aimee and Hector Diaz own Salsa’s, Modesto and Bomba restaurants in downtown Asheville. Before the March 17 shutdown, Aimee spent most of her time running the business side, while chef Hector oversaw the kitchens. But since furloughing nearly 50 employees, both have been at Modesto, cooking and expediting takeout while Aimee also navigates negotiations with landlords and vendors and wades through Paycheck Protection Program loan applications, banking relationships and government red tape.

“I’ve never worked harder in my life,” says the mother of four boys. “It’s a full-time job working with agencies and trying to understand and work within the legalities and conditions of these programs.”

In the nearly six weeks since in-house dining was banned in North Carolina and across the nation, the restaurant industry has not only suffered historic financial losses and record unemployment, but owners have also had to school themselves on the terms and conditions of government aid as they try to salvage their businesses.

‘Panic mode’

“It’s been pretty much panic mode since we had to close,” says Stephanie Barcelona, who opened Bonfire Barbecue in West Asheville with her husband, Jeff Barcelona, five years ago. “‘Save the business!’ is all we’ve thought about every day.” The Barcelonas’ passionate letter describing their plight was published by Mountain Xpress on April 14 and generated tens of thousands of views and an immediate surge in the takeout service they’re maintaining.

Joe Scully and Kevin Westmoreland, co-owners of Corner Kitchen in Biltmore Village and Chestnut on Biltmore Avenue downtown, were among many local restaurateurs who made the decision to shut down all operations. On March 16, they furloughed all but one employee, their bookkeeper.

“We looked at takeout, but we’re not really known as takeout places, so we decided to focus on other things,” says Westmoreland. “We have somewhere around $75,000 a month in fixed costs, which doesn’t include salaries.” He notes that he and Scully spent most of their time during the first couple of weeks of the shutdown calling vendors to make arrangements.

“Nearly all of our employees have made it through the system to get unemployment,” he adds. “And we applied for the PPP, but as it is written now, it is too narrowly focused and ties our hands. Every single restaurant owner I’ve talked to feels the same concerns.”

That includes not just restaurants in Asheville but those across the nation. The Independent Restaurant Coalition, formed by chefs and independent restaurant owners in an urgent response to the crisis, began lobbying Congress in mid-March to get help for the nation’s 500,000 independent restaurants and their 11 million employees.

Initially seen as a lifesaver, the PPP — a 100% guaranteed loan via the Small Business Administration — has instead become a lead weight around the necks of many independent restaurants due to terms that are onerous to this particular industry.

The amount of the loan is determined by prior average monthly payroll costs times 2.5, intended to cover eight weeks of payroll. Seventy-five percent of the total amount must be used to fund payroll costs and just 25% can be used for overhead, including rent, mortgage and utilities.

‘A giant mess’

The deal-breaker, says the IRC and Asheville restaurant owners, is the time frame. The clock on the loan starts the day the money is received and requires recipients to hire staff at nearly preshutdown levels — even if the business is not open — and expires in eight weeks. The amount of the loan that can be forgiven depends on the degree to which businesses fully employ their staff in that period; any part not forgiven must be repaid within two years. Full loan forgiveness is only available if 75% of the loan is spent on payroll costs and 25% is spent on other qualifying expenses like rent and utilities.

“We applied for PPP, but if you have to rehire everyone the day you receive the money, then what?” asks Baudouin. “If we are closed, we are paying people not to work. Then at the end of eight weeks, if we are still not open, we have to furlough everyone again, and they all file for unemployment again. The government is telling us they want us to be the unemployment office.”

“Simplistically, the clock should start when restaurants can reopen and allow a longer period of time to spend that money,” says Westmoreland. “When restaurants do reopen, no one is going to be at full staff for some time.”

The IRC is asking for two urgent changes to the PPP: that the origination date of the loan be pegged to the first day restaurants can legally open and that the time frame of the loan be changed from two months to three.

Aimee Diaz and others also say the 75-25 ratio should be changed to take into account ongoing fixed costs and what restaurants will have to spend in order to restock inventory before reopening. “I am counting on people responsible for the PPP as it applies to our industry to do some very simple math, extrapolate the data and come to a sensible resolution,” she says.

Unfortunately, as of April 16, the cupboards were bare, with all of the $349 billion in funds allocated and applications closed. On that same day, the James Beard Foundation and the IRC released the grim results of a survey of over 1,400 restaurant owners: Nearly 80% said the PPP as written will not allow restaurants to survive until normal operations resume, and that only 1-in-5 may reopen. Baudouin guesses 30%-50% of Asheville restaurants — or even more — may not come back.

