SACRAMENTO – Curbside service isn’t a new concept for restaurants, but it isn’t every day that a former mayor and NBA player brings an order of soul food out to your car while you wait. COVID-19 has changed everything.
Local Black restaurants like Fixins, owned by Kevin Johnson in Oak Park, have been forced to literally change how they do business in light of county, state and federal mandates to self-isolate and avoid public gatherings. Some restaurant owners are operating with skeleton crews and others have closed their doors indefinitely, sending employees home to an uncertain future.
Wolete “Sunny” Atherley owns Dubplate Kitchen & Jamaican Cuisine at El Camino and Watt.
Before the COVID-19 closures, she had a staff of five. Now it’s just her and a head chef.
“Traffic has been very slow,” Ms. Atherley shared. “We’re getting one-fourth of what we’d do on a regular day.”
The dining area at Dubplate Kitchen is closed. The bulk of orders are the result of customers who call in then pick their food up at the counter. Trips to the store for ingredients are proving problematic for Ms. Atherley, with some items that are essential to her menu — like rice and dry beans — missing from shelves. She has made some changes due to food shortages at local grocery stores, like offering one side vegetable with entrees instead of two. It’s getting tough, she says, but Ms. Atherly is vowing that limitations won’t compromise her standards. She’s relying on her island roots to get through it.
“You learn to make due with what you have,” she shared.
Dubplate Kitchen has modified hours, opening at noon, instead of 11:00 a.m. and is offering a $5 meal deal for those with limited funds due to being off work.
Closing, its owner says, wasn’t an option.
“Overhead is still there. You still have to pay rent,” Ms. Atherley said.
She’s appreciative of those still dining out.
“We need every dollar we can get. It may not be what we normally take in, but that $60 can cover at least half of an expense,” she said.
Sharon Miller, owner of Momo’s Meat Market in Tahoe Park, is also counting on community support. Long-time customers, Ms. Miller says, have helped tremendously.
“They verbalize to all of us that they’re happy we’re still open.”
The compliments are delivered at the door, as is the food. Service at Momo’s is now strictly at-the-door only. Customers call in and Ms. Miller comes out wearing a mask and gloves and hands over the order. There are also signs outside, informing people of the change and of the day’s menu. While they haven’t had to cut back on their offerings, daily shopping trips are becoming a challenge.
“With the hoarding at the stores, sometimes I have to make a few rounds (to different stores) to see who has the items I need,” Ms. Miller shared.
She remains optimistic, though.
“Of course it’s slowed down, but I’m a woman of faith,” she said.
Rob Archie owns three local restaurants, Pangea on Franklin Boulevard, Urban Roots and Bawk in Midtown. Archie and his partners decided to close Bawk during the COVID-19 crisis. He has limited Pangea and Urban Roots locations to a to-go format.
“It’s been pretty popular,” he said. “We’re doing a decent amount of orders from what we thought it would be.”
The majority of orders are coming in directly to the restaurants and they also get orders through Uber Eats. Hourly employees, Archie said, are furloughed and receiving unemployment. Management staff was retained and all his employees will keep their health benefits.
“We’re day by day, just like every other industry and every other person,” he said. “Right now it’s about taking care of the fundamentals of everyone as a business, for our team.”
The unexpected crisis, Archie says, has taught him to value impermanence.
“Things are impermanent and it can go. That’s why it’s all the more important to appreciate our guests that come through. I learned that when I opened Pangea in 2008, and that’s always been a part of our core values. People are, in a sense, voting with their dollars, so we treat everyone as if we appreciate their vote.”
In showing that they care and want to help, long time diners, he says, have been “extremely generous to members of his staff and to the business.”
“The community coming together, that’s what I see as really the bright spot of all this. Guests will be more appreciative that they can go out when they are able to and be with each other, enjoying good food and enjoying good beverages and our team, the people who serve them, will be more appreciative of having a job to be able to do it,” Archie said.
Overall, he’s keeping a positive attitude.
“We’re very confident that we’ll be back. It’s just a matter of adapting,” he said.
“We will keep going. This is life. As much as people want to think it’s predictable and we want consistency and we want to know what’s happening, at the end of the day, uncertainty is a part of life. We don’t know. It’s just how you embrace it. Things can come and go. Just enjoy the opportunities you do have and when challenges come our way, you stand with some dignity and try to be as creative as you can.”
San Francisco 49er and Sacramento native Arik Armstead lists Archie’s Urban Roots and Bawk restaurants among his top places to eat out. Armstead, 26, is lending his celebrity to efforts to support area restaurants. Armstead is offering 49ers tickets and memorabilia for those who share comments and photos of their favorite restaurants with him through Instagram. Armstead also placed other Black-owned establishments — House of Chicken and Ribs and South — on his list of personal favorites.
Michael Blair of Arize.org posted a list of Black restaurants and their phone numbers on Facebook. The list included Dubplate Kitchen, Colo’s Soul Food and Seafood, Queen Sheba, Fixins, Flowers Fish Market, Tori’s Place, Stage Coach, and MacQues. Arize promotes diversity and inclusion in business, culture and community, by connecting “people to local businesses, professionals, community resources and important issues and events.”
Joshua Wood, co-founder and CEO of The Sacramento Region Business Association (Region Business), is leading a fundraising campaign through GoFundMe. The campaign seeks to raise $100,000 to “support the survival and reopening of our locally owned and operated independent restaurants and bars.” The effort has garnered more than $25,000 to date, with individual donations ranging from $5 to $2,000.
Local diner Gary Shumlai is among the many who have taken to social media to urge others to support small Black restaurants during the coronavirus crisis. Shumlai often posts pictures of restaurants he’s enjoyed, particularly ones he considers to be hidden gems, encouraging fellow Sacramentans to give them a try as well.
“Black businesses already have a tough enough time getting small business loans and other essential equipment so we as Black people, I feel, have a responsibility to support, patronize and uplift our own,” Shumlai said.
“It’s not only important that we continue to support Black businesses during these times, but I feel it’s vital.”
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Photo by Russell Stiger Jr.