The first week of August was déjà vu all over again for Jane Anderson, executive director of the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association. After a jubilant but all too brief return to near normalcy for the hospitality industry beginning in late spring, COVID-19 cases were again on the rise, and business owners were once again forced to make decisions on mask and vaccine requirements.
“I was getting inundated with calls, emails and texts from AIR members,” Anderson recalls. “Without any mandate in place [at the time], all I could do was advise people to do what was best for their business.”
For many AIR members, including Joe Scully, owner with Kevin Westmoreland of Corner Kitchen in Biltmore Village and Chestnut downtown, the decision to require masks at their restaurants predated both the city’s and the county’s reinstated mask mandates, which went into effect Aug. 17 and 18, respectively. Both mandates require diners to wear masks inside all restaurants and bars unless actively eating or drinking.
“When cases started rising again, we had a lot of hand-wringing and discussion, but in the end it came down to one thing,” says Scully. “We have to do all we can to protect the vulnerable. Many of us have young children and older parents.”
For the time being, masks are the only COVID-related requirement for guests seeking on-site service at Scully’s two restaurants. But for others in the local food scene, vaccination regulations are also on the table.
Xpress caught up with a few Asheville restaurateurs to see how their staff members and the community are responding to the next wave of COVID-19 restrictions and new pandemic-related guidelines.
Tip of the spear
On Aug. 5, Mike Rangel, owner of Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co., jumped into the fire with a lengthy Facebook post announcing that guests 18 years and older would need to provide a COVID-19 vaccination card to enter the restaurant’s Merrimon Avenue location. (The requirement has since been revised requiring anyone 12 and older to comply.)
“I wrote it so many times,” Rangel recalls. “My wife, partners and another adviser read it, and everyone had something to say. We knew we would catch a lot of heat, but we didn’t realize we would be called Nazis. … As a private business, we have the freedom and responsibility to protect ourselves, our staff, our guests and our business in the way we feel best.”
Indeed, the post generated 838 comments. Rangel says 90% of the feedback was positive, but the negative remarks and criticism stung. None were as hurtful, though, as the retaliatory 19 one-star ratings immediately posted to Google following the decision, or the personal messages he received from longtime customers who swore they would never visit the establishment again.
“We hate to lose any customers, but like a lot of small, independently owned businesses, we can’t close again — that would be it for us,” Rangel says. “We didn’t want to be the tip of the spear, but we also take our role as being one of the older breweries and restaurants in town seriously.”
Little Jumbo, a neighborhood cocktail bar in North Asheville’s Five Points neighborhood, also made the decision to require proof of vaccination shortly after Rangel’s announcement.
“It was a difficult decision as business owners but made easier by the fact there were other leaders in the community who were making this decision before and simultaneous with us,” says the bar’s co-owner, Chall Gray.
Little Jumbo, which opened in November 2017, was forced to close for over a year due to COVID-19 and relaunched in April. “Night after night we had people coming in saying they had worried about us, telling us they had their first date there before the pandemic and now they’re engaged,” Gray remembers. “It was so great to get our staff back together and see our regulars.”
But as the delta variant spurred a sharp rise in COVID cases, Gray, his wife, Lucia, and co-owner Jay Sanders knew they had to take action. “We were closed for so long we felt like we had to do whatever we could to minimize the potential of having to close again,” Gray explains.
Discussion with staff revealed that team members felt it safest to require proof of vaccination to enter. The bar posted its new policy Aug. 9.
“We were grateful to know we were not alone,” says Gray “And the feedback we have gotten from guests has been supportive. They say they feel better coming in knowing we have taken this step.”
Rolling with the punches
Shannon and Josiah McGaughey, co-owners of Vivian restaurant in the River Arts District, were just finding their rhythm with the business when COVID-19 first hit. “In March 2020, we were coming into our third year, doing well and thinking maybe we could take a couple shifts off,” she recalls. “Then that bomb dropped on us, and it was, OK, how are we going to make this work?”
Vivian pivoted multiple times, including introducing the VivianAtHome takeout menu. “We found out very quickly people were obsessed with our fried chicken,” Shannon says, laughing. During this time, the couple also tented and heated their outdoor space. Like many in the industry, Vivian faced staffing issues as well when full-capacity indoor dining was reinstated in May. But by early August, the restaurant was able to add Wednesday night dinner to its Thursday-Sunday service hours.
“Then here comes delta,” Shannon says with a sigh. “It felt like a little bit of déjà vu, but after such an intensely crazy year, we feel toughened up. We were reminded of what we and our staff were able to do since 2020, and it feels like more of a manageable challenge.”
Nevertheless, Shannon is happy the city and county reinstated mask mandates. “It’s a relief,” she says. “For all the folks who support us, there are always some people really upset about having to wear a mask. There is some assumption it is personal or political. With a mandate, you don’t have to explain yourself, you just say it’s the law.”
But unlike some of her industry colleagues, Shannon is not yet ready to take the step of requiring proof of vaccines. “I appreciate and respect the people who have and the reasons they have,” she says. “But we have people who reserve two months out, and the process of contacting all of them is daunting. If Open Table could add a little vaccine card scan to their process when people reserve, that would be awesome!”
Whatever it takes
Back at Asheville Pizza & Brewing, Rangel says that unlike the online vitriol, the response for vaccine proof on site has been smooth, civil and supportive. “People forgot at first, but now they are actually walking up to the door with their vaccination card in their hand,” he reports. “Every day we have been open since we started this, we have been thanked. It was a tough decision, but at the end of the day, we would do it again. If we had to burn white sage every day to protect our staff and our business, we would do it.”
Meanwhile, Gray urges guests to take a photo of their vaccine card to store in their phone, just as his staff was advised to do at the pharmacy where they got their vaccines. “I didn’t get into this business to check people’s vaccine status or take temperatures or tell people to put on a mask,” he says. “I look forward to the days when we can welcome people in and just ask them what they’re drinking. But we’re in this for the long haul, and we’ll do what it takes to keep everyone safe and our doors open.”
Anderson points out that “independent” is her organization’s middle name, so members will make their own decisions regarding vaccine requirements. In the meantime, she recommends checking in advance to be sure of the policy at desired dining and drinking destinations.
“This has been so hard on everyone,” she says. “I urge guests to be informed, be kind and patient and to please tip well.”