“It’s a giant mess,” says Jane Anderson, executive director of the Asheville Independent Restaurants Association. “I’m aware of only a couple of our members who have been approved for PPP, but it’s not helpful as it stands now.”

“The only thing keeping any of us from making it until next year is money,” says Westmoreland. “All we need is to be able to pay our fixed costs, have some money to reopen, buy food and get along for a few months. We’ve got great restaurants here and great owners who work together, but the hard fact is, without some tweaking to this program and more funds, it could all go away.”

On April 24, President Donald Trump signed legislation providing $320 billion to revive the depleted loan program.

To support action to help, go to

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 2:28 p.m. on April 30 to clarify the provisions of the PPP loan program.


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About Kay West
Kay West was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, StyleBlueprint Nashville, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. To kick off 2019 she put Tennessee in her rear view mirror, drove into the mountains of WNC, settled in West Asheville and appreciates that writing offers the opportunity to explore and learn her new home. She looks forward to hiking trails, biking greenways, canoeing rivers, sampling local beer and cheering the Asheville Tourists.

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6 thoughts on “Asheville independent restaurants struggle to stay in business

  1. C-Law

    We are getting into the realm of truly dangerous policy intersections with insanity.

    The data tells the truth; we may have “flattened the curve” but we did not change outcomes. There were only a very few places that hospitals came even close to being “overloaded”; everywhere else, literally everywhere else, they were in fact empty due to non-essential procedure bans by the states, which in turn is going to kill a large number of people in coming months who didn’t get the CT done that would have disclosed a tumor that was operable — and now isn’t. Many medical and dental practices were effectively forced closed and some will never reopen because they were heavily-levered and they simply can’t survive being shut down for a month or two.

    We could have locked in nursing homes and other similar facilities and by doing so saved half of the lives lost thus far — but because we’re too ****ing politically correct to slay a sacred cow, the warehousing “industry” for older people, we didn’t and in many states like Cuomo’s NY they actually seeded death on purpose into those facilities with their mandates. In a just society that would have already led Cuomo to being cuffed and stuffed on hundreds if not thousands of counts of manslaughter — but we don’t live in a just society so he is instead being lauded as a potential vice-president!

    In a just society the bar would be open in your town, along with the restaurant. We’d have a US manufacturing system and would have flooded the market with $10 Pulse-Ox clip-ons for anyone who wanted one and rented out $200 smartphone-reading single-lead EKGs (yes, they make them) which, in concert with your doc would allow you to take HCQ + Doxycycline + Zinc at home at the first sign of Covid without material cardiac risk. Most of the people who have died thus far from this disease would not have, there would have been zero overload anywhere and this would be a bad flu, but nothing more than that.

    Instead we deliberately delivered ill people back into nursing facilities and seeded Covid among them, killing tens of thousands. We’re still doing it by refusing to lock in those facilities. Rather than stand up field hospitals on a sanitarium model for Covid patients and leaving the rest of the economy alone, so Joe’s cancer is caught and he doesn’t die, we’ve ****ed him into a coffin and ****ed a third of all businesses into a coffin too. For a person without the comorbidities we know exist (and everyone with one or more knows they have it too) the risk of being felled by this bug is under 0.1% and that’s if you actually get sick; anywhere from 10 to 85 times as many people who know they are sick get the bug and never know they had it. Any honest clinician wants those silent cases as they eliminate a potential “victim” of the bug and thus shorten the time before the epidemic is over. Instead we lock people in their homes and extend that time.

    These are criminal actions taken by thugs. We had and have today paths available that would both save lives and save the economy and yet nobody on either side of the aisle will take them and nobody in the American public will tell the politicians to stick their murderous crap up their rear and reopen their businesses, refusing to comply with that which is criminally and lethally insane both economically and medically.

    The data continues to pile up; what was a rational hypothesis in February, and in fact the only reasonable explanation for what was being observed turned into a strong data-supported picture of the truth in March and by the end of March it was irrefutable on the data itself with no advanced mathematical or medical training required to understand it. Yet for the last month we have allowed the jackbooted thugs in every state of the nation and a criminal President “advised” by even more thugs to trot out lies, deliberately-truncated charts and issue “orders” that have no basis in fact and, for that reason, are both legally and constitutionally bereft of justification. We have cowered under our desks in fear instead of dealing with the actual facts on the ground as they are, mitigating what we can, saving lives while at the same time not destroying our economy.

    On this last day of April Boobus Americanus has proved, without a shadow of a doubt, that whatever animated men back at Lexington and Concord so long ago to form this nation in the first place — to say “no, and we mean it” at high velocity if necessary, is gone. It has been replaced with a puerile simpering population literally scared of the boogieman, a virus that while novel is hardly unprecedented and in fact among various infectious agents that have arisen through the millennia one that hardly registers on historical scales.

