Campus reopens, local restaurants struggle to stay afloat

Buenos Dias is one restaurant on-campus that is open and serving customers daily. Photo by Matt Siciliano-Salazar | The Signal

For restaurants near campus, the first week of classes usually means long lines and bustling dining areas. Thousands of freshmen step foot on campus for the first time, while upperclassmen return to their favorite restaurants.

The Atlanta campus’s neighboring restaurants rely on students, faculty and local professionals to sustain their businesses. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Georgia State to shut down, these restaurants lost five months of business they depend on to get them through the slower summer months.

Now that campus has reopened, these restaurants hoped to revive their businesses and make up for lost profits. But this has been no easy feat, as the campus is operating at only 25% capacity, with students and faculty learning and teaching remotely.

Unusually Slow

Ken Katz and his wife Jeannette are the owners of Buenos Dias Cafe, a Salvadoran-inspired eatery located on Decatur Street. Before the pandemic, Buenos Dias expected to serve nearly 300 customers a day. Now, amid the pandemic, Ken Katz explained that the number of customers has shrunk significantly.

“It’s been dramatically slower than we anticipated,” Katz said. “We were operating under the pretense that Georgia State would be at 25% capacity. Now, we’re being told it’s actually 10%, and we’re seeing less than that.”

Reuben’s Deli is a New York-style deli situated on Broad Street. Just like any other restaurant in the area, Reuben’s clientele has significantly diminished. The owner of the Broad Street location, Claudio Furgiuele, details the restaurant’s current figures.

“My personal feeling is that we would normally have 100 or so people in line here during lunch, and I don’t know if that is going to return anytime soon,” Furgiuele said. “Now, we do a lot more delivery.”

Kenley Waller is the owner of Kenley’s Catering, Breakfast and Lunch Buffet. Most of Waller’s business was conducted at catering events, paired with a storefront in the Citizen’s Trust Building. Due to the pandemic, Waller lost the revenue made from catering events and relied solely on his restaurant.

“We’re still about 80% behind on sales,” Waller said. “We cater to high school football, and we have lost 100% of that. We, right now, are on life support.”

Merchants on Broad Street have a fairly tight-knit relationship with each other and have discussed their concerns and plans to keep their restaurants alive throughout the pandemic.

Furgiuele’s conversations with other restaurant owners entailed that they hoped heavy foot traffic would be restored when Georgia State students returned to Atlanta. But, Furgiuele knew that was not realistic.

“I think there were some [restaurants] that were anticipating a sense of normalcy; I didn’t,” he said. “There were some merchants that thought this was something that was just going to blow over, but it just is what it is.”

Similarly, Katz knew student and faculty populations would be astronomically low, but he did not expect the reality of just how barren Downtown Atlanta is.

“I did run into one of the [restaurant] owners on Broad Street during the first week of school, and he too was completely shocked,” Katz said. “We knew it was going to be dramatically slower. We did not think it was coming back the way it normally is, but it has been slower than we thought.”

Waller also expected customers to stop by sparingly but not as few and far between as his restaurant has experienced.

“I expected that we would be doing better than what we are,” he said. “But, it seems like that [expectation] has changed since [the] campus has opened.”

The Importance of Community

Most conversations about the pandemic center around students. But due to Georgia State’s unique location in the heart of Downtown Atlanta, the definition of community encompasses more than just Georgia State students and faculty.

Working professionals with occupations in politics, healthcare and Fortune 500 companies are all active parts of the community.

With only a small number of these functioning parts present, local restaurants hang on by a thread. The absence of working professionals has hit just as hard as the absence of students.

“I think a lot of the corporate [staff] and Georgia State staff that’s not here is what’s really hurting the business,” Waller said.

Broad Street is within walking distance of Georgia’s Own Credit Union and Georgia Pacific, making it a perfect outdoor destination for corporate Atlanta.

“Businesses are teleworking, so there’s probably only 20% of the businesspeople actually out here,” Furguiele said.

Adaptability is Money

The ability to adapt has been a common theme throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and these restaurant owners are no different. Between creating new hours, decreasing staff and increasing deliveries, adaptability is the pulse of Atlanta’s restaurants.

“It’s just a different way of doing business,” Furguiele said. “You’re either going to do okay or you’re going to fight it and end up shutting down; there’s not a lot of gray area anymore.”

Kenley’s has transformed its business operations astronomically to accommodate the rapid decline in patrons.

“We have lost all our staff,” Waller said. “We’re down to me opening in the morning with one person and my wife closing with a person. We furloughed all [of] our staff; that’s the only way we’re staying afloat.”

Restaurant owners adhere to basic CDC guidelines for restaurants, such as wearing masks, gloves and limited seating. Students are an integral component of these eateries’ clientele, eager to see their loyal customers walk through their doors.

“A ton [of students] have reached out to see if we’re okay, and we are touched,” Katz said. “Their support is really overwhelming, and we hope to see everyone in January.”

The futures for these restaurant owners means taking it one day at a time and hoping for the best.

“We’re just trying to keep it ‘business as usual’ as much as we can,” Furgiuele said.

Waller’s sentiments are similar to those of Katz’s.

“We’re open, and our restaurant is safe,” Waller said. “We follow protocol in our restaurant, and we would love to have you back.”

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