10 Ways to Work Pimento Cheese into Your Game Day Menu

Chowhound. October 2020.

Often referred to as “Carolina Caviar” or “Southern pâté” in the southern United States, pimento cheese is a classic at tailgates, parties, and in lunchboxes around the country—and these are some of the best pimento cheese recipe ideas around.

This unique cheese mixture is traditionally made with shredded cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, and sweet cherry peppers called pimentos. You can add hot sauce, horseradish, jalapenos, garlic, pickles, or any condiment to season the spread. Blend it smooth or leave it chunky. Serve it as a dip with veggies and crackers, spread it on sandwiches, add it to collard greens, or top it over a pizza. The possibilities to personalize pimento cheese are endless. Continue reading on Chowhound

Julius Jackson on Resiliency and Answering the Call for Community in USVI

Cuisine Noir Magazine. September 2020.

Professional chef, author of the cookbook “My Modern Caribbean Kitchen” and a 2008 Olympian boxer representing the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), Julius Jackson, knows a little about resiliency. Growing up on the islands, Jackson has witnessed several devastations caused by extreme weather, economic downturn and now a pandemic. However, he has always stayed close to the community and found innovative ways to help those around him.

Alongside his catering, speaking and celebrity guest appearances, Jackson works as head chef and manager at My Brother’s Workshop Café and Bakery in downtown St. Thomas. My Brother’s Workshop (MBW) is a nonprofit organization that provides mentoring, counseling, paid job training, education and job placement to at-risk and high-risk young men and women between the ages of 18-24. His job involves teaching students how to work in the food industry, serve customers and manage front and back sections of the bakery as well as attain diplomas online.

Student worker at My Brother's Workshop Cafe and Bakery
Pictured: Student worker at My Brother’s Workshop Cafe and Bakery | Photo credit: MBW Cafe and Bakery

On a typical day, Jackson works with his students to create delectable pastries, sandwiches, coffee and breakfast bites that locals grab on their way to work in downtown Charlotte Amelie. The rum cake, seafood kallaloo and dumb bread are known to be some of the best on the island. “We had regular customers who got to know our youth and we had a good business going,” says Jackson. But for the past few months, the bakery kitchen transformed into a feeding center, cooking and delivering free meals to those in need in partnership with World Central Kitchen.

Stepping up in a Time of Need

Back in March, Jackson did not know what the effects of COVID-19 would be on the community. “Once COVID came to the island, the governor ordered a shutdown and we had to close our doors for a few weeks. It put a lot of economic strain on the people who were already living under the poverty level,” Jackson shares. He already knew of families who didn’t have enough food or money, and many elderly individuals who didn’t feel safe going into grocery stores. His team came up with a plan to discontinue normal bakery operations and instead cook and deliver free meals in partnership with sponsors and existing organizations. The Federal Government’s Department of Human Services also got involved and asked for MBW’s assistance in feeding people around the islands. “We reached a point where we were doing 700 meals a day,” Jackson says.

Employee prepping food at My Brother's Workshop Cafe and Bakery
Pictured: Student workers prepping food at My Brother’s Workshop Cafe and Bakery | Photo credit: MBW Cafe and Bakery

Though the transition for students cooking at a small bakery to now making high-volume banquet meals was tough, they were able to learn new skills under the guidance of good trainers. Also, it took several weeks for some of them to feel safe to come down to work. The families were scared to send their kids, and some take public transportation to get to downtown. Jackson’s team arranged pick-ups and limited capacity in the kitchen to make them feel safe so they could come in and help with the grassroots efforts.

With the help of 78 community partners, board and committee members, staff, trainees and over 115 volunteers, MBW was able to serve 37,923 meals to the vulnerable population on St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix over a period of three and a half months.

Once the program ended and it was safe to reopen, the bakery returned to regular service with a new plan. They switched the menu to offer plates of food and specials that people could grab-and-go from a take-out window without having to come inside.

