The coronavirus pandemic has hit many of North Carolina's small businesses hard — especially those in the service industry. With dine-in service banned and most customers staying at home, some restaurants are finding creative ways to stay afloat.
The Tipsy Burro Saloon and Cantina in east Charlotte is normally a busy hangout with live music and old shows like "Hee Haw" on TVs by the bar. But since a March 17 order by Gov. Roy Cooper stopped dine-in service across North Carolina, the Burro's had to pivot to takeout.
Co-owner Mark Wilson says there have been good days and slow days, but that loyal customers have kept to-go orders relatively steady and have been generous with tips.
"That's been a good thing that's come out of this, to see the support and dedication that people have in these kinds of times," said Wilson, who owns the Tipsy Burro with his brother, Brian.
It may help that the restaurant's been offering some creative menu items, too, like a Tex-Mex sloppy Joe meant to be comfort food in uncertain times.
"Maybe that brings back some positive feelings when you hopefully think about eating sloppy Joes and tater tots and maybe sitting in a school cafeteria with your friends or something like and having some good memories along those lines or something," Wilson said with a chuckle.
The Wilsons' other business, Plaza Midwood dive bar the Thirsty Beaver, has had to shut down completely under the restrictions.
They haven't had to lay off any workers yet and are doing things like rotating delivery-order duties and reallocating bar staff for projects like cleaning and painting.
"We're trying to offer people an alternative to just sitting at home and not making any money. We're doing that as long as we can and as long as we can hold out," Wilson said.
And while regulars might not be able to sit at the Tipsy Burro's bar for a while, they can bring a bit of the vibe home: The Wilsons are selling half-gallons of the restaurant's margarita mix to go.
"People seem to enjoy our margarita mix, and so we've actually sold a good amount of it, surprisingly," Wilson said. "We just threw it out there to see how it went, and it's kind of actually taken off a little bit."
Over in Matthews, Debbie and Joshua Chopas of Good Cup Coffee Co. have been taking their drinks and goodies on tour. Normally, Good Cup is either at the Matthews Farmers Market or sharing a space with The Loyalist Market, but a 1971 VW Westfalia van the Chopases bought for catering is now a mobile coffee shop that's been parking in the town's neighborhoods.
Debbie Chopas says it's been a hit.
"We just wanted to set up in our friends' neighborhoods just to offer some comfort, you know," she said. "Then people would come, and they said, 'Come to our neighborhood.' Now we're getting more repeated invitations throughout Matthews to come, just to bring their neighborhood comfort during this time, hope, a good cup, nourishing ingredients. It seems as if we're transforming into like a mobile grocer as well."
Joshua, the barista, sets up some barriers to maintain social distancing, but the Chopases say they do their best not to be emotionally distant. At first, business was rough amid state restrictions, but community support has picked up.
"The question was when everything first hit, it was either we respond and we break down, or we go out into the community," Debbie Chopas said. "And it made no sense, because everybody was fearful, and so to go into the community was counterintuitive, but we felt called instinctively to just meet the people."
They're not alone in trying to bring familiarity directly to their customers' homes.
Summit Coffee Co. in Davidson didn't let the coronavirus shut down its popular trivia nights. The event has gone virtual.
Susan Montague, whose team Romeo's Poison has been playing trivia at Summit for nearly five years, is adjusting to the new normal.
"We've been getting together on Zoom," Montague said. "One of our team members gets the questions emailed to him, so he puts the questions up on the screen, and we're all in little boxes, you know?"
Normally, customers don't pay for trivia at Summit, just drinks or food. Now, players in Davidson and Cornelius pay for remote trivia packages that come with a complimentary bottle of wine or some instant coffee delivered to their doors.
Montague's noticed something lately: More players. In the past, there were 23 or 24 teams.
"Now that they've been doing this remote, it seems like there are a lot of introverts out there who have decided to play, because the last couple of weeks, there have been about 43 teams," Montague said.
Virtual trivia's a nice way to pass the time, but Montague says she can't wait to see her teammates in person again.
"I think when everybody gets to go back to their regular lives, it's going to be very, very exciting," she said.
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