This is one of the most difficult letters we’ve ever had to write, in part because we’re not used to asking for help. We’re used to finding our own way, navigating the dark waters of uncertainty with a spirit of adventure, an understanding that this, too, shall pass and that tomorrow is a new day filled with new opportunity. We are entrepreneurs; we are the lifeblood of our communities. We saw possibility where most people saw a mess, a run-down building, an old gas station, an empty warehouse, an eyesore. We had a dream for a better life for ourselves, and we built it block by block, piece by piece, pushing through the seemingly impossible with a spirit of fortitude. It’s hard, tireless, often thankless work. Sleepless nights and quiet fears give rise to endless daily challenges, obstacles and hurdles. We’re used to the chaos of a busy Friday night, or the plumbing failing at the worst possible moment, or the walk-in giving up during the rush on a Saturday, or people not showing up for their shifts. As restaurant owners, we’ve seen and heard just about everything. And when it comes down to it, we slap on a smile, roll up our sleeves and figure it out, one way or another.
But nothing could have prepared us for this. We’ve never seen anything like it in our lifetime.
On March 17, we were forced to close our doors to the public. It was St. Patrick’s Day, which is a big day for most restaurants. Winters are slow in this business, especially in a tourist town like ours. St. Paddy’s Day is our big hoorah as we climb out of the winter hole we’ve sunk into and start to finally see an increase in revenue heading into the busy spring and summer months. We plan weeks ahead for the big event — ordering extra beer, wine, liquor and special menu items, spending extra time and money on prep to get people in the door.
But this year, it was all in vain. We had about six hours after receiving the mandatory shutdown order from the governor to figure out how to shift our entire business model from a full-service restaurant and bar to a takeout-only operation. This was an easier transition for some than others. As a barbecue restaurant, we already did a good amount of takeout. We pushed hard for third-party deliveries and contact-free curbside pickup. We pulled our food truck out of storage, which we had been planning to sell in order to give us a boost coming out of the long winter months, but now it had become our lifeline.
We laid off our entire front-of-house staff in one day. By the end of the week, 90% of our staff was out of a job, laid off in the hopes that they would return when this whole thing blew over. But it isn’t blowing over. A two-week stay-at-home order turned into a six-week stay-at-home order, and now that seems like just a pipe dream, too. We cannot reopen our doors at the end of April, or maybe even the end of May or maybe even the end of June. Everything is entirely uncertain for us, for our employees and for our industry throughout the country and throughout the world.
It may be surprising for some to learn that restaurants — even very busy, high-end ones — largely operate on a week-by-week, month-to-month basis. The money we make this month pays the bills from last month. The money we make this week pays our employees next week. We have small profit margins because, among other things, we employ a disproportionate number of employees compared to the revenue we are bringing in.
Everything is expensive for restaurants, but especially for independent restaurants, which source ingredients locally and spend extra time on prep in order to elevate our menu items for a memorable experience that sets us apart and keeps people coming back. Money flows in, and it flows right back out into our community. Produce suppliers, food purveyors, local farms, linen services, bakeries, knife-sharpeners, restaurant supply stores — the list goes on and on — and we support them all. Not to mention our servers, bartenders, kitchen staff, hosts, dishwashers, managers and all of their respective families. The economic supply chain we directly or indirectly support has been completely disrupted from the top to the bottom.
You may be thinking to yourself: Isn’t there help out there? From the government? Well, yes and no. The entire small-business community of the entire United States of America is vying for a very limited amount of resources. Hair salons, nail salons, tanning salons, tattoo parlors, retail shops, bars and restaurants are all in the same boat. We are frantically applying for loans, which means running numerous “hard checks” on our credit scores, which has an adverse effect, even under these emergency circumstances.
If we seem desperate, that’s because we are. Our sales have been slashed 90%-100% in some cases. Our cash flow has been completely cut off at the source. Where there once was a rushing river, there is now just the drip, drip, drip of a leaky faucet coming in. And the bills are still due. We pay massive amounts in taxes each month. We pay massive amounts in rent. Our landlord isn’t cutting us a break just because our income has all but ceased to exist. We are emptying our bank accounts on payroll and auto drafts and bills that must be paid, deposits that must be returned from our canceled catering events, and everything in between. We cut our menu down to a fraction of what it once was because we can’t afford to pay for the labor to make the things on our menu that our community has come to know and love.
One month from today will be our five-year business anniversary. You may or may not know, but most restaurants take at least five years to become profitable. Until then, we’re just maintaining and maneuvering; we’re just staying afloat. We’ve seen hard times, and we’ve seen good times, but mostly, running a restaurant feels like a long line of “kick ’em while they’re down.” Murphy’s law very much applies to our business model. And that’s just the way it is. Most of us didn’t get into this business to get rich. We just wanted to get by, and for many of us, the restaurant business is all we’ve ever known.
There’s a lot of heart in this industry. There’s a lot of soul. We put our team first, many of whom have become like family. We are giving. We donate what we can, when we can, to various charities and community fundraisers and the like. This may give people the impression that we have a lot to give, but the truth is, we don’t. We give because we care. We give because we know that without the support of our community, we would not exist. We put every resource, every ounce of energy we have, every last dollar and dime into the making of our small business.
And right now, we are watching all of our hard work, sacrifices and resources slip right through our hands, helpless to do anything about it. Our walk-ins are empty. Our shelves are cleared. We are back to basics and absolute bare necessity survival mode, but we won’t last this way for much longer. We need help. We are pleading with the city of Asheville, with Buncombe County and with the state of North Carolina to provide us with some relief and some assistance. We are the charity cases now.
As an industry, we don’t have a voice. We don’t have representation. There are no lobbyists working on our behalf in Washington. We have no unions or safety nets to speak of. We are — now, more than ever — completely on our own, lacking the resources and funds to continue on, surveying the massive damage caused to our businesses through no fault of our own. Even looking forward to “after” (if there is an after), we must move forward always with COVID-19 in mind. When your business model is “bringing people together,” how do you survive a pandemic that requires everyone to stay apart?
Of course, we see the bigger picture. We want our employees and our community to be safe and to stay healthy. We want to be a part of the solution. We want to help. As lifelong hospitality industry workers, it is quite literally what we do. We are humbled by this sudden disruption to our livelihoods. We are scared that we may not come through this crisis to the other side. We are your neighbors, your friends, your families, and we are suffering. We are clamoring just to get back to square one, to get to a place where the best we can hope for is to start all over again. Our credit cards maxed out, our bank accounts empty — a very real “if you had it to do all over again, would you?” type of ultimatum, with implications that will shake the entire economy as we know it without intervention.
And the answer is: Yes, we would do it all again. We will. We must. But we need help. This is a natural disaster, an unforeseen catastrophe. We are devastated, but we are resilient. Please, please do something. We are more than willing to put in the work, but our resources are depleted. This is our distress call, and the time for action is now.
Thank you for your time and attention to this pressing matter.
— Jeff and Stephanie Barcelona
Owners of Bonfire BBQ
Editor’s note: The owners add that, while they do not speak for all restaurants, they believe “most of us are in the same boat.”