Answering the Call

The pandemic is not the first time that Jackson took a leadership role on the island. Similar to the COVID response, the leadership of MBW came up with a plan before hurricane Irma devastated USVI in 2017. Jackson recalls securing the bakery against flooding, getting curfew passes from FEMA and immediately springing into action cooking and delivering meals. Then a second hurricane, Maria, came and they had to close again. Jackson sent his wife and young son on a rescue cruise ship from St. Thomas to be with relatives in Canada while he stayed behind. “It was tough but necessary. There was no power, no flights, and lots of homes were destroyed. I couldn’t even say goodbye to them as I was standing in long lines to get gasoline so I could cook our next meal. I don’t think anyone saw me, but that moment was hard and I cried,” Jackson recalls emotionally. He and his team fed about 37,000 people during the four to five months after the hurricanes.

Julius Jackson and team in USVI
Pictured: Julius Jackson and team | Photo credit: MBW Cafe and Bakery

Jackson says that knowing like-minded people who have faith in doing great things together is what makes him resilient during difficult times. “If I was by myself, I wouldn’t have been as resilient. But there was a team of us that were confident that we could help serve others. We are passionate about the community and good at execution. We have kind of become the emergency response team here. That’s why I’m here,” he adds.

While there is a second lockdown ordered in USVI, his goal is to keep the youth active and their minds engaged and perhaps restart the free meals program.

For daily menus and hours, visit https://mybrothersworkshop.org/ and Facebook.  Follow Jackson for current happenings on the islands and off on Instagram and Twitter.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Blending Caribbean and Italian Flavors with Chef, Entrepreneur and Philanthropist Nik Fields

Cuisine Noir Magazine. September 2020.

Chef Nik, better known as “Nik the Chic Chef “or “Foodie with a Cause,” has merged her passion for food and life.  Over the years, she has gained national recognition for her amazing culinary art skills having prepared cuisine for celebrities such as Jess Hilarious, Supa Cent, Angie Stone, Vivica Fox, Tisha Campbell, Tichina Arnold and Snoop Dogg. Fields is possibly the only Black chef with her own olive farm and a collection of infused olive oils and balsamic vinegars. In the past few months, she introduced a new line of syrups and is planning to open a retail store and café.

Fields grew up in Brooklyn, New York, with her Caribbean-American parents who instilled a love for food in her since she was a little girl. She earned a culinary arts degree and traveled to Italy in search of culture and good food. However, her parents discouraged her from working in the culinary field as they did not consider it to be a glamorous career. Fields earned a master’s degree in finance instead, worked at a bank and excelled in her field. She had a family and continued to show her love for food by throwing parties and family dinners.

Create Your Own Path

At age 43, once her daughter graduated from college, Fields decided to pursue her life’s dream in the culinary arts. “I already had the skills and just needed to brush them[up]. I needed confidence to face the competitive environment,” she says.

Chef Nik Fields
Pictured/Photo credit: Nik Fields

Fields also wanted to use her business skills and create her own path in the culinary world. Instead of working from the ground up, she co-created Chic Chef Co. in 2016. She purchased olive groves in Italy, produced olive oil and introduced 15 organic, salt-free and hand-mixed seasonings. “Think of it as a healthier version of Goya. It’s easy, delicious and doesn’t require any cooking,” adds Fields. She recently introduced a line of honey-based organic simple syrups under Chic Chef Co. that come in flavors such as mango lime, jalapeno and lavender vanilla. The products are available online and in select retail stores. Next, Fields is working on a line of sorbets.

When asked what does it takes to create one’s own product line, Fields says, “It takes a lot of testing, trials and errors. You want to pick a product you can stand behind. I have an appreciation for Italian culture and add my spin on it with my Caribbean background. That’s new and unique.”

Fields plans to open a flagship store in January of 2021 in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. The location will also feature a community garden, a restaurant called Chic Chef Co. Marketplace and Café and a private tasting room called Culinary Vibe where Fields will host cooking classes, private dinners and events.

Dish by Chef Nik Fields
Pictured: Rice dish by Chef Nik Fields | Photo credit: Nik Fields

Through her books, this culinary trailblazer also wants to teach others about reducing food waste, the importance of food sustainability and how food stimulates mood and sexual drive. Her third book, “The Chic Chef Approach Volume III: Waste Not Want Not,” releases in October 2020.

