One Year Later: How One Charlotte Restaurant Survived COVID-19
It's been a year since coronavirus restrictions went into effect in North Carolina. To mark one year of the pandemic, WFAE this week is looking at its impact on the community and the state. This morning, we're focusing on restaurants and bars, which have been among the hardest hit. Joining us now is Clifton Freshwater, part-owner and chef of Freshwaters in uptown Charlotte.
Marshall Terry: Let's go back in time for a moment to March 17, 2020. That's when the governor ordered bars and restaurants closed for indoor dining. What went through your head when you heard that news?
Clifton Freshwater: Actually, what went through my head: I couldn't really, truly feel the impact, because I didn't know how hard the impact was. So, when he did say that, I took it real seriously, but I said, "This thing will pass," because I'd never heard or never seen anything like this here, so it will probably pass. So, it didn't really hit me as hard as it did when I found out what it really was.
Terry: How long was it before you found out what it really was?
Freshwater: Oh, I'd say probably about a week when it really, really, truly impacted me. I said, "Wow, this is something that's going to really hurt this economy and it's going to hurt the United States and the world." That's when it really, truly hit me — when the government announced that things have changed and we had to close down, we had had to do no more indoor dining. That's when it really, really, truly impacted me. That's when I really felt the hurt and pain that it was going to be something terrible.
Terry: You said it was about a week later. What went through your head when you had that realization?
Freshwater: "Wow." I had to go into survival mode because 95% of my business was sit-down. So, now I'm thinking, "How am I going to survive?" Because I do takeout, but takeout is not my business; it's a sit-down. Customers come in, they sit down and enjoy their experience of Freshwaters. "There's no more of that. How do I survive? How do I get to the next step? What am I going to do?" I went into panic mode because this had never happened to me or anybody else in this whole lifetime. So, that's the part that really hurt me because I had to figure out: What am I going to do?
Terry: What did you do?
Freshwater: Well, we braced. We braced, and we held on, and we just started advertising takeout. Right? That's the only thing we could do: advertise takeout. And the customers did come, but it wasn't like it was when we did sit-down. So, we just held on, held on, and customers did support us as much as they could as far as doing takeout, so takeout was able to carry us without being closed.
Terry: Did you have to lay anybody off?
Freshwater: Well, actually, we had to change strategies because especially like the servers, because they work off of tips. So, we had to put them on an hourly wage to try to keep them with us. And the people that I had in my kitchen, you know, they were on hourly salary, anyway, so I tried to hold on to them. My revenue decreased, but I tried to hold on, which I was fortunate enough to hold on, to keep some of our people working, which worked out for us.
Terry: It wasn't until May when restaurants could reopen at 50% capacity. What was the impact of that on Freshwaters?
Freshwater: That was like a great blessing. That was great because we were able to open our dining room back up and let the customers in who wanted to come in way before that. So, we were able to survive a whole lot better, so our revenue did go up because now we've got more clientele. We're doing dining in and we're doing takeout. So, that helped us out tremendously to survive.
Terry: And that 50% capacity restriction is still in place. So, Clifton, how are you doing now?
Freshwater: Oh, it's a whole lot better — a whole lot better now — because we're hopefully near the end of the pandemic. But that 50% now is a big difference than it was in May because a lot of customers are coming out now.
Terry: Was there a day or a moment in the past year where you knew you would do OK and make it through?
Freshwater: I always had faith. I really did. I always had faith that I could hold on, keep my business open, keep my clientele happy. So, I always had faith that we could hold on, and so far it's working out.
Terry: What would you say is the most important thing that you've learned over the past year as a restaurant owner in a pandemic?
Freshwater: Never take nothing for granted. Never take nothing for granted, because what happens today might not happen tomorrow. So, when you're doing good, you're doing a great, enjoy the ride, because this pandemic has taught me that things can change. They can change for the worse, so never take nothing for granted.
Terry: That's Clifton Freshwater. He and his wife own the restaurant Freshwaters in uptown Charlotte. Clifton, thank you for taking the time.
Freshwater: You're very, very welcome. Thank you.