By Chris Mohney
We were cruisin’ and groovin’ when we opened up at this location in December 2019. We were just out of the gate, right at three months, when the notifications went out about shutting down restaurant dining areas. Within 48 hours we felt what the restrictions were going to do to so many businesses in all industries. It was going to hit your bottom line in a harsh way. We saw a dip of 60 or 70 percent within 48 hours.
We were making adjustments, trying to figure out, “What does that mean to me? How do I keep myself safe? What is this virus?” It was in the news, and we were being saturated with all this information. At the same time we got all these health code regulations and protocols coming at us. We were like, “Wait, wait wait. What are we doing? What does no inside dining feel like?” They wanted tables on the top of the chairs, striking tables out. I remember talking to my business partner about his other restaurant and what he was planning on doing. We both have patios, but at that time we didn’t have our patio available at Hotville. We hadn’t ordered furniture or anything like that. I didn’t have a delivery platform in place. I didn’t take phone orders. We always did takeout, but our dining room is our pride and joy, because people like coming here and hanging out for a while. It’s a home away from home. It feels like Nashville. They were getting all that twang and essence that Nashville has to offer right here in South Central LA.
I got on the phone with Postmates. They had a strategy I was interested in, and as a consumer, I usually use Postmates over the other delivery platforms. So I reached out to them, got a favorable response, and negotiated some favorable terms considering what was going on. We started at the end of March. Within two weeks we started our first set of deliveries, and that brought us right back to our normal numbers. It was completely a pivot in the opposite direction and getting back to where we started, which was nice. People started coming in again. That two-week hit was a very, very difficult one to absorb. But we took it, and I refused to close.
For the people working here, I was concerned about keeping their morale up—giving them something consistent to come to every day. I feel like it was important for us to stay open for that reason.
I’ve been praying very hard for a miracle to happen. While Postmates did a wonderful job getting our numbers back up, it didn’t get us a hundred percent up. That foot traffic coming through the door is what we needed, or some large-scale orders, some catering like we’ve done for the past couple years. Large group events were getting canceled left and right because they said that no more than 50 people could gather, and then they said no more than 10, and now it’s six or whatever the case may be.
I remember staying glued to the TV, glued to my computer, getting caught up on every update. We went out and got all our PPE and made sure our staff was comfortable. We got our protocols in place. We were fortunate enough not to have anybody get sick. Everybody’s been good, their households are good, and they’re taking those same safety norms they’ve been practicing at the restaurant back home with them.
The answer to that prayer, the miracle that I needed, was getting a call from the office of city councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson. His leadership is unlike anybody else I know. It’s not just that he contacted us to find out how we were doing, because they were checking up the new business, the new baby on the block. They also had a program and a plan. They were concerned about people in need in the district.
I said, “Hey, we’ve got seniors who are in the high-risk category for catching COVID.” They can’t get out to the grocery store. They normally would dine in, and now they can’t. Our city council district secured funds through nonprofit organizations to cover the cost of meals for these people. That caught the attention of the mayor’s office and the governor’s office, because reports were getting back to them about the thousands of people that were being fed each week by local small businesses. We started off with a handful of meals going to senior housing. There was one drop-off center—no contact, just wheel them in and drop them off. We did that program for 12 weeks strong, three days a week.
It wasn’t no skimpy meal, either. We hooked them up. They got these really hearty, soulful meals that you could eat twice off of each day. That was kind of a resuscitation. It brought life back. Those seniors had showed me so much support prior to COVID, and now they could have the same meal that they would normally get here in their own living room.
Another nonprofit and a handful of volunteers contacted us after hearing about the senior meals, and they said, “Hey, can you feed young people? Can you do this women’s shelter?” And I said, “Yeah. The more the merrier.” They pay for the meals at our menu value. And now we’re feeding young people—these students that are at home and doing online learning through their schools. Those kids typically would only get a really nutritious meal at school. For some of them, the only meal they would get is when they went to school. And that grabbed my heart, too.
In all humility, we just keep doing what we do, which is fry chicken. But if there’s a way that we can meet the need and do good, the seed multiplies itself. That whole garden of good has been bringing the morale back to my own team.
But as for how all the rules and restrictions keep changing in California—it’s not even a roller-coaster ride. It’s a yo-yo going up and down. When they reopened inside dining down the road, we had the health inspector come through. She said, “You know you can open up your dining room, right?” I was like, “Yeah, but this is my house, and I’m not going to open it yet.”
People didn’t understand my reluctance. I had this gut feeling that it was going to get shut down again, because people weren’t wearing masks. People were out doing everything but the right thing. Even the ones that would try to come into our restaurant, we called you out at the door. You’re not going to get two feet in without having a mask on. You weren’t going to get your behind in my seats at all. I didn’t care who you were. You could show me that you didn’t test positive or whatever. My house, my rules.
When I saw that people were so relaxed, and I heard about the mansion parties, I would tell my crew, “I better not find out that you were at any of these mansion parties going on.” We were so many weeks in, and everybody started getting comfortable.
That yo-yo of openings and closing—I talked on the phone about it to my restaurant colleagues out there. I’m a part of the James Beard Foundation Women’s Leadership Council. And I listened to the likes of Catherine An and the owners of Crustacean. I was like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m on the phone talking to that person.” We were on video calls that were kind of like support groups. And I’m hearing about restaurants that have been around for a long time, these iconic places, closing for good. It makes me strategize and fortify myself and say, “What can we do to make sure that that’s not our testimony?” Because tomorrow it could be a totally different story. The yo-yo is something I don’t want to play with.
Fortunately, we have mastered delivery. Every now and then something gets left out of the box, but we’ve had some 100 percent accuracy reports on our deliveries. It’s to the point that on the weekends we get overwhelmed with the deliveries. We instituted curbside pickup as well. A lot of people pay for their orders over the phone. We also have a handheld device where they can pay for their order that way. When they pay for their order, they give us a description of their car, or they call when they pull up, and we bring it out for them and put it in their trunk or in their backseat on the passenger side. We had LAPD officers who came by and gave us tips on best practices for how to stay safe.
As long as we don’t have a handle on this virus, I’m not going to open up my interior dining room. I’m not going to do a bunch of bubble structures and plexiglass walls. I’ve been looking at some other restaurants and seeing the expense they went through to get people back inside. And for the majority, there are still empty dining rooms. Our patio space is full. We’ve reduced the number of seats. On the weekend, we take reservations to come and sit there. That’s something I had planned on having anyway pre-COVID.
The parking lot has become the new tabletop because people are out there tailgating. It’s been cool to see that. People are getting out and enjoying the neighborhood, too. They’re asking us, “Hey, we’re not from here. Where is the nearest park?” Not far from here they are able to sit down, put their blankets out, and eat. So I’m not going to change anything yet.
What would help is for leadership and the administration to provide some more financial assistance. Call it stimulus, call it PPP, whatever name you want to put on it. It’s got to be fair, because the first rounds were not fair. Honestly, it’s still unsettling to me. Yes, I finally got it. But we were in a chokehold waiting on it, losing breath and about to faint, just literally depending on what was coming through the door to make ends meet. You’ve exhausted all your cash flow, exhausted all your savings, and now you’re going into your personal pocket or skipping getting paid yourself to make sure everything is covered. And I’m just one business. There are thousands and thousands of businesses across this country going through the same abysmal decision-making.
This thing is attacking us all. Small businesses really feel the squeeze. The corporate giants—they’ve got a little more room in their belts. They can afford to starve a little bit. But a little business like mine, I’m trying not to go hungry.