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'We're in survival mode': how JenChan's restaurant in Atlanta hopes to outlast the COVID-19 pandemic

According to the National Restaurant Association, nearly 1 in 6 restaurants in America has closed either permanently or long-term since the start of the pandemic.

ATLANTA — It’s 6:30 in the morning on a tight Cabbagetown street. JenChan’s Restaurant is empty, except for its co-owner.

“I think, at this point, we’re in survival mode,” said Emily Chan at a table that would normally seat dozens over the course of an evening. “It’s every restaurant in the world that’s going through this. There’s sort of this communal gasp, just trying to survive to the other side of it.”

Emptiness at this hour is normal, but JenChan’s is mostly empty at any hour, except for the staffers who serve the occasional outdoor table or prepare to-go orders that servers now deliver to people’s homes.

Their dining room is stacked with cardboard boxes and their ability to survive remains tenuous.

“We’ve already been in this for a year,” Emily Chan said, “and we assume we’ll be in it for another six months. This pandemic has exposed so much about our health care, our education system, and our small businesses. They haven’t passed any stimulus yet, and all of the unemployment benefits are gonna be gone. But you just can’t look at all of that, or you’re going to be overwhelmed.”

She sighed, then continued. 

“So you wake up, you get to work at 6:30, and you turn the ovens on.”

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JenChan’s began as a supper club, the dream of Emily and wife Jen Chan. “We ran into each other at a bar,” Jen Chan recalled about how the couple got together, “and we ended up having a great time.”

“We got married a few weeks later,” added Emily. “No! I’m kidding!”

But they eventually did get married. Then they fulfilled a second dream: opening a restaurant together. JenChan’s served its first customers last fall.

“To be here,” Emily Chan said, “to have a restaurant in our neighborhood, is the culmination of every dream of what I want to do with my life.”

Now in the fall of 2020, JenChan’s is fighting to get through the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re not alone.

According to the National Restaurant Association, nearly 1 in 6 restaurants in America has closed either permanently or long-term since the start of the pandemic. In Georgia, more than 36,000 people in the restaurant business have lost their jobs.

RELATED: Study shows 17% of restaurants in the U.S. have closed for good; Some turn to online fundraising

JenChan’s has scaled back since the pandemic began. They’ve also tried to remain nimble and adjust however possible. They have banked on the continued success of their supper club, offering three dinners a week to subscribers.

“We have them in Marietta,” Emily Chan said of her subscribers. “We have them in Johns Creek. We have them in Clarkston. We have them way outside of I-285.”

The supper club, she admits, is “what’s saving us … that, and all the money we’ve borrowed.”

JenChan’s received a PPP loan this spring. The restaurant ran a GoFundMe campaign in August that raised more than $10,000.

“The servers aren’t making anything,” Emily Chan said. “Because of our hours getting cut and our payroll going down, most of them are on unemployment insurance.”

But the necessities of the pandemic have forced the Chans to keep their staff small. 

“When you have a small kitchen,” Emily Chan said, “you don’t want three to four people back there, even with masks, huffing and puffing and being close to each other to grab a sauté pan.”

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What does it mean to try to sustain a restaurant during a pandemic where so many are so burdened, where hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost their lives?

For the Chans, it’s not just the stress of owning a business. It’s the additional stress of everything around them.

“I lost my uncle early on to COVID,” Emily Chan said. “There’s been no funeral for that. There’s no Thanksgiving. There’s no moments that make it all better.”

It’s hard on the Chans: as small business owners, as partners, and as parents. They’re raising a son, Mik, who’s almost 3 years old.

On Mondays, Mik hangs out in the kitchen while they experiment with the coming week’s supper club recipes.

“He’s here every day of the week,” Emily Chan said “We don’t have daycare anymore. We lost it in 2020.”

Emily and Jen want their son to socialize with other kids. They want him to continue to blossom. They also don’t want him to feel their burdens.

“I know he sees our stress,” Emily Chan says. “This has been a very stressful year for our family. But, you know, you take him to the park and he plays for an hour, and he’s fantastic.

“We just kind of go with it and tell him not to open a restaurant.”

The Chans can visualize the other side. They see a world where vaccines have been distributed, dining rooms have been reopened, and they can experience the success they had just begun to taste when the pandemic arrived.

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They just can’t say with confidence how they’ll get there.

That morning at her restaurant, Emily Chan went through paperwork to renew the restaurant’s liquor license. It costs $5,000. The restaurant barely used it this year, its bar closing because of the pandemic. She can’t say for sure when – or if – it’ll reopen next year.

But she still needs the license. In normal times, it would lead to critical income.

These are the difficult decisions that face the Chans seemingly daily: renegotiating rent, determining when and how to raise money, and finding profitable ways to invest in their kitchen and keep moving forward.

“I’ve thought very hard about how much longer I can do this,” Emily Chan said.

"And whether it is right to put my family through it because, we just keep borrowing money.”

But for now, they’re sticking with it.

“If you were to ask me what makes me cry in the walk-in cooler the most,” Emily Chan said, “it’s that this is truly the dream for everything I wanted. My business, in my neighborhood, that was built by my family and friends. I have put so much effort into it because people keep gracing us with kindness.”

She tries to peer into a still-distant future.

“I think about whenever we can take our masks off and smile at each other again,” she said.

“We’re gonna get there. I just, want to get there.”

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