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Tough choices: Hall restaurants share struggles and successes of 2020
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From left, Dharma and Paresh Patel, co-owners of Sweet Magnolia's Cafe and Bakery, said regular customers and large to-go orders from Northeast Georgia Medical Center and businesses have helped keep their restaurant afloat during the pandemic. - photo by Kelsey Podo

During the pandemic many restaurant owners have been forced to make tough calls. For Kim Johnson, owner of At The Tracks in Lula, that included closing down her 4-year-old restaurant on Nov. 19, 2020.

“I couldn’t get anybody to work,” Johnson said. “I was down to one server and one cook. The pandemic has definitely had an effect on business, not just for the restaurant, but for our employees. A lot of them have had a hard time with it.”

Although the restaurant is permanently closed, Johnson said she has put all of her efforts into catering and hosting events inside At The Tracks. Today, the business owner said she is saving around $10,000 a month on payroll expenses. 

When the pandemic hit in March, Johnson said her restaurant’s sales decreased by 25%, but she was still able to maintain steady business through curbside pick-up. Now that the restaurant is closed, she said her days are less stressful because she no longer has to manage a team of staff. 

“It was a very difficult decision to shut the restaurant down, and I struggled with it,” Johnson said. “I’ve always wanted to do catering anyway.”

During the spring of 2020, Bobby Peck, general manager of Longstreet Cafe, said business became “pretty tight.” 

By the time June rolled around, he said the restaurant started gaining its footing again. 

However, Longstreet Cafe isn’t back to its pre-pandemic state. Peck said sales at both of the restaurant’s Gainesville locations are down by 20 to 30%. Fortunately, he said the business has never gotten to the point of potentially closing. 

“We knew that if something didn’t turn around quick, we knew it was a possibility,” Peck said. 

In order to survive, Longstreet Cafe adapted. Peck said the business shifted from doing 35% drive-thru to 50%. He also credits the restaurant’s success to “customer loyalty.”

Paresh Patel, who co-owns Sweet Magnolia’s Cafe and Bakery, said he remembers when the square looked empty during the beginning of the pandemic. At one point, he even considered temporarily closing his business, but instead decided to “bear some losses and try to stay open.”

From March to April, Patel said his business lost 30% of its sales. Thanks to the support of regular patrons and large to-go orders from Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, as well as several local businesses, he said the restaurant has managed to stay open. Over the past several months, he said Sweet Magnolia’s has gotten better, now down by 20% of sales,an improvement of 10% compared to before the pandemic.

“We had a few customers who came here everyday to support us,” he said. “They’ve helped us during the tough times. We had a few come in here, and they gave us gifts for our employees just to keep our spirits up. That was really nice of them.”

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Bud Whelchel, assistant manager of Avocados Restaurant in Gainesville, speaks about the new burlap wall dividers the restaurant added in January 2021 to help separate customers. - photo by Kelsey Podo

At Avocados Restaurant on the square, people have taken advantage of the outdoor seating and spaced-out tables inside, which are now divided by large pieces of burlap hanging from the ceiling. 

Bud Whelchel, the restaurant’s assistant manager, said business isn’t quite what it used to be before March 2020, but “everything is going good so far.”

Atlas Pizza, located on Gainesville’s square, reopened its dining space to the public on Nov. 1, 2020, after closing it off for eight months to keep its customers and staff safe. 

Despite a long period of only to-go sales, Naomi Gnome, manager of Atlas, said it didn’t see a drop in sales. The restaurant has always offered pick-up and delivery services, so she said the shift wasn’t a major challenge.

“People want Atlas,” Gnome said. “We’ve been a staple in Gainesville for over 10 years. Atlas Pizza is Atlas Pizza.”

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