Returning to One’s Roots

Fields continues to give back to her cultural background in the Caribbean. Every year, she travels with her team to the island of Hispaniola (an island divided into the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), where they fund clean water programs and help villages build private wells. Her nonprofit organization, Waste Not Want Not (WNWN, Inc.), encourages households and restaurants in the U.S. to limit food waste. They hold seminars for kids and adults in Arizona to teach them about food waste and how to grow their own gardens. “My culture teaches me to help as many people as possible and not to discriminate among the community.” Fields says she plans to mitigate hunger by offering free meals to the homeless populations in Phoenix.

The pandemic has not slowed down Fields and her efforts to help everyone eat better, save money and drink clean water. She adds, “The downtime allowed me to have more focus than before. I learned more aspects about my business and [will] be ready for when the world opens up again.”

Learn more as well as shop with Fields at https://www.chicchefco.com  and follow her Instagram and Facebook for updates on new products and the opening of her flagship store.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

The Best Wraps Around the World and How to Make Them All at Home

Chowhound. August 2020.

Wraps are a much healthier alternative to fast food and one of the easiest things to make at home. Versatile for picnics, road trips, and office lunches, wraps are portable, quick, and hearty. They are also packed with nutrition and can be adapted to your taste. If you’re tired of lockdown cooking and bored of plain old sandwiches, here’s some inspiration for your next wrapped meal.

Continue reading on Chowhound.

Nayana Ferguson of Anteel Tequila Inspires Women to Create Their Own Legacy

Cuisine Noir Magazine. July 2020.

Nayana Ferguson of the Detroit-based spirit brand Anteel Tequila has always loved tequila.  When that love turned into a passion, she co-founded the tequila brand, which is one of the only tequila spirit brands in the United States to be led by a Black woman. Since launching in 2018, Anteel’s Coconut Lime Blanco Tequila and Reposado Tequila have received national recognition in Forbes and Wine Enthusiast, as well as several awards at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

From Dreaming to Doing

In 2016, Ferguson and her husband, Don, were looking for a retirement opportunity to invest in. They had a wild idea of starting a tequila company given her appreciation for the spirit. Only in this situation, Ferguson was a doer, not a dreamer. Over the upcoming months, she researched everything she needed to know about setting up a tequila business and began talking to potential distilling partners in Mexico. Prior to this, Ferguson didn’t have any knowledge of the spirits industry, but she had an MBA and was a corporate business professional.

Co-founder Nayana Ferguson of Anteel Tequila
Pictured: Nayana Ferguson | Photo credit: Cyrus Tetteh

“It took about 11 months to get an actual bottle in hand. We needed a contract with the distillery, approvals by the Mexican government, importer permits from the U.S. government and so forth.” Ferguson recalls months of sampling recipes, learning about the spirits industry, doing research and filing paperwork. She was not able to visit Mexico due to the political climate there, so she relied a lot on FedEx and Google. The chemist at her partner distillery in Mexico would create recipes and send them to Ferguson and her team to sample. After a lot of back and forth, they achieved the desired flavor profiles they wanted to see in Anteel.

Becoming a Market Leader

When asked why Ferguson is passionate about tequila more than any other spirit, she cited it’s health benefits. Tequila is a spirit that is made from the agave plant, so it is naturally gluten-free and low in carbs, sugar and calories than other spirits. “If I’m going to drink, I would drink what is cleaner for me. Obviously, you need to drink tequila neat and not add extra sugars typically found in mixed drinks,” she states. As a pancreatic cancer and breast cancer survivor, Ferguson needs to watch what she puts into her body and minimize any effects of alcohol. She says that agave does not spike your blood sugar. Unlike other spirits, tequila is said to be an upper, not a downer, and can lift your mood, which is another reason why she likes tequila.

Anteel Tequila claims to have the world’s only coconut lime-flavored tequila, one that took a lot of flavor balancing but is something Ferguson and her other co-founders wanted. It is produced by using natural coconut extracts and avoiding synthetic flavors, which also makes drinking neat easy and flavorful.

Not many tequilas rest their Reposado in whiskey barrels (most use America oak barrels) as Anteel does. This infuses a unique char and flavor into their tequilas. Another thing that makes the brand stand out is the combination of blue agave from highland and lowland.

