Reopened dining room feeding optimism at Virgil’s

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Gee Smalls is optimistic about the future of Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen & Bar – even after coronavirus closings, a steep drop in revenue and staffing shortages.

With the restaurant reopened and now enjoying in-person dining – the dining room opened at 50 percent capacity last month – Smalls said that there’s renewed hope for the 2,000-square-foot restaurant that he and husband Juan opened in June 2019.

“I’m excited about opening at least partially back up,” Smalls said. “I’m still pacing myself and not in a rush to go full-fledged again. I probably would guess by the end of the year, as the [coronavirus infection] numbers go down, that we go up to 100 percent [capacity].”

When coronavirus struck in March, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms ordered all restaurants, bars, nightclubs, gyms, movie theaters and other event spaces to close their doors due to the pandemic.

Virgil’s shifted to takeout and delivery then tried reopening the dining room at 50 percent capacity in May. When coronavirus cases spiked, the restaurant closed its dining room again in June. In early September, they tried again.

New safety protocols include masks for front-of-house staff, sanitizing tables between guests, sanitizer stations throughout the restaurant and encouraging customers to wear masks when not seated.

Virgil’s is also experiencing a staff shortage, and Smalls is hiring a general manager.

“Staffing has presented challenges because not all have decided to come back yet,” Smalls said. “And it’s just hard to find them right now, people that are wanting to work.”

The limited capacity and repeated closings impacted the bottom line. Revenue dropped to 30 percent of the restaurant’s normal haul, but Smalls sees a turnaround coming.

“We just opened up for dine-in, so we’ll probably increase that back up to 60 to 75 percent just because takeout still does very well and has compensated for a lot of what we did dine-in,” he said.

The restaurant received Paycheck Protection Program funds and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan through the federal Small Business Administration. It allowed them to stay afloat the last six months. The process involved massive amounts of paperwork but helped “tremendously,” Smalls said.

“After getting all that in, it was kind of seamless,” he said. “So we got it in the first wave. We’ll see what that process is like when it’s time for [loan] forgiveness. That gets us to the end of the year. So we’ll see how that process goes.”

“I’m very optimistic about the future. I think we’ll come back bigger and better than ever. I’m confident,” he added.

The pair co-founded of the Gentlemen’s Foundation, the non-profit best known for the Gentlemen’s Ball fundraiser. Gee Smalls discussed that and his new memoir – “Black Enough Man Enough” – in a recent episode of Podcast Q. Listen below.

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