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Style & Living Restaurant Report

Kelsey Barnard Clark Talks "Trying to Survive" in the Restaurant Industry Amid COVID-19

"You do what you have to do to stay open," the Bravo's Top Chef Season 16 winner said. "But in doing that you have to make a lot of sacrifices." 

By Abby Feiner
Kelsey Barnard Clark Restaurant Covid

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.

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Nearly a decade into owning her own restaurant, Kelsey Barnard Clark never could have imagined the sense of instability she has come to feel amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. 

"When you get to a certain point with restaurants, you feel this comfort," the Bravo's Top Chef Season 16 winner told in early September. "Some people say two years, some people say four years. I’ve been well past that, I’ve had a restaurant for eight years. I don’t think about not having a job. I don’t think about not having my normal paycheck."

In March, Kelsey had to think about just that when she made the "extremely terrifying" choice to stop taking a paycheck from her Dothan, Alabama eatery and catering service, KBC, in order to reduce overhead costs. Without her consistent pay, Kelsey and her husband, Deavours Clark, who are expecting their second child this fall, began to think about the potential of more drastic change to come.

"'What’s the first thing to go if this doesn't change soon?' 'We might have to sell this house.' Those were the conversations we were having," she recalled. Luckily, Deavours' work in security services getting "significantly busier" amid the pandemic helped Kelsey remain calm about their immediate future, because, as she explained, "at least one of us will have a job.'”

However, fighting for that job became all the more difficult when KBC closed its doors and shifted exclusively to takeout and delivery services on March 20. "We were not making any money doing takeout only," Kelsey said. "Our numbers for takeout were, on a good day, I would say 85% less than what I normally would make."

"There’s no way you’re going to do as much takeout as you would filling your restaurant, but you still have to have the amount of staff to be able to make these dishes," she continued. "Furthermore, packaging food up to go is more time consuming and costly than serving it on a plate in a restaurant. For us to try to pull all of that off with less staff was very frustrating, to say the least."

As morale at KBC became what Kelsey described as "very depressing" due to a lack of standard business and income, she turned to her staff for a decision on their next steps. "I let my employees choose," she said. "I told them, 'When this is not working for y'all anymore, when y'all aren’t making ends meet and it would make more sense for you to go on unemployment, you let me know and then we’ll decide what we need to do as a company.'" Nearly two weeks later, the team "took a vote and they voted to go on unemployment, to [temporarily] close."

In the six weeks that followed with no incoming funds from customers, receiving the government PPP loan "let us pay a significant amount of employees," Kelsey said. "We kept them on and just had them doing different tasks around the restaurant like deep cleaning, doing things like that. We were closed and weren’t bringing in any money, but we still paid them so that they could do something and have a check." 

That decision, Kelsey recalled, caused an "incredible shift" among her staff as "the people that stepped up really stepped up." After spending weeks cleaning and organizing KBC's building, "they came back with this sense of ownership of the building, even of the business," Kelsey explained. "That’s been really cool to see."

Still, as the team worked hard to reopen, Kelsey became increasingly worried with each passing day. "I knew in my mind how long we could go on before we had to just throw in the towel," she said. "Restaurants in general don’t have a huge profit margin. Anything we make is funneled back into the restaurant. In my case, we had savings, luckily, and we used a significant amount of it to stay open in the weeks we were closed, but there was a time stamp on it of, like, 'If this goes on for X amount more time, we won’t reopen.'"

With large events including weddings being canceled or postponed around the country, KBC's catering business experienced a "huge revenue loss" this year. In an attempt to supplement her lack of income, Kelsey began teaching virtual cooking classes, a reminder of the classes she taught eight years ago as a side job to her catering business. "I’m very much an entrepreneur at heart and a hustler," she said. "It puts me back in that person and that time in life where I’m like, 'You’ve got to get creative in making money somehow.'” 

Things finally took a turn for the better in May, when KBC re-opened its doors for indoor and outdoor dining. However, Kelsey wasn't exactly feeling relieved. "The first few weeks reopening were a nightmare," she recalled. "I felt like I was opening a completely new restaurant because we’re reopening with different strategies, different procedures, [and] the front of the house had to be completely re-trained in a different way."

With "a lot less staff" upon reopening, "Service was not as great as it could have been or should have been because we were trying to keep our numbers down," Kelsey admitted. "You do what you have to do to stay open but in doing that you have to make a lot of sacrifices."

Something Kelsey wasn't willing to sacrifice, however, was the health of her employees and customers. Thankfully, KBC's "humongous 16,000 square-foot building" made it relatively easy to implement new health and safety procedures. "We stay six feet apart, our staff wears masks, we have a significant amount of outdoor seating," Kelsey said, noting that the team is utilizing the building's former private event spaces, upstairs, downstairs, and two courtyards. "We’re just using every square foot that’s possible."

In addition to new procedures, the menu at KBC has also undergone significant changes. "We took a lot of items off of our menu because it was more feasible to not have these really high-dollar products when we have such inconsistent days," she said. "You can’t have these really high-cost dishes on your menu because if you waste those, you’re just drowning. We got a lot of complaints about taking off those menu items."

Unfortunately, complaints aren't exactly uncommon these days. "The hardest part is just dealing with very irrational behavior on the regular," Kelsey admitted. "As much as you want to hope people are going to be very understanding of what’s going on, they’re not." Still, Kelsey has tried to keep those tough moments in perspective, explaining, "It’s gotten a little bit worse since all of this has happened, but you just try to be understanding and understand that people are all under so much pressure right now, people are depressed, in general it's just not a really happy place that anyone’s in."

Of course, Kelsey and her team can relate to the angst her customers may be feeling. "We’re frustrated too. We are really not into wearing these masks and social distancing and making half of what we’re used to," she said. "Everyone is going through this in some way, shape, or form. The least that we can do is be kind to each other and be supportive of everyone. Whatever problems we have, someone’s probably got bigger ones and they may be walking through the door right now, so that’s what we try to remember. But it certainly can be difficult."

For those choosing to go to a restaurant for dine-in service, Kelsey has a couple of important reminders: "If there’s a rule that seems funny or interesting or stupid to you, understand that either a) we’re being forced to enforce that or b) the only reason we’re doing it is to keep our staff safe, keep you safe, and keep the doors open. There are no money-making tactics here anymore. At this point, we’re literally just trying to survive."

While Kelsey is "hopeful on all fronts that everything is gonna even back out," she emphasized that restaurants cannot remain open without active business. "Owning a small business is extremely, terribly difficult on the best day," she said. "If you want to see places survive and you want your children to see small businesses one day, you’ve got to be the one to support them or they won't stick around after this."

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. 

Tom Colicchio on the Future of Restaurants Post-Quarantine

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