The Michigan-based brand recently changed the name to Anteel Tequila from TEEQ (Tequila of Extraordinary and Exquisite Quality), which is short for Antillean, a species of hummingbird.  The bird that inspired the name and the logo serves as a reminder of the Fergusons’ first discussion while in the Dominican Republic four years ago as well as the vision for the brand.

Drink with Anteel Tequila's Coconut Lime
Picture: Anteel Coconut Lime Blanco Tequila | Photo credit: Anteel Tequila
Continuing to Push Through

Like many businesses, Anteel has faced a few challenges this year, but they’ve continued to prevail by connecting with their clients and vendors. “Since bars and restaurants are not ordering as much, we are promoting online ordering. We have tried to stay proactive by doing social media marketing and making sure the product is still being produced,” says Ferguson about how she is managing her brand since the pandemic began. Business closures and staff shortages have in turn affected her supply chain, making the production time longer.

Even before the pandemic, it was challenging being an African-American woman in the tequila business for Ferguson. “When I walk into a store, initially some people don’t think I know what I am talking about. But once they see that I have done my homework, they begin to accept me,” she says.

As a mother of two young girls, Ferguson hopes to pave the wave for other Black women who feel they can’t break into a male-dominated business. She advises, “You don’t need to know everything, but you can start somewhere and learn along the way.” She encourages others to go for their dreams and create their own legacies.

Anteel Tequila is made and bottled in Mexico and imported to the U.S. through a distributor in Michigan. The products are available for sale at restaurants, bars and stores in Michigan, California and Florida as well as online. Ferguson recommends checking your local state laws for receiving alcohol by mail.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine.

The Ultimate Guide to Mangoes

Chowhound. July 2020.

Get to know the mango in this handy guide, from types of mango to mango recipes, plus lots more info you never knew about this marvelous tropical fruit.

Mango is one of the most popular fruits in the world. It is believed that mango was first found in India over 5,000 years ago, and traveled with humans from Asia to almost every continent since. Mango is still considered a symbol of love in India, and according to local tradition, presenting a basket of mangoes symbolizes a gesture of friendship. Continue reading on Chowhound…

Traveling Close to Home – Discovering Hidden Gems in Georgia

Cuisine Noir Magazine. July 2020.

Georgia is the largest state in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River. Though most people think of Atlanta when they plan a trip to Georgia, the state also offers a variety of historic landmarks, remote hiking trails, evergreen golf grounds, pristine lakes and independent wineries. To explore the entire state, you may need to plan several weekend getaways to different parts. Here are a few notable spots that will allow you to social distance and still feel like you are on vacation.

Rock City Gardens 

Leisurely walk through fourteen acres of trails, caves, waterfalls, and plant life at Rock City Gardens. Here you can see 200-million-year-old rock formations, as well as the surrounding seven states. There are lots of photo opportunities along the way, one of the most famous ones being from Lover’s Leap on Lookout Mountain. Kids and those young at heart will love the artistic recreation of famous fairytales in an underground Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village located inside the garden.

Rock City in Georgia
Pictured: Rock City | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

There are a few charming inns to spend the night at nearby, but if you want to experience something unique, book a stay at the luxurious treehouses at Treetop Hideaways. These unique cabins are located in a secluded area but offer modern amenities including heated floors, air conditioning and kitchens.

Blue Ridge Mountains

Less than 90 minutes from the city of Atlanta, the city of Blue Ridge is home to the Appalachian Mountains, scenic national forests, hundreds of waterfalls, and freshwater lakes. This is a good place if you like to hike, bike, fish, horseback ride, or whitewater raft. Make sure to walk up Amicalola Falls, the tallest cascading waterfall in the South and check out the ancient wall at Fort Mountain State Park inside Chattahoochee National Forest.

For a quieter pace, take a scenic drive, relax by the fireplace at one of the cabins or shop for handmade jewelry and crafts at Momentum on Main in downtown Blue Ridge. Stay at The Overlook Inn, a cozy family-run inn perched on top of the mountain with stunning views of the valley. Here you can be spoiled with spacious rooms with in-suite Jacuzzis and hearty Southern-style breakfasts.

