As the pandemic continues into 2021, many businesses across the country are closing, losing revenue and laying off workers. Businesses around Emory are far from immune from those economic pressures, with fewer students around campus.
During a typical school year, businesses in Emory Village and Emory Point are usually teeming with students searching for off-campus food and amenities; businesses in both of these locations have fought to stay afloat, and many have succumbed. Restaurants have cut down on staff members and their hours of operation. Additionally, businesses have had to prioritize takeout dining over in-person dining or close their doors entirely.
Rise-n-Dine, located in Emory Village, permanently closed in November 2020 after the manager realized that the restaurant was too small to have tables that were socially distanced and maintain a safe environment. Lucky’s Burger and Grill in Emory Village and Tin Lizzy’s Cantina in Emory Point permanently closed their locations during the pandemic.
“We were lucky enough to be in the position where from the beginning we were putting money inside and that helped us for a while to get through the pandemic, but after a while it was like, ‘Where do we see this going?’ And the answer to that question was constantly not to a place that would support inside business for a long time,” Rise-n-Dine manager George Basco said.
In October 2020, the Georgia Restaurant Association found about 12% of Georgia restaurants have permanently closed since the pandemic started and predicted the number will increase to 30% within the upcoming months.
Unlike Rise-n-Dine, the General Muir, a deli located in Emory Point, has managed to remain open following a five-month closure from April to mid-August. Jennifer Johnson, one of the owners of the establishment, said the restaurant chose to restrict operations to takeout and deliveries until they felt comfortable opening up for in-person dining.
Johnson described the General Muir as thriving prior to the pandemic, but once the virus began to spread, business quickly decreased by 70%. Tables on the patio and sidewalk have more than 50% of total seating. Prior to the pandemic, however, outdoor seating made up only 25% of that total.
“We are now still down 50% but that is not a sustainable decrease in business,” Johnson explained.
Rich Chey, owner of Dragon Bowl in Emory Village, explained that in a normal semester, students, staff and faculty make up at least half of their revenue.
“When Emory did not come back in session, we lost all of our student business,” Chey said. “We are used to that for the 10 to 12 weeks of summer that we don’t have students, but this time, not only did we not have students but we did not have faculty or staff.”
Additionally, Chey reformatted Dragon Bowl to only allow takeout orders and opened up their patio space for those who wanted to eat their takeout outside. When the weather became colder, the restaurant opened up five tables inside, spread out, for people to eat their to-go food inside.
Cyrus Vaqar, head stylist at Emily J Salon at Emory Point, discussed how prior to the pandemic the business was outperforming the past six years that it had been open. However, this drastically changed once the pandemic hit.
“Our big clientele was CDC people and Emory students, and right now, they are both not here, so we want to market to different clientele right now,” Vaqar said.
The manager of the salon, Kristin Aschermann, explained that the business was booked out weeks and months in advance. Now it is trying to relaunch with new marketing tools and new promotions for students and people who live around the area, to help keep revamping the clientele.
“We are bringing on new marketing ideas, using social media more, … thinking of different ways to bring clients in and of course keep everyone healthy and safe,” Aschermann said.
All clients and employees are required to wear masks in the salon, they sanitize in between services and have utilized the upstairs and downstairs spaces in the salon in order to space out the styling stations.
After the pandemic began, the General Muir created an online ordering and delivery service option. Despite the economic downturn, Johnson explained that restructuring their restaurant model allowed her to take a step back and reexamine the pay structure for all employees.
“We have gone to a structure that is more equitable, more fair, everyone gets paid a minimum wage … plus all of the gratuities are divided among all non-managers,” Johnson said. “It was a change unrelated to the pandemic but something good that came out of this.”
Tipped employee minimum wage under Georgia law is $2.13 per hour; however, employers must make up the difference if an employee’s tips are not enough to get them to the federal minimum wage during a pay period, which is $7.25 per hour.
The General Muir believed that the tip-based system was unfair, since only wait staff were receiving tips from customers, even though they would not be able to do their job without those working in the kitchen.
Wagaya, a popular sushi restaurant in Emory Village, stopped serving lunch Monday through Thursday. Founder and owner Takashi Otsuka explained that the change in hours necessitated fewer staff members, which made the situation even more difficult.
“[It is challenging] not being able to bring back the same amount of employees, some begged me for more hours, but it gets to the point where the business is not making enough money or there is no point of opening,” Otsuka said. “I wanted to stay open for lunch so people could work and I could pay for them, but you get to the point where you just don’t make money, rather you are losing money.”
However, Ostuska acknowledged that his restaurant has been somewhat successful with takeout orders.
“For some concepts, like hibachi or Korean barbecue, they just could not adjust to takeout style, but we are one of the lucky ones where sushi is suitable for takeout,” Ostuska said. “It is something that people cannot cook at home and it doesn’t get cold.”
Many Village and Point business owners still hold out hope for their businesses — even those who have closed their doors.
“There are going to be so many restaurants that shut down and so much commercial space that is available, that when things do get to a point where it’s possible to open and feel reasonably safe for people, we should be able to do it,” Basco said.
The distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine has some business owners feeling even more optimistic that eventually business will return to normal.
“We hope that with the roll-out of the vaccine that people will start to feel a little safer coming to restaurants and public spaces,” Chey said. “Then perhaps we will start seeing more customers.”