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UMBC community restaurants brace for impact of COVID-19 closures

The closure of Maryland restaurants and bars affected many businesses within the Catonsville-Arbutus area, including OCA Mocha, the alumni-run coffee shop that opened on East Drive last November. Photo by Brent Bemiller.

All restaurants, bars, movie theaters and gyms in Maryland closed their doors at 5 p.m. on Mar. 17 according to Governor Larry Hogan’s unprecedented order in response to COVID-19. In the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s backyard, two restaurants frequented by the UMBC students, OCA Mocha and Atwater’s, were forced to make tough decisions about their next moves during the pandemic.

In the weeks before the order, OCA Mocha, the UMBC alum-owned community coffee shop, had been instituting new procedures for safety that employees were required to follow in response to COVID-19. Every hour after OCA Mocha opened, barista and shift lead Ashley Bonilla said she would disinfect everything from the counters to the seats to the registers. “Essentially, you have to sign an hourly sanitation log. I went ham on the sanitizer. I think it was a really good idea in a time like this,” she said. 

Not even 24 hours before the announcement of Hogan’s order, OCA Mocha had announced via Instagram that they would be remaining open to serve the Arbutus community. Roughly 18 hours later, the coffee shop was closed. 

Bonilla didn’t expect the quick turn of events. “We didn’t know it was going to happen, we just watched the situation slowly escalate. We just opened [in November of 2019] so it’s really stressful that this is happening now. This is when we need business,” Bonilla said.

As of now, OCA Mocha’s baristas will not be receiving paid time off (only stipended interns will continue to be paid), but Michael Berardi, general manager and co-founder of OCA Mocha, has noted that he encouraged employees to communicate with senior management about any financial concerns they might have. And, he adds, they are still having internal conversations about how to handle the changing situation. “Everything is changing by the hour,” he said.

Bonilla said that although she is not currently getting paid, she still feels supported by her managers. “My bosses are always listening to me. If I’ve ever had a concern they’ve directly addressed it within a day,” she said. “Our staff is really close and I know if I need something they’ll be there for me. I do have savings so I’ll be fine for at least a month, but after that, I might need to talk to them about financial help.”

Bonilla’s mother is a lunch lady in Montgomery County who has been volunteering to hand out lunches to students outside of school, and her father is a for-hire construction worker. Bonilla’s brother, who worked at a pizza shop, also lost his source of income. 

“I helped pay for half of the groceries out of my pocket [from] my tips. I’m hoping that the people who hired my dad continue to pay him,” Bonilla said. “A lot of us live paycheck to paycheck. My brother and I are really bummed out; we’re adults now, we have bills to pay. I have credit card debt to pay off,  [and] I use a good amount of my OCA Mocha paycheck to pay it off.”

Berardi says OCA Mocha is following the pandemic and the rate of infection diligently. “We are paying close attention to the news, what UMBC is doing and what the state is doing as a whole. We’re being overly cautious and preparing for whatever’s next,” he said.

While OCA Mocha closes its doors, other restaurants, like Atwater’s, are still offering phone and online ordering curbside pick-up and delivery using Uber Eats and Grubhub. 

Catey Minnis, brand manager at Atwater’s, has felt the impact of the rapid day-to-day pandemic changes. “Things have been changing so fast in a matter of a couple of hours. It’s been kind of a struggle trying to put out all these messages,” Minnis said. 

Atwater’s has five locations around the Baltimore-Catonsville area, as well as the “Big Kitchen” in Baltimore where many of their products are made and they grow vegetables on an urban farm. But when Minnis entered the Big Kitchen on Mar. 17, she noticed that the employees who usually fill the space were missing. “There’s only the department heads of bread, pastry and soup,” she said. Atwater’s restaurants have downsized to only the essential employees: managers, two-to-five servers and one kitchen staff member working.

Without the dine-in option, Minnis said that orders have “definitely” gone down, and delivery services take 30% of sales. “I think it’s a shared anxiety of everyone in the world, that shared panic. I went home, and the gravity of this was really settling in. It’s a little bit scary but employees are trying to make the best of it and the servers are happy to be there,” Minnis said. 

Minnis says that Ned Atwater, the owner of Atwater’s, is aiming to give people as many options as he can. “Ned has tried hard to give people the option to work or not work. He’s doing the best that he can to keep everyone paid, or helping them immediately file for unemployment so they don’t miss a paycheck,” she said.

Atwater’s has been utilizing Instagram to get momentum and keep their customers in the loop. Instagram has the best engagement, according to Minnis.

On March 16, Atwater’s posted on Instagram telling Larry Hogan that they wouldn’t be able to survive for long with the current business model and asked him to “immediately support emergency unemployment benefits to all hourly and salaried employees furloughed during this crisis, eliminate payroll tax and call for rent and loan abatement for employers and establishments impacted by the closure of the restaurant industry.” 

The post on Instagram quickly became Atwater’s most-liked photo as of date. 

Angie Law, retail operations manager at Atwater’s, had the idea to use social media as a call to action, after seeing another business in Chicago post something similar. “Some of the employees are immunocompromised or live with their grandparents. And we just couldn’t in good conscience continue to do business as usual even though we were busy and customers were coming out to support us,” she said. 

Law said she knew of many small business owners who were closing their doors, or were laying off their staff. “It was frustrating to watch with no word from Governor Hogan on an action plan to help people affected by this,” she said. “I was hoping that if we could write something and tag [Hogan] and could encourage others to do so, perhaps we could start a movement.”

After they posted, Law found that there was interest in starting a formal petition with Dave Seel, the founder of Blue Fork Marketing, and Martha Lucius, a restaurant strategist, on Seel started a Facebook group called Baltimore Area Restaurant Industry Relief Group that now has 585 members. OCA Mocha is currently considering joining the group. The petition has over 5,900 signers, out of the 7,500 goal.

“We hope that we will gain enough momentum to be heard and make a positive impact for the small businesses and hospitality service workers,” Law said. “We want to see immediate relief plans and actions for every small business owner and restaurant industry worker in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. If we wait too long, most businesses won’t survive this pandemic.” 

In response, Minnis says that they have seen a swell of support from the community. “Based on what people have been commenting and reaching out with, people are extending as much support as they can. Even when it’s scary, our customers are reaching out and saying ‘we love Atwater’s and we can’t wait to have our next chicken salad sandwich,’” she said. “I’m pretty positive that Atwater’s will be okay at the end of this. Not everyone has the means to spend the extra money right now, [but if you can,] this is a great time to support your local businesses.”

While OCA Mocha is closed, Berardi says they are focusing on their online community. When speaking to the community, Berardi has one thing to say: “Just because we have to close our doors doesn’t mean we’re going anywhere, and we’ll be back as soon as possible.”