Currahee Vineyard & Winery
Pictured: Currahee Vineyard & Winery | Photo credit: Ralph Daniel

The Peach State also produces some good quality wines. There are over 40 wineries in North Georgia that offer tours as tastings, as well as live music events on the weekends. Sip on sweet muscadine and blackberry wines or full-bodied malbec and cabernet franc while relaxing on the porch, overlooking a sunset.

Savannah

Several small towns make up Georgia’s rustic coastline, offering a combination of secluded beaches, fresh seafood, boutique shopping and Southern history. Cobblestone streets covered with Spanish moss make Savannah a dreamy city that you would only find in the movies. Over 20 city squares make up the Historic District of Savannah, the largest National Historic Landmark District in the United States. Simply walk through the streets and discover old churches, Georgian mansions and fine arts. The River Street area has a number of restaurants overlooking the Savannah River where you can taste Southern specialties such as fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, fried chicken and biscuits and peach Bellini.

While in the area, if you want to spend more time at the beach, head to Tybee Island nearby.

Around Atlanta

If you have only passed through Atlanta for a convention or airport connection, now is the time to learn about some of the historical and cultural sites around the city.

Home to one of the largest movie studios in the country, the sprawling 33-acre Tyler Perry Studios has historic buildings, 12 sound stages and 18 sets that include a baseball field, a jail and a replica of the White House. The studio had plans to begin public tours in 2020, but Atlanta Movie Tours can take you to Tyler Perry’s Madea house, as well as behind the scenes of hits such as “Black Panther,” “The Walking Dead,” “Hidden Figures” and “Selma.”

Center For Civil and Human Right
Pictured: Center For Civil and Human Right | Photo credit: Albert Vecerka

Some of the sights where you can learn about African-American history and culture include The King Center – a living memorial dedicated to legendary civil rights leader and Atlanta native, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The Center for Civil and Human Rights showcases moments from the American Civil Rights Movement and Global Human Rights Movements throughout history. The African-American Panoramic Experience (APEX) tells the story of people of the African diaspora.

Be sure to check location websites for COVID-19 updates while planning. Request a 2020 Travel Guide to explore these Georgia destinations and more by visiting https://www.exploregeorgia.org/.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Jumoke Jackson, The Bishop of Biscuits, Releases Cookbook For Fail-Proof Biscuits

Cuisine Noir Magazine. June 2020.

New York City-based Chef Jumoke Jackson is a self-proclaimed “Bishop of Biscuits.” This private chef, caterer and speaker recently authored a cookbook called “Soulfull Biscuits: How to master the art of biscuits” that includes 50 ways to make biscuits, as well as jams and compound butter recipes.

Among his other accomplishments, Jackson graduated from the French Culinary Institute and the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. He founded Entrée Metropolitan, a catering and event planning company in 2008 and has cooked for Grammy award-winning artists, politicians and celebrities. Jackson has been featured on ABC’s “The Chew,” “Fox & Friends” morning show, Travel Channel’s “Fiery Foods Challenge” and Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay” and “Cutthroat Kitchen.”

“I love biscuits! Coming from the South, I have always gravitated toward biscuits. Every time I have had them, I have loved them,” Jackson says about the flaky, buttery puffs that have always been a staple on his dinner table.

The 10 Biscuit Commandments

About a year and a half ago, Jackson ran a biscuit sandwich pop-up in the heart of New York at Urban Space by Madison Square Garden. His “Hot Buttered Soul Sandwich”  — a buttermilk biscuit topped with a piece of fried chicken, mac and cheese and sweet potato puree  — was hugely popular for the 40 days the pop-up ran. People wanted more of his biscuits but did not know how to make them at home, which is what led Jackson to write his cookbook.

Buttermilk biscuits by Jumoke Jackson
Picture: Buttermilk biscuits | Photo credit: Jumoke Jackson

The cookbook contains Jackson’s scripted “10 Biscuit Commandments” or principles that should be followed to make perfect biscuits. “People need to realize that biscuits are very delicate. You have to be gentle with them, treating the dough like a baby and not use brute force,” says Jackson. “You don’t need to overwork it like pizza dough.” He also says to make sure your ingredients are fresh and that your baking powder has not expired.

