Business Unusual

Business Unusual: Atlanta Restaurateur Highlights Small Business Challenges

Georgia restaurants are allowed to reopen dine-in service under specific guidelines. One Atlanta restaurant is cooking up innovative ways to keep afloat without reopening their dining room.

JenChan Restaurant
Takeout, a delivery supper club, and an online market — here’s how JenChan's is overcoming obstacles and staying in business

On April 24, Gov. Kemp of Georgia allowed restaurants, gyms, and bowling alleys across the state to reopen — making Georgia the first state in the nation to do so. But even as small businesses struggle to stay afloat, many owners feel it’s too soon to resume business as usual.

Kemp’s 39 guidelines for Georgia restaurants reopening include mandates that employees wear masks at all times and limit capacity to 10 patrons per 500 square feet. While the goal of those measures is to stop the spread of COVID-19, it’s challenging for restaurants, since they already operate on a razor-thin profit margin.

Emily Chan, owner of JenChan’s which opened in Atlanta’s Cabbagetown neighborhood last fall, says she doesn’t know a single Atlanta restaurant that has reopened their dining room.”

It’s not really a decision, just this imaginary choice,” she says. “You can’t reopen a restaurant without volume and you can’t have volume with these guidelines.”

She adds that in order to make any money with the lower density of customers and additional expenses, like disposable masks for her staff (a cost that’s not in the restaurant’s business model), she’d have to charge $100 per person.

“You can’t reopen a restaurant without volume and you can’t have volume with these guidelines.”

Successes and challenges

Chan’s restaurant has not been open for dine-in since March 15, several days before Gov. Kemp ordered restaurants to close.

“My staff was happy about the decision,” she says. “Everyone was getting anxious and scared.”

After closing the dining room, they focused on ramping up delivery and takeout, which Chan says is “the reason why we’re still open now.” She stopped using third-party delivery drivers as she’d done previously and her staff started delivering by bicycle or car.

“Y’all can keep all the delivery fees,” she told them.

JenChan Restaurant

Employees of JenChan’s make their first delivery. The owners of JenChan’s decided to keep their dining area closed, even though restaurants in Georgia were given the green light to reopen. Note: This image was taken before the CDC recommended people wear masks in public.

Front of house staff handles deliveries.

Still, maintaining safe social distance in a restaurant kitchen is challenging. With only one person on the line in the kitchen for safety, “that makes our execution time much slower,” Chan says. “People have to wait longer for their food.”

They moved their POS system in front of a window so that customers picking up orders don’t have to enter the restaurant.

Creative meal deliveries, an online market

JenChan’s also has a delivery supper club, which Chan started 2 years ago before opening the brick and mortar restaurant last fall. Most customers are subscribers, so that’s provided some stability, but customers can also sign up for a single week. They select from 3 freshly prepared meal options and place orders by Sunday of each week. The meals arrive in an insulated bag with ice packs. “Most of the items can be heated in the oven in the same aluminum,” Chan says.

However, since they use only non-GMO, grass-fed beef, the restaurant has sometimes had limited quantities of meals available based on supply chain disruptions.

“Whenever you can’t get a product, you just have to take it off your menu,” Chan says.

Chan has gotten scrappy by offering add-ons to the supper club. Breakfast kits are available for $6 and include the ingredients to make breakfasts like fried rice and scrambled eggs or ricotta pancakes. Customers can also purchase latex gloves or paper towels, which Chan purchases at wholesale. Bottles of wine are also available through the supper club, at least for now.

“We’re trying to figure out how to turn ourselves into a market,” Chan says.

“We’re seeing the sales just go up and down depending on that week’s news.”

However, demand for the supper club, takeout, and delivery has fluctuated as people go back to work or get laid off.

“We’re seeing the sales just go up and down depending on that week’s news,” she says. They might do $250 in takeout and delivery sales one day and a thousand dollars the next.

JenChan

JenChan’s branding is built around “Eat Supper Together.” The restaurant is offering meal kits and supper clubs to help with sales. 

Pitfalls of PPP and EIDL

Despite applying for Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan loans the first day applications were available and repeating attempts to follow up, Chan still has not heard from her bank. She tried other lenders, but because her bank wouldn’t withdraw her initial application, they rejected her.

“That’s been pretty heartbreaking being left behind there,” she says.

She adds that she’s worried about losing the business she and her wife worked so hard to build, even scouring thrift stores for décor and reupholstering furniture themselves.

Mik, the owners’ son and CFO, is always helping out. Friends helped build out the restaurant to help save costs. 

Navigating grief, finding inspiration

Amidst the pressure to keep her business afloat, Chan is also grieving the recent death of her uncle without the closure of a funeral.

“Everything we know about death is that grieving process and closure, where you get to be around family and share stories and try to heal,” she says. “None of that has happened.”

While JenChan’s has managed to innovate enough to stay afloat thus far, Chan expressed what many small businesses across the country are likely feeling 2 months into the pandemic: “It’s hard to find inspiration when you’re in survival mode.”

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