By Chris Mohney
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Chase Sapphire®.
Through the difficulties of the past year, restaurants have been there for their communities. They’ve pivoted to takeout, provided meals to essential workers, and so much more. The Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contest is awarding $50,000 business grants from Chase Sapphire to 20 small-business restaurants across America to provide COVID-19 pandemic recovery assistance. Zagat Stories is featuring interviews with all of our Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contests grant recipients.
Wes Choplin is chef-owner at Choplin’s restaurant in Cornelius, North Carolina, near Charlotte.
I always thought I would do more Choplin’s restaurants in the region here. I had wanted to start off with some renovations at the restaurant to improve the dining atmosphere and eventually move forward with expansion to other locations. But the pandemic put a hold on all of that.
Back in March 2020, the governor shut down all indoor dining. It was only to-go, pickup, or delivery. We’re an upscale steakhouse, and it’s all about the experience at the restaurant. That really shut us down—I’m talking probably 80 percent sales.
We do lunch Tuesday through Friday, and we do some southern comfort food on those particular days. As the restaurant was shut down for indoor dining, to create some more revenue I decided that we would do comfort food all day. That allowed the servers in the restaurant to do deliveries and create some revenue for them. It was just survival mode.
I bought some construction materials back in October 2019 and stored them to do some renovations in the restaurant. Once dining was shut down, I was able to pay the staff to assist me with the renovations. So we did renovations throughout the shutdown that we probably wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. I was just trying to keep the staff moving in a positive direction. I hoped that it wouldn’t take that long for us to dig out of this as a community.
As things got better, we were allowed 25 percent capacity in the restaurant. A month later it went to 50, and then 75, and then 100. We retained a lot of staff through the pandemic. At this point, we have 90 percent of the staff we had prior to the pandemic. We’re an upscale steakhouse, and there is not a lot of wiggle room to recreate the wheel in terms of the restaurant format. Eventually we have to get back to where we were.
Business came back pretty strong once we were at 100 percent. A lot of people were scared. It’s unfamiliar. It’s a new world. But we were very lucky to have a lot of support in the community. We’re about 15 minutes north of Charlotte, so a lot of people wanted to support local restaurants. I have been open almost 13 years and developed a lot of supportive relationships with our guests. They wanted to come back. And they didn’t forget about us.
The governor didn’t just shut down restaurants and retail. He also shut down schools for about the whole year of 2020. Some of the underprivileged children needed a spot to go for instruction and access the Wi-Fi. There was one group of about 25 to 30 students during the school week that were going to be doing some remote learning with some supervision. They needed lunch for the school day. They reached out to me and asked me if I would be interested in doing that. Of course, we did.
We started off doing about 25 to 30 lunches a day. I was like, “Well, if we’re already set up to do 25 or 30 lunches, I feel like we can do more.” So we put out on social media that we were going to offer free school lunches for children that were at home and didn’t have a hot lunch during the week, and it just took off like crazy.
I had no idea that there was as much need in the entire community for these hot lunches. So we went from 30 lunches a week to about 500, 600, 700 a week. I did have to borrow a little money to do it. But the community did quite a bit of donations to help us. It was a beautiful, beautiful thing for us to be able to do.
I didn’t solicit any of those donations. We didn’t team up with any nonprofit. It was just our thing. We didn’t ask any questions. You didn’t have to fill out a form. If you reached out to us, we didn’t deny anybody. It provided some normalcy for these children who didn’t even know what was going on.
Our goal has always been to give back. I’ve always wanted a restaurant, and I love to help people. The restaurant was a vehicle for us to provide a dining experience with the highest quality of food. Of course this is a business, but I also want to help my community, whatever that means along the way. Two or three years into the business, I teamed up with Watchmen of the Streets, which is a homeless outreach program in Charlotte. We would take cooking equipment, fine china, and the best quality food that we use at the restaurant, and we would hike back into the woods to the homeless camps and cook for them. We did that for quite some time.
When we were serving the school meals, there was this little boy. His name was Ocean. He was in kindergarten, probably 5 or 6 years old. He showed up at my front door with a volunteer. He wanted to come personally and meet me, and thank me for his lunches. That touched my heart so much. That particular moment was when I knew that this was a need. That kept me motivated through the whole service that we offered—just seeing his face and his appreciation.
Feeding those children during the school shutdown has probably been my favorite thing we’ve ever done. That’s just who we are, and I would do it all over again, given the need for it. That’s our mission. That’s who we’ve always been and always will be as long as there is a restaurant. At this point, I don’t think that I would want to go through all the tough times of running a restaurant without the opportunity to help people along the way.