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Restaurants, retailers tell their stories of struggle as state works to contain spread of coronavirus
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Cars fill up the drive-thru lanes Monday, March 16, 2020, at the Chick-fil-A on Dawsonville Highway. The Atlanta-based restaurant chain announced Monday morning that it was closing its indoor dining areas as concern grows about COVID-19. - photo by Scott Rogers

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It started a few weeks ago for Amanda’s Farm to Fork in Lula.

“It” is the only thing on anyone’s mind these days: The social distancing, the slowdown, the conferences, the nonstop emails about this collective abundance of caution, all of it tied to the response to the coronavirus.

Amanda Browning’s first warning that hard times were coming was when Babyland General Hospital in Cleveland — don’t hop in your car to get tested, this place births dolls, not people — canceled a major catering job it had lined up with the Lula country-cooking restaurant.

It turns out that the maker of Cabbage Patch Kids, which owns and operates Babyland General as a tourist stop, had canceled all of its catered events for the coming months.

Christos Nicolaou, co-owner of Alpha Gyro Grill on the corner of Jesse Jewell and E. E. Butler parkways, was scheduled to feed 150 doctors from the Northeast Georgia Health System at an event at Left Nut Brewing Co. in the coming days. 

That event, and the revenue that went with it, could not be more canceled as doctors and the rest of the staff at NGHS work overtime to prepare for the spread of coronavirus in Georgia.

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Andrew Elliott, co-owner of The Inked Pig. - photo by Nick Bowman
Andrew Elliott was at The Inked Pig, the midtown Gainesville barbecue restaurant he owns with head cook Jimmy Ellis, on Saturday, March 14, when the calls started coming in, each one wiping out of the ledger dollars that keep lights on, buy product, pay employees.

The catering jobs at The Inked Pig, Alpha Gyro Grill and Amanda’s Farm to Fork have been wiped out for months to come. Nothing is scheduled through the spring, according to the owners.

“All my catering has been canceled because all events have been canceled — all events,” Nicolao said on Tuesday, March 17. “All events around town.”

The Spring Chicken Festival is moved to June 20. Mutts on Main is postponed until further notice. The Times has compiled an ever-growing list of cancellations and postponements as event organizers heed the warnings of state and federal officials, which advise people to gather in groups of no more than 10 people.

Some states have gone so far as to force the closure of inside seating areas. Some restaurants, mostly large chains like Chick-fil-A, Bojangles and Taco Bell, have taken that step voluntarily and routed all customers to carry-out or drive-thru.

Elliott said on Tuesday that The Inked Pig was reviving its drive-thru window, which is believed to have been the first to ever open in Gainesville. It’ll have a Chick-fil-A-style service setup, with someone standing outside to place orders that’ll be delivered through the window.

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Alpha Gyro Grill's Christos Nicolaou. - photo by Scott Rogers
A similar setup sans drive-thru is in the works at Alpha, and the restaurant owners have even enlisted their children, who are home from work and school, to get a delivery service rolling.

“Right now, with Georgio, Sally and our two kids, we want to organize our pick-up and to-go, we want to make it easier — something like grab to-go,” Nicolao said. “We’ll probably have to close down the dining area.”

Alpha’s dining area has not yet been closed.

In Lula, Amanda’s Farm to Fork is ramping up its home delivery and carryout options to accommodate social distancing recommendations from state and federal officials. 

The restaurant and its Southern cooking attracted a large number of Lula’s elder citizens, who are most at risk because of the virus. Delivery orders can be placed and organized by emailing amanda@amandasfarmtofork.com.

Browning said the restaurant has to do something to help keep the doors open after sales plummeted 65% last week.

“That’s actually keeping our head above water,” Browning said. “Delivery has increased, and what’s crazy about it is it’s not people buying for themselves — it’s people gifting. They email things into me, and their orders have all been ‘this person is sick, we want to give them food’ or ‘this person is going through cancer treatment, we don’t want them to leave the house.’”

The response to coronavirus is forcing even fine-dining restaurants to adjust to a new normal. In Flowery Branch, Antebellum is entering the world of takeout.

“Even with takeout, it’s sort of difficult because … it’s not going to typically make up for the amount you would get from dine-in customers,” said Nicole Hohman, who handles marketing for Antebellum. “It’s going to be interesting operating on smaller margins.”

It’s not just restaurants feeling the hit. Many retailers in Hall County have been riding out a slump because of the wet weather recently, and now they’re bracing for shoppers in some cases being told to literally not go outside.

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Purchase Effect owner Connie Rock helps Ella Kate Canaday, 11, with her purchase Wednesday, July 18, 2018. - photo by Scott Rogers
Connie Rock owns Purchase Effect, a clothing and accessories store on the Gainesville square that she relies on to fund her missionary work. Her husband works two jobs.

Not overflowing with cash in the first place after a dreary winter, Rock closed her store this week to the public. She lives nearby and can open the store by appointment. Purchase Effect also has an online store.

“I made this call because I don’t want somebody to come into contact with somebody or someone who might be carrying something,” Rock said on Tuesday. “My parents are both in their 70s, and that was the big tipping point for me — my mother sent me a text. When my mother texts, something is wrong.”

Her mother recommended she shut the store to prevent being another place the disease could be transferred. While she’s confident she’s doing the right thing for the community, it cuts into the revenue she expected to make as warmer weather returned and brought people to the Gainesville square.

“This week it’s been pretty drastic,” she said of the dropping sales. “It’s hard to compare, even. The rain — I’ve just seen a decrease in sales overall this year. I was concerned, if we’re going to stay at this rate, Purchase Effect may make it a year, if that.”

Advocates for local restaurants and retailers are encouraging the public to buy gift cards if they don’t want to leave their homes — giving retailers the cash they need to clear expenses and keep people employed — and order takeout when they would have otherwise gone out to eat.

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