    For this we have surrendered rather than adapted using the simple powers of deduction and grade-school arithmetic, with no 21st or even 20th century technology required.

    We’re fools and unfit to hold what we were given by the founders almost 250 years ago.

    • Big Al

      What exactly are your qualifications that we should listen to you instead of the Physicians and Scientists of the CDC and AMA?

      • C-Law

        A reasonable question Al.

        Read on–

        “The above pathologies are not novel, although the combined severity in COVID-19 disease is considerable. Our long-standing and more recent experiences show consistently successful treatment if traditional therapeutic principles of early and aggressive intervention is achieved, before the onset of advanced organ failure. It is our collective opinion that the historically high levels of morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 is due to a single factor: the widespread and inappropriate reluctance amongst intensivists to employ anti-inflammatory and anticoagulant treatments, including corticosteroid therapy early in the course of a patient’s hospitalization. It is essential to recognize that it is not the virus that is killing the patient, rather it is the patient’s overactive immune system. The flames of the “cytokine fire” are out of control and need to be extinguished. Providing supportive care (with ventilators that themselves stoke the fire) and waiting for the cytokine fire to burn itself out simply does not work… this approach has FAILED and has led to the death of tens of thousands of patients.”

        –And who stuffed this bull**** down everyone’s throats?–

        “The systematic failure of critical care systems to adopt corticosteroid therapy resulted from the published recommendations against corticosteroids use by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the American Thoracic Society (ATS) amongst others. A very recent publication by the Society of Critical Care Medicine and authored one of the members of our group (UM), identified the errors made by these organizations in their analyses of corticosteroid studies based on the findings of the SARS and H1N1 pandemics. Their erroneous recommendation to avoid corticosteroids in the treatment of COVID-19 has led to the development of myriad organ failures which have overwhelmed critical care systems across the world.”

        –In other words the CDC and WHO have killed tens of thousands in the United States alone. Oh, and did the NIH intervene? Nope. And what did Trump do? Buy tens of thousands of devices that kill people; after all it’s hard to murder someone when you don’t have the “appropriate” weapon so let’s do what the government does best and buy lots and lots of weapons!–

        –Paging Doctors ******* 1 and 2, otherwise known as Fauci and Birx, neither of which have one bit of clinical experience behind their “recommendation list”.–

        “Our treatment protocol targeting these key pathologies has achieved near uniform success, if begun within 6 hours of a COVID19 patient presenting with shortness of breath or needing ≥ 4L/min of oxygen. If such early initiation of treatment could be systematically achieved, the need for mechanical ventilators and ICU beds will decrease dramatically.”

        –Near-uniform success.

        Read that again folks: Almost nobody dies.

        Oh, and nobody winds up needing a vent either, which means there was never a reason to lock down the economy in the first place.

        Now about those scalps you ought to be demanding……

        Oh, and since this treatment modality is now known can we cut the posturing/virtue signaling bull****, face masks, social distancing, and drop all the constraints today since the non-symptomatic infections are good, not bad, and we can manage the symptomatic ones that result in serious disease without running out of health care capacity. Incidentally this has now been out there for the last 10 days so quit lying, Trump, Governors — how to manage this problem is now a known fact and the problem is solved.

        Or do we need a literal 1776 2.0 Revolution right here and now to put an immediate and full stop to the murder of both the economy and Americans who contract Covid-19?

        • Big Al

          You have provided the results of a treatment protocol for COVID-19 that were released on May 4 (not ten days). You imply that while those patients were being treated EXPERIMENTALLY and the data were gathered, the rest of us should have carried on business as usual and let the chips fall where they may.

          The problem is those chips are PEOPLE’S LIVES. Even if this protocol proves to be successful, it in no way proves that social distancing was not a crucial factor in limiting the spread of a highly infectious disease and preventing our health care system from being overwhelmed while such protocols were being developed.

          As for your referencing a 1776 2.0 movement, that is just a partisan attempt at intimidation by Implying violence, a not so subtle form of terrorism. As a veteran, I still stand by my oath to defend our nation (i.e. government), imperfect as it may be, against all enemies foreign AND DOMESTIC, including so-called “patriots” who are really just big mouthed bullies who are tired of staying home.

  2. Lulz

    LOL once you passed smoking bans, you literally allowed people to be forced outside for the notion of safety. Now all you fools are smokers in the eyes of our dear “leaders” and guess what, you’ve literally all been banned from restaurants and bars and pushed outside. Big government don’t think you have enough brains to live much less able to handle life.

    • bsummers

      And don’t even get him started on mandatory seatbelts, the instant-replay rule in MLB, and the 14th, 15th, 19th, and 26th Amendments.

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