Another tip he shares is to keep all ingredients, especially dairy, always chilled and not at room temperature. Cold butter helps make the biscuits fluff up while baking. “Butter releases a burst of steam when hot and that’s what makes your biscuit magical,” he adds. Jackson also advises using good quality unsalted butter to control the salt content. The rest of his commandments or biscuit making tips and tricks can be found in his “Soulfull Biscuits” cookbook that is available in eBook format on his website and soon on Amazon.

Don’t Forget About Flavor

Jackson likes to experiment with different flavors and fillings. “Aside from the traditional buttermilk biscuit, my second favorite is sweet potato biscuit,” he shares. In addition, he is big on combining different herbs and cheeses to make interesting variations. Some of the biscuit flavors he has introduced include rosemary and parmesan, thyme and pecorino, cinnamon roll, blueberry and yeast biscuits. He shares that you can also stuff the biscuits with a surprise filling such as jam, brie and apple or blackberry compote. “Fill the raw dough with whatever you like as long as you handle it as little as possible,” he advises.

Jumoke Jackson with blueberry biscuits
Pictured: Jumoke Jackson with blueberry biscuits | Photo credit: Jumoke Jackson

There are two main ways to cook biscuits. The most traditional way is using a cast-iron skillet that holds heat better, resulting in a crispier biscuit. The second is baking biscuits on a sheet pan in a conventional oven that is more straightforward and does not make a huge difference in the quality of the final product.

During the recent pandemic, many people have taken to baking at home. Biscuits are one of the most popular treats to bake and Jackson has been keeping busy, teaching virtual biscuit making classes via Chefs Feedplatform. “Many people are intimated by biscuits at first, but once they figure out how to make them, it feels really good!”

Now that we have you ready to create your own biscuit magic, be sure to try Jackson’s buttermilk biscuit recipe.

To purchase a copy of “Soulfull Biscuits: How to master the art of biscuits,” as well as try over savory recipes by Jackson, visit www.chefjjackson.com.  You can also stop by and follow his Instagram page for upcoming classes, more food and a few laughs.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Restaurateurs Deal with the New Normal

Khabar Magazine. June 2020.

The relentless march of Covid-19—and our measures to contain it—have ravaged the restaurant industry. From reinventing themselves and staying relevant to protecting customers, employee interests, and managing their suddenly shaky finances, here’s a look at how some eateries in the Atlanta area are coping with the effects of the pandemic.

The impact of the novel coronavirus on the restaurant industry has been devastating. When diners canceled reservations and events indefinitely, turning to their home kitchens, restaurateurs struggled to acclimatize to the unpredictable environment. In March, as shelter-in-place orders were issued all over the U.S., restaurant sales plummeted, and many Atlanta area restaurants were forced to take immediate action. While most places closed their dining rooms and switched to a take-out only model, some feared for their staff and decided to halt operations.

Giving back to the community

dining_sub1_main_movie_june2020.jpg

Restaurants wasted no time in helping the community in the best ways they could. From giving employees cash advances and free meals, to donating food to low income families and first responders, many South Asian restaurants in the Atlanta area participated in initiatives for charitable contribution. The Walia Hospitality Group—composed of Masti, Café Bombay, Ashiana, and Signature Ballroom—sent meals to hospitals, police, and fire departments. They also participated in a Free Meals food drive in partnership with Global Mall, offering 1000 free meals a day for nine days, to those in need.“We are struggling as well, but we are blessed to have the logistics and something to give back. We wanted to give a sense of hope to people who need it the most,”  says Ricky Walia, the group’s chief operating officer.

Managing a financial crisis

Executive Chef and Chief Chaiwalla Meherwan Irani continued to offer takeout for two weeks, before closing all his restaurants, which include Chai Pani and Botiwalla in Atlanta, as well as MG Road and Buxton Hall Barbeque in Asheville. “We had to figure out how to make the new model safe for our staff, as well as our guests. So, we took a month off to set up the kitchen for social distancing and do takeout safely.”

