Restaurant professionals relied on quick changes—and each other—to get through 2020
Photographs by Chip Chockley
On one level, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Memphis’s restaurant and food community has been easy to follow, because it’s played out in full view of the public.
It has come, partly, in the form of a flurry of health directives and notices plastered across restaurant front doors that outlined a dizzying and sometimes arbitrary-sounding flood of new rules and norms. Everyone these days has gotten accustomed to lots more takeout, instead of dining indoors. Accustomed to the sight of tables roped off inside of restaurants, to promote social distancing. Then there’s the near-universal sight of face masks, as well as employees in constant motion as they wipe and clean every square inch of every possible surface. To grab a quick bite to eat anywhere in Memphis is to be reminded, practically everywhere you look, that life is exceedingly strange and different, in ways that none of us could have prepared for.
Tracking all of the customer-facing changes to restaurants across the city has been one way to study the arc of the pandemic. The chaotic days of early 2020 morphed into a hot, tentative summer that, in turn, gave way to an ominous fall and then winter of surges and frightening increases in case counts. As a consequence of fluctuations in the local infection rate, hospitalizations, and deaths from the virus, we saw restaurants tweak operating hours and accept dramatic limits on their operations—while others closed entirely.
But there are some aspects of all this that customers haven’t seen. One is the way many chefs and restaurateurs have been relying on each other to hold on, to make it one more day. Since March, for example, a couple dozen or so members of the city’s restaurant community have kept a group text chat going.
They’re riding out the pandemic with their industry colleagues who, better than anyone else, know exactly what they’re going through.
The restaurant professionals involved in this group chat have included people like Wally Joe (Acre), Kelly English (Restaurant Iris, Second Line, and Fino’s), Felicia Willett (Felicia Suzanne), Karen Carrier (Beauty Shop & hazel’s Lucky Dice), Andy Ticer and Michael hudman (Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, Catherine & Mary’s, The Gray Canary, and Bishop), to name a few. “This has helped me feel closer to my colleagues than I’ve ever felt in my life,” English said. “Some of us are in competition with each other, but we still get together (through the group texts) and problem-solve together.”
how has the group chat been for Carrier? “A life-saver, in a lot of ways. Emotionally. Intelligently,” she says.
Participants in the group chat have texted each other questions about the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses. Another text thread might start from questions as simple as: how’s your to-go business doing? how are you feeling right now? how many people are working in your kitchen?
Sometimes the texts have been informative—telling about grants that can be applied for, for example. Other times, the texts have bordered on desperate. Of the “I don’t know if I’m going to make it” sort.
“It’s heavy,” Carrier said. “Some of it is heavy stuff. Some of it is good. We’re just trying to support each other through this time.”
At this point in their careers, those in the group chat—along with countless other restaurant professionals—have been forced to execute what might best be described as a pandemic pivot. A hard, sudden shift in the way they do business in an attempt to stay afloat.
Retail food operations have found themselves having to go all-in, for example, on the Internet right now. As part of his own pandemic-induced shift, Phillip Ashley Chocolates owner Phillip Rix hired Big South (a marketing firm owned by Edible Memphis publisher Bill Ganus) to design a new website he transitioned his business to online-only for retail sales and created virtual chocolate tastings.
Maciel’s Tortas & Tacos owner Manuel (Manny) Martinez, meanwhile, just opened a second location in Midtown, an opening that was supposed to have happened in May but got derailed by Covid. “We think that it’s better to have a second location in Midtown because we have so many people that call us asking to deliver to them, but it’s too far to do it from downtown,” he said. In terms of specific ways his business has been affected by the pandemic, he says: “Our biggest changes have been to serve all our food in disposable containers and having modified hours of operation. Most of our business now comes from takeout and delivery orders. Our downtown location has seen a decrease in business, due to the [downtown] offices being closed. We also have had to decrease our employees’ hours per week.”
When you talk to them about the past nine or so months, some of these food industry veterans sound resolute. For others, a quaver in their voice suggesting vulnerability and extreme fatigue can be difficult to hide. And some will just come right out and tell you what’s what: “I do not stress about things I can’t control anymore,” English said. “Almost to an annoying level.
“We are all very tired from pivoting. We are emotionally, spiritually, and creatively exhausted. We’re ready for some semblance of normalcy.”
here are some of their stories.
Chef Kelly English came up with a way for patrons of his restaurants, The Second Line and Restaurant Iris, to enjoy from the comfort of their homes some of the signature Southern fare that inspires him.
The solution: subscription boxes. More specifically, a food box and a cocktail box. The $48 monthly food box includes scratch-made specialty products and locally sourced ingredients. The $60 cocktail box offers a rotating selection of curated cocktails. (Customers can find out more and sign up for one or both of the boxes themselves at https://table22.com/iris.) he’s also offering online cooking classes.
