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Jamie Lynch on Running Restaurants Amid COVID-19: "It’s Very Hard to Stay Afloat"
"It keeps me up at night... how things are going to evolve from this," the Bravo's Top Chef alum said.
As the world changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re examining how restaurant owners and the extended Top Chef family are adapting to new protocols and procedures and what’s next for their business in our series, Restaurant Report.
Jamie Lynch entered last year with a plan. He would continue his work as Executive Chef/Partner at Sophia's Lounge, 5 Church Charlotte, and 5Church Charleston. He would keep developing his "passion project," the organic farm he operated with his girlfriend, Corey McGovern. Perhaps most excitingly, he would open his latest upscale eatery, Tempest, in Charleston. For the Bravo's Top Chef Seasons 14 and 17 alum, as the early days of 2020 came and went, all was going according to plan. However, in March, the same month Tempest was scheduled to open, everything changed.
"We had been working on the Tempest project for a good year before the pandemic started. We were actually nearing our opening date, which was initially early March, when all of this stuff really started to affect what was going on," Jamie recalled when speaking to BravoTV.com in November 2020. "Obviously there were delays in construction because of the pandemic. The opening day got kicked back and back to the point where we were like, ‘OK, let’s not even think about opening right now. We got the place almost built, let’s just kind of sit for a minute and see what’s going on.' Then we realized the pandemic wasn’t going away."
At the time, pushing back the opening date of Tempest was far from Jamie's only concern as he faced an unpredictable future for his other businesses. "When everything first happened I was pretty devastated. I wasn’t sure how we were going to do it," he said. "That feeling lasted a lot longer than I thought it would. It was kind of the course of a few weeks where I was wallowing in this uncertainty about what we would be able to do, realistically."
"There were no clear answers," he added. "Nobody seemed to have any solid ideas on what was safe and what wasn’t and I really was concerned that we might lose businesses, that the restaurants would have to close."
On March 15, Jamie announced the decision to temporarily close Sophia's Lounge and both 5Church locations, days before Charlotte and Charleston's restaurant owners were mandated to do so. While 5Church's locations reopened exclusively for takeout and delivery services the following month, Jamie explained that it just wasn't enough to sustain the business — especially in Charlotte. "5Church is built for an experience and in-restaurant dining. Charlotte is such a financial center, with businesses working from home and stuff like that, there wasn't a whole lot of carryout for us. We definitely felt the sting of that."
In late June, as both 5Church locations and Sophia's Lounge finally reopened, Jamie initially struggled to adapt to shifting regulations amid the pandemic. "Early on was tough. Sanitation is a huge part of what we do in my kitchens, but adding that level of anxiety about this virus, it just was all-consuming," he recalled. "We were hyper-sanitary in everything we were doing to the point where it was almost all I was doing every day. It wasn't about menus or cooking, it was about making sure that we had everything in place and everyone was following appropriate procedures. It was quite exhausting."
However, the team quickly adjusted to those new procedures, as Jamie explained, "It’s like anything: Change is the hardest part. Learning the new restrictions or new methods, once you practice them, the muscle memory kicks in and it feels a lot calmer, a lot more safe."
Although Jamie and his team settled in to their new way of operating, on July 22, they announced the difficult decision to once-again temporarily cease dine-in operations at 5Church's Charlotte location, declaring in a post on the restaurant's Instagram page: "As the state and county continue to roll back openings and force further restrictions on customers and staff alike, it has become clear that that there is no cogent plan from any local, state, or federal officials allowing for the safe and solvent operation of a restaurant in North Carolina." With one of his locations temporarily shutting its doors, Jame was forced to lay off a "huge part" of his team, a moment he described as "devastating."
Following that decision, Jamie announced a major changeup within his businesses: "We decided we would reopen Sophias Lounge kind of as 5Church’s little sister. We were doing more food out of there, it was a smaller operation, and we’re able operate on a much smaller budget."
Unsurprisingly, a smaller budget meant big changes to the menus at Jamie's restaurants. "Highly perishable foods that we normally would have on the menu when we were doing high volume, we’ve kind of shied away from some of that stuff," he explained. "We’re already operating at such decreased income that nobody’s making money right now. It’s not just me. That’s everybody. Nobody’s profitable in this environment so we need to be super diligent to not have any waste."
One month after announcing 5Church Charlotte would temporarily close, his newest restaurant, Tempest, opened in August. "I did open a restaurant in the middle of this, I highly don’t recommend it to anyone," Jamie said with a laugh. "It wasn’t by choice, the money was already spent, we had already built the restaurant. It was either now or never."
The "only benefit to opening during a pandemic," was a smaller number of people filling the dining room, Jamie explained: "We didn’t open to the floodgates of guests coming into our dining room and us not being ready for them. We very systematically, slowly rolled it out to very limited reservations so we could do the social distancing." Looking back, Jamie noted that the limited guest count, "actually helped our kitchen get its feet under it in a way that we were able to deliver food that was out of this world."
Based on its first few months of operation in the most unpredictable and difficult of times, Jamie is optimistic about the restaurant's future: "I’m blown away by the quality of food that we’re putting out at Tempest right now. I’m hoping that the end is getting near for the pandemic. Some things are gonna happen where people will be more free to come out and enjoy the space. Then we’ll just start to push the envelope on what this restaurant can really do from a business standpoint."
With Tempest more than successfully up-and-running, his other restaurants operating to the best of their ability, and 5Church Charlotte now scheduled to reopen February 4, 2021, Jamie is beyond proud of what his team has been able to accomplish amid the pandemic: "For us it’s going really well, as well as it can be. We’re not profitable and we’re not breaking even, but we’re not losing so much business that we’re threatened right now. We definitely are doing that best that we can in the environment that we’re in."
"It was a lifeline kind of situation. We wouldn't be open, we wouldn’t be stable — as stable as we can be — without the team that kind of hunkered down through this and focused on what was going on," he added. "We were all depressed, we were all upset, we were all uncertain, but we focused on how we as a team were going to get through this and keep the restaurants alive in a way where we could reopen and eventually return to normal. We’re not there yet, but I hope that we’ll get there."
To get there, Jamie said, "We are looking for things to improve. We need to be able to do better business. We’re a business that operates on a such a slim margin. Even when things are good, we’re not making tons of money. With all of these restrictions, it’s very hard to stay afloat and every little bit matters."
While his restaurants have stayed afloat, one of Jamie's other businesses, the organic farm he started with his girlfriend two years ago, unfortunately could not survive the pandemic. "Most of the farm operations were supported by me and my girlfriend personally and then whatever sales we could do to the restaurants," he said. "With all of the restaurants being closed, we had to make the hard decision to close the farm so we’re selling the property and so we’re going to try to move on to a couple of other things."
Now, as Jamie moves forward, he wonders how restaurants will forever be changed by the pandemic. "It’s something that I think about a lot. It keeps me up at night, gears turning about how things are going to evolve from this," he said. "I’m optimistic things will evolve from this, things will return to 'normal.' It may not be the normal that was pre-pandemic, but there will be a sense of normalcy where people are out sharing meals together. Maybe they’re not sharing plates, I don’t know."
While he doesn't yet have all the answers on what the future holds for the hospitality industry, Jamie is certain about one thing: "I’m definitely going to be a part of figuring it out."
Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio is another vocal advocate for restaurant industry support amidst the pandemic. For the latest, most accurate information on the coronavirus pandemic, go to the World Health Organization (WHO) website.
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