Irani’s number one priority was his employees. Instead of laying them off, he furloughed everybody, so they could still keep their health benefits through the employer. It also allowed the staff to save the benefits they accrued, such as paid time off, vacation days, etc. “We have always had an emergency fund for our restaurant group, in order to help our staff in financial emergencies, where they don’t have credit card or other resources,” says Irani. Chai Pani’s staff quickly organized an auction fundraiser in early April, extending personalized experiences, such as dinner for ten cooked by Chef Daniel Peach at a private home, photography lessons, cocktail and bartending lessons, and much more. Around $20,000 was generated through the fundraiser and distributed to employees to help pay bills between the time they were furloughed and unemployment payments started coming in, which takes about a month.

dining_sub3_main_movie_june2020.jpg

The Small Business Administration received a record number of applicantions for Economy Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Archna Malhotra Becker, the force behind Bhojanic restaurant, catering, and food truck for 23 years, applied for government aid right away, and was approved. However, she decided not to use the grant as it was too complicated. “The rules don’t make sense for restaurants!” she claims. “The PPP loans require you to bring back 75 percent of the workforce and use the funding within eight weeks. How can I hire 75 percent of my employees and still keep them six feet apart? Some restaurants only have 6-foot hoods, making it impossible to distance the cooking line,” she adds. Additionally, Becker found the program required owners to do a lot of paperwork, and there were heavy penalties for making mistakes.

Murugesan Perumal, the owner of Chennai Express, reopened his locations in Alpharetta and Norcross after roughly two months, on April 27. Though all shopping malls in Georgia were closed as per the mandate, Global Mall—where one of his restaurants is located—remained open as a community center. Perumal applied for the PPP loan but it was not enough to meet the expense of rehiring his employees and paying thousands of dollars in rent. “The numbers don’t add up. It is a one-time payout that is less than my one month’s rent. What am I to do while the situation persists?” he asks.

dining_sub4_main_movie_june2020.jpg

Meanwhile, Walia still awaits payments for his loans that were approved weeks ago.

Innovating in times of need

While restaurants are operating at a fraction of capacity, they are looking at other revenue sources. Bhojanic already offers prepacked ready-to-serve meals through the online grocer, Subziwalla. Bhojanic is now offering pickup at its catering kitchen location on Lambert Drive, and drops off pre-ordered meals at different neighborhoods around Atlanta on different days of the week.

Since home cooking started trending mid-March, Irani has seen a threefold increase in sales of his Spicewalla Brand that sells herbs, rubs, and spice blends. Chai Pani also created new packaging, labeling, and branding for their prepared heat-and-serve meal options, marketed as Chai Pani Take Home. These curries, lassis, and chutneys are already available online and will soon be at brick and mortar grocery stores around Atlanta. Also, they are launching a virtual grocery store where patrons will be able to order staples such as milk, eggs, rice, and lentils, along with dinner.

Technology has allowed the world to stay more interconnected than before, and because of that we have been able to unite, connect, and handle this pandemic in a way we wouldn’t have been able to before. Another initiative Irani started is free cooking demonstrations on Instagram Live, called Chai Time. “It helps keep the brand alive, keeps me in the kitchen, and interact with the audience. It’s not just entertainment, it’s human connection!” he adds. Viewers can watch Irani via Instagram Live @MeherwanIrani every Wednesday and Saturday at 4 p.m.

Reopening for dine-in

On April 23, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp issued an executive order for ‘Reviving a Healthy Georgia’ with a rollout plan to reopen sectors of the state’s economy in response to Covid-19. Beginning at midnight on April 27, restaurants and dining services could reopen if they chose to, but needed to mitigate the exposure of Covid-19 to their customers and workforce. A list of precautions and guidance was given out to restaurants that included food safety, cleaning and sanitizing, employee health, and social distancing.

However, most restaurant owners found the reopening to be announced “too early” as the numbers of positive cases were still rising. The staff did not feel comfortable returning to work. Many older and vulnerable employees would prefer to receive unemployment benefits rather than put their health at risk for very little money.

Breakdowns in restaurant supply-chain prevented restaurants from being fully operational. Bhojanic’s Becker pointed out that she could not source basic supplies like toilet paper, sanitizing wipes, bleach, gloves, bags, and thermometers. Many of the products come from China and demand has exceeded supply. Her other concern is that the guidelines don’t make practical sense. It is not possible to keep social distancing in the kitchen while offering a full menu, or to serve diners from 6 ft. away. Reducing dine-in capacity means fewer tips for servers and higher overhead costs for the restaurants. As it is, breaking even in the restaurant business is hard.

