For our 21st Century Plague project, we spoke with 17 Georgians about the toll of COVID-19. Below, Jarrett Stieber—owner of Little Bear in Summerhill—describes the virus’s debilitating effect on his long-anticipated, two-week-old restaurant, as well as his commitment to keeping it alive. (Stieber was interviewed on March 17.)
I’ve been cooking for a living since I was 15, and it’s been a dream of mine to open a restaurant the entire time. I spent over seven years running [pop-up restaurant] Eat Me Speak Me by the time we closed it, and six of those were spent actively planning this restaurant, fundraising, looking for a space.
We opened with $285 in our checking account after buying products for the first week and just prayed that we were busy. We thankfully were. We struggled through everything and we finally had two weeks where we were open in our own space the way we always wanted it to be. We were hitting our stride and doing well. And then this hits.
Frankly, it didn’t stop being surreal. I didn’t have the chance to be open long enough for the good, good weeks to not feel surreal still. Now, we’re dealing with a pandemic, so it’s surreal again in a different way. It’s something that maybe will make a good first chapter of a cookbook down the road or something, a funny story when the time feels more appropriate. But for now, it’s just kind of a kick in the nuts. But we’re trying to fight back as best we can. If this place is going to close, I want it to be because I run it into the ground and mismanage it. I don’t want it to be because of some other stuff I can’t control got in the way.
My staff is my main priority right now. We want to be able to keep their jobs and continue to pay them—because this is a frightening enough time as it is, let alone if you’re broke and have no prospects and don’t have a job anymore. So, my main focus is keeping the business open any way I possibly can, which means switching to a to-go only format.
I’ll do whatever I have to. If I have to order extra vegetables from the farmers I’m buying from so I can sell produce to people who are having trouble finding it, I will. If I have to, I’ll sell them paper towels and toilet paper we get that through our distributors. I’ll do whatever I can legally to stay open, because we just don’t have as much of a fighting chance as other people have had, based on that we’re so young and, frankly, that we’re a 30-seat restaurant.
Our staff is staying home, aside from my salaried employees who want to work and want to help fight for this restaurant and make it survive. Since we don’t have a dining room full of guests, we don’t have a need for our tipped employees to come in at this time. They all want to and were willing to fight and work and keep this place alive and clean and safe, but there’s really no need to bring them in. We’re still offering a tip line on our checks for to-go food. We’ll be using all the tip money like we always would, to pay the front of house employees as if they were in here working. My salaried employees are still going to be getting paid out of revenue coming in from whatever to-go sales we have.
If people aren’t comfortable coming and picking up food-to-go, we are offering gift cards, the ability to just simply donate if you like us, and want us to stay in business, and you have the resources to do so. We’re taking all of the payments for gift cards and donations through our Venmo account, @littlebearatl. We’re just asking that people include either “gift card” or “donation” plus their full name and email address in the memo, and all the money is going to go toward keeping the business alive and keeping the staff paid.
I think the main thing is just to keep calm. Don’t panic, because that won’t help anything. Make sure to tip well. Donate whatever you can, however, you can. Keep eating, supporting small businesses—and when all this blows over, come put us in the weeds.
By Steve Fennessy, Betsy Riley, Mara Shalhoup, Christine Van Dusen, Myrydd Wells and Thomas Wheatley for Atlanta Magazine
Photograph by Audra Melton