Across the nation, the coronavirus pandemic has hit local restaurants hard.
Many Memphis restaurant owners shut their doors last week in response to Mayor Jim Strickland's Safer at Home
executive order. Their options were to close or offer take-out only.
But in food deserts like North Memphis, the loss of sit-down restaurants is devastating not just for workers and business owners but residents too. These are the businesses, along with corner stories, that keep food deserts from being truly barren.
North Memphis is one of the most economically depressed areas in Memphis. It’s home to several distinct communities in roughly 15 square miles.
The area has only two grocery stores, both on Jackson Avenue—a Save A Lot at its far eastern end and Gordin’s Butcher Shoppe 4.5 miles to the west. Gordin’s is a mid-sized grocer and doesn’t offer the selection of a full-sized supermarket.
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, staple items on grocery store shelves are being wiped out. Trips to multiple stores is frustrating but doable for people with cars, but many North Memphians lack personal transportation. A bus rider could easily spend half a day checking for items at just two stores and can only buy what they can carry.
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The alternatives are restaurants and corner stores.
There’s fear in North Memphis that a statewide or national shutdown would result in virtually no accessible food sources. Restaurants may have to close completely. Many corner stores sell hot food. They may be classified as restaurants and forced to close or may not be classified as essential businesses because they aren’t gas stations.
Deangelo Rainey is both a business owner and a native of North Memphis’ Hyde Park neighborhood. His restaurant, Waffle Mania, is smack in the middle of North Memphis.
Rainey said shutting his doors wasn’t an option. He has to make sure he can pay his staff and he wants to make sure he’s open for his community. Like many North Memphis businesses, he also employs people from the neighborhood.
He said the coronavirus is yet another obstacle to overcome.
“We’ve been in poverty all our life,” Rainey said. “We’ve been dealing with hard times forever.”
Waffle Mania is serving take-out only as ordered by Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland in response to COVID-19. The Chelsea Avenue store is one of the few places in North Memphis that residents can get a fresh salad. Here, owner Deangelo Rainey gets himself a drink from the soda fountain. (Waffle Mania)
Serving While They Can
Waffle Mania is located at 2302 Peres Avenue just off Chelsea Avenue, which is one of North Memphis' main arteries. They're known for their chicken and waffles, but it’s also one of the few restaurants where customers can order a fresh salad.
Without accessible grocery stores, it's difficult for residents to find fresh produce.
“We have specials on our menu that range from five to ten dollars, and we have regulars that come in to get the five dollar special every day. I’m not sure how essential that is to them, but I think [they’re] very essential. We need to stay open,” Rainey said.
Rainey said that unlike many area restaurants, his business hasn’t taken a major hit because most of their revenue already came from take-out and delivery orders.
“ We haven’t felt the impact up to this point, but if it’s coming, we just pray. We can’t do nothing but pray at this point,” he said.
Rainey will reassess at the end of the week and decide if he will continue to remain open.
Closing Means Shutting Out Family
At lunchtime, Ms. Girlee’s Soul Food Restaurant always has a line to the door.
Ms. Girlees is 3.5 miles west of Waffle Mania at 629 Chelsea Avenue. There, residents of North Memphis can get a hot plate of vegetables and proteins at an affordable price.
Just last week, loyal customers piled in for plates of steaming neckbones, fried chicken, fish, greens, and yams.
The matriarch of the family-owned business, Jimmie Leach, said she’s been "cooking with love" at Ms. Girlee's for more than seven years. The family previously owned a restaurant on Watkins Street.
“All of my customers are my family for real,” Leach said.
Although Leach said business was good with take-out only orders, Ms. Girlee’s shut its doors on March 24 after Mayor Strickland’s state of emergency declaration.
It's not clear when they will reopen, but Leach said she hopes it will be soon.
“It’s very important that we’re open,” Leach said. “It’s the way we make our living. It’s how we support our employees.”
Valerie Peavy co-owns The Office @ Uptown with her husband Jeff Harrison. Part cafe, part community center, and part communal office, the business is now temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pictured here in May 2018. (Brandon Dahlberg)
The Cost of Doing Business
The Office @ Uptown shut its doors last Friday.
The Office is the only restaurant in North Memphis that focuses its full menu on lighter, healthier fare like salads, house-made soups, sandwiches, and fresh fruit.
The Office also offers use of office equipment—a computer, printer, scanner, and fax machine—that many elderly and lower-income residents can't access in their neighborhood outside of public libraries.
Valerie Peavy co-owns the restaurant with her husband, Jeff Harrison. She said closing was heartbreaking. They too feel their customers are like family.
“We’ve been in business for nearly seven years,” Peavy said. “We’ve become as someone said yesterday, ‘... the heartbeat for this neighborhood.’ And I thought: ‘Wow! I never really thought about it like that.’”
Peavy said The Office relies heavily on catering orders, which have completely dried up in the last two weeks.
With the Safer at Home executive order, regular customers who worked Downtown are now working from home. Other regulars, most of them nearby Uptown residents, are also staying home.
Peavy said the business’s bills aren’t stopping. They had to weigh the cost of closing with the cost of even minimal expenses—keeping the lights on, fresh ingredients stocked, and staff ready to work—with so few customers to serve.
“We want to be able to preserve as much as we can so that we can come back after this,” she said.
Peavy understands that her decision to close will leave a void in the community, but ultimately, she had to do what was best for her family and her staff in the long-term.
She believes the restaurant, North Memphis, and the entire city will eventually bounce back.
“We’re Memphians. We’re going to pull together and do what we need to do,” Peavy said.