Other restaurants decided to wait for a few weeks, and open for Mother’s Day weekend following the revised safety precautions. At Chennai Express and Masti, employees are wearing gloves and masks. There are hand sanitizers and napkins placed at every table, and plexiglass barriers between the staff and customers. More stringent health etiquettes are being enforced and staff temperatures are being monitored. No more than ten people are allowed per 500 sq. ft. of space and each family has to sit at least six feet apart. Party sizes are restricted to six people.

Even with all these measures in place, the biggest issue is that customers don’t feel comfortable going out. As long as there’s a health risk, the majority of people are not going to feel secure sitting at a restaurant, no matter how far apart the tables are.

Indian weddings take a big hit

Some Indian restaurants have another adversity to deal with as the majority of their business comes from catering. Even during the best of circumstances, restaurants have lean profit margins. Perumal emphasizes that most of his business comes from catering to weddings, parties, and large events. His two restaurants only work as the face of the company, attracting diners to learn about the South Indian vegetarian food he offers, before booking big orders.

“Starting March 9th, all my events started getting cancelled, including the 2020 Masters, weddings, music tours, festivals, parties, and corporate events,” says Becker. Walia’s Ashiana and Signature Ballroom, which are mainly event venues, have been closed since mid-March as well.

It is unlikely that big weddings, corporate gatherings, or social events will make a comeback any time this year. If at all, party sizes would be reduced and social distancing measures will cast an abnormal vibe. Walia mentioned that the Atlanta History Center (where he was scheduled to cater a wedding for 300 people) is now allowed to have 120 people in banquet style setting, with four people per table, to be served family-style. The staff would be required to wear gloves and masks, perhaps even the guests too. The iconic Indian weddings with their lavish buffets may become a thing of the past.

The future of dining out

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Irani is hopeful for the future. He thinks there’s only so much home cooking one can do. “Eating out is a big part of our culture, but people don’t eat out just because they want the food. They enjoy the experience of being in a restaurant, in the company of their friends, and getting pampered with good service,” he says. At some point, he feels, when people figure out that it’s safe for them to go out, they will go back to restaurants. They will return to places that comfort them, take care of them, and make them feel safe. He is committed to staying open as a take-out restaurant for as long as it takes, even if it is six months or a year from now.

Chai Pani restaurants are reopening a week at a time starting mid-May, offering takeout only. They have converted the dining room for preparing food and packing to-go orders. Except the staff, no one will be allowed inside the building. Orders have to be placed online and paid for contactless, either online or through a swipe pad located outside the restaurant, to avoid interaction. They have also marked parking spots with numbers, and spaced out pickup lines.

Becker will continue to offer take-home meals prepared in her catering kitchen, which is well spaced out, safe for employees, and well sanitized. “I don’t want to put my own family, my employees, and customers at risk by opening for dine-in,” she confirms, looking at a long-term business strategy that could last a few years. She doesn’t plan to reopen Bhojanic until there is testing, contact tracing, medicine, or immunization.

Issues with takeout and delivery

While takeout and delivery have become mainstream sources of income, they are not enough to sustain most restaurants. Ninety percent of people order food through third party companies, such as Uber Eats, Grub Hub, Postmates, or DoorDash. According to its website, Uber Eats charges restaurants a 30 percent fee for delivery and 15 percent fee per order for pick-up, unless a restaurant negotiates a different rate. “The margins are way too thin. We were spending 30-35 percent more in food cost, and not making any profits,” says Walia. He continues to stay open to support his staff, as the majority of them live paycheck to paycheck. Restaurants recommend customers order directly through the restaurant websites or by calling, so that businesses are able to keep more of their profits.

Perumal wants to keep his restaurants open for takeout but continues to struggle with managing the books. “Once I account for employee salaries, rent, utilities, food cost, third-party fees, etc., I can’t even make takeout profitable,” he says. He has hired only one employee per location to take phone orders, cook, pack, and serve. “It is the only way I can help the staff and the mall survive. But if there’s no business, I will close permanently,” he adds.

~ Written for and published by Khabar Magazine. All rights reserved.