Navigating COVID-19: How One Restaurateur Survived The Shutdown 2 Weeks After Opening
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Felix Godward is a bit of a free spirit who needs constant change. When he was 21, he moved out of his apartment in Los Angeles and into his van. He traveled across California working as a server at different restaurants.
“It was actually not that uncomfortable. I thought it was so exciting that it was like it never felt like it was something that was like an inconvenience,” Godward said. “It was really stimulating. I'm someone that needs a lot of stimulus.”
He knew he wanted to do something in the food industry, but he didn’t want to start a business in LA. He heard Charlotte was a fast-growing city with fewer food trucks and he dreamed of having one of his own. Living out of his van helped him save up for it, but then his van got towed. The $1,600 it cost to get it back was the push he needed to leave California and move to Charlotte in 2017.
When he arrived, he bought a small trailer. He added wood paneling, an oven and large windows and launched Felix’s Handmade Empanadas.
“I loved the food truck. I love it much more than working for someone. I love working for myself,” he said.
Godward grew up making empanadas with his family. These pastries filled with meats, vegetables and cheeses are a staple in Argentina, where his parents are from.
He took the family recipe and made it his own, selling empanadas across Charlotte from his little trailer. They were a hit. So Godward started looking into opening a restaurant at Optimist Hall, a former mill-turned-food hall with small restaurant stalls and retail stores.
“I had called them multiple times and they had told me that they weren't going to take us on because we were a really small operation,” Godward said. “They didn't think we could handle it and I don't blame them. It was really risky to take us on.”
One day, a group stopped by the food truck. He didn’t know it at the time, but they were the owners of Optimist Hall. A week later, they offered him a spot in the food hall.
His parents and some family friends became investors, giving him around $190,000 he needed to move his business into a new phase. So he parked his food truck and opened his restaurant. That was March 3, 2020.
“I thought I’d be like, ‘Wow, this is awesome,’” he said. “But it was really hard to be able to say, ‘Wow, now I'm a restaurant owner.’ It came really fast.”
In the first weeks, he says there was often a line of 30 people as customers came up to his small space with blue tiled walls to order empanadas. But that all changed when COVID-19 hit and North Carolina shut down indoor dining just two weeks after he opened.
Overnight, Godward transitioned to online orders and curbside pickup. He says his sales dropped by 95%, forcing him to lay off his 15 employees.
“Everyone just understood the situation,” he said. “Everyone understood that I was now in a fight for survival.”
Godward didn’t know if he could stay open. He didn’t have a lot of savings to fall back on. And he hadn’t been open long enough to qualify for a Paycheck Protection Program loan.
Seeing Godward struggle, some of his customers went on social media encouraging people to support the restaurant.
By early April, a line of cars wrapped around the building for curbside pick up. He says he went from making $600 a week to making $3,500.
“It was such a beautiful thing to see that. A lot of hope came back to me,” Godward said. “I went from essentially having to force myself to get out of bed to feeling really happy and knowing we were probably going to be at least OK.”
This kind of grassroot support for restaurants happened across the state, according to Lynn Minges, president of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association.
“That really has played a huge role in helping many of those home-grown, local restaurants survive during this pandemic,” Minges said. “It has not been easy, but we felt the wind at our back from the community that we serve.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Minges said new restaurants were opening every day. But in March that all changed. She says the industry ended 2020 down more than $4 billion compared to 2019.
“I have been really astounded at the level of loss and hurt in our industry,” she said.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2018 there were about 20,000 restaurants across North Carolina that employed almost 500,000 people. Minges estimates half of those people lost their jobs during the pandemic.
“As I talked with hundreds of business owners who were shuttering their doors on March 17th, their No. 1 concern overwhelmingly across the board was their employees,” she said.
Felix Godward kept in touch with the employees he laid off. As business came back he started rehiring them all, beginning with the ones who needed the job the most.
Back in April, he was unsure if he could keep his restaurant. Now, he’s four months away from opening a second one at Latta Arcade, a food hall in uptown Charlotte.
“I look at our future being really strong,” he said. “It's just like every horrible thing — if it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger.”
He says the unexpected difficulties of 2020 brought a resiliency that he knows will carry him through whatever this year brings.