“I think for the next couple of years, no matter what happens, non-traditional offerings are going to have to be something that everybody thinks about,” English said. “The good things that have come out of this pandemic—they’re few and far between—but the good things for some of us have been that we’ve been forced to think outside the box we lived in. And I don’t know that we would have [otherwise].”
Even so, this is a crucial point that can’t be stressed enough: Don’t mistake creative pivots and non-traditional product offerings like this as replacements for the things that English and his other industry colleagues lost over the course of 2020.
“Everybody thinks the chef’s job is to walk in and be creative every day,” said English. “That’s not true.
Our job every day is to know things that we’re walking into. We may have different dishes on the menu, but in front of us, we’ll always … have diced onions. herbs cut. Salt and pepper. We’re creatures of routine. We may change little things we do. But we have to have those basic things in front of us—and we’ve had none of those basic things in front of us this year, speaking broadly. We haven’t had one day we could wake up and know, ‘OK, it’s going to be a busy night tonight. I know what’s gonna happen, there’s not gonna be any new regulations that are going to come up.’”
Cristina McCarter, who launched City Tasting Tours in Memphis a few years ago, has actually “pivoted” twice now.
First, she took her restaurant tour business and made it virtual when the early wave of closures and lockdown orders hit.
“I called and started talking to everybody who was on the tours, trying to see what they were doing, and had the idea of doing virtual food tours,” she said. “So I started delivering the food, like a three-course meal, to different people in Memphis. For about two weeks I did videos, and they’re on YouTube now, of me just walking around and talking about Memphis and kind of being a virtual tour guide. I would deliver the food to people and send them a video clip.”
At the time, those video clips were marked as private—only the people who booked the virtual tours could see them. “So they would get that video clip, and they’d be able to watch the videos while they’re eating their food—kind of like they were on the food tour,” she said.
The New York Times featured McCarter in an April story titled “‘Staying Nimble’: how Small Businesses Can, and Do, Shift Gears.” But then, in the summer, restaurants opened back up, and no one really wanted to book these virtual tours anymore. Why would they, when they could just go back to restaurants themselves? So that killed McCarter’s first pivot. And she couldn’t go back to square one and restart the food tours either, because restaurants had only reopened in a limited way, and with social distancing in mind.
So she pivoted again. The result? City Tasting Box. “I decided I wanted to put some local food artisans in a box, and I wanted to put some of the farmers market people in them, too. Just different artisans, basically, who aren’t able to sell the way they normally sell this year,” McCarter said.
her website has details on all the boxes, and it’s where you can order them as well. For $74.99, for example, the “Official Memphis Travel” Box includes things like Makeda’s cookies; Rendezvous barbecue sauce, Chef Tam’s Fry Me Up Baby seasoning, and buffalo sauce from New Wing Order.
“A lot of the orders have been people from out of town who either lived here, wanted to visit here, or these are gifts for someone who just moved here,” she said.
“I can’t wait to get back to doing tours, though.
That’s my first baby, and I think it’s important for the city—to be able to guide people around the city like that.”
For Kat Gordon, the year of the pandemic has brought a food truck, along with her kitchen on Broad Avenue as her new central base of operations. For most of us, life looks staggeringly different than we thought it would this time last year. And so it has been, likewise, for the proprietor of Muddy’s Bake Shop.
She’s gone from operating prominent storefront bake shops in East Memphis and Midtown to having centralized her operation in her business’s commercial kitchen space (which does some walk-in business, but with all of the Covid safety protocols) on Broad Avenue.
With the newly acquired food truck, customers can get ready to see Muddy’s coming to a nearby neighborhood very soon.
“We got the truck back from getting inspected and wrapped right before Thanksgiving,” Gordon said.
“The truck, I think, is going to allow us to hopefully go out into the community and do some neighborhood nights. The truth is, this is something we’ve wanted for a long time, for reasons that totally make sense with our values. It’s a fun way we can bring the Muddy’s experience out to people.”
Currently she’s using the shuttered Sanderlin store to film bake-a-longs and host live virtual classes. “After much careful consideration, prayer, and discernment, I have decided not to re-open it as a walk-in shop,” Gordon wrote on her website. She closed the Midtown store permanently in August.
To everything, there is a season.
“We’ve had so many of these pivot decisions during the pandemic. I feel like it’s like—have we pivoted? Or more like pirouetted?
All things considered, she concedes that she feels as good as someone could expect to, in her shoes, right now.
“And I’ve got a lot to be thankful for,” she said. “I guess a year like this really tends to throw that into pretty sharp relief, huh?”
Andy Meek is a native Memphian whose work during a nearly two-decade career in journalism has appeared in outlets like The Guardian, The Washington Post and Fast Company. @andymeek
Chip Chockley, an attorney by day, has been a professional photographer since 2008. Things that make him happy include tacos, mai tais and his wife and kids. @chipchockley