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Richmond restaurant owners recall the day downtown emptied due to COVID

Posted at 8:28 PM, Mar 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-23 20:28:53-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Improving COVID-19 health metrics and vaccine administration led Governor Ralph Northam to loosen restrictions on certain gatherings, like outdoor entertainment venues and social events, where there is “less risk” of spreading the deadly virus.

Limits on other businesses, like restaurants and retail shops, remain in effect, though.

One year ago, Virginia officially halted in-person service for most businesses in the earliest days of the pandemic.

Northam said Tuesday the types of places where customers congregate inside in smaller spaces are still too risky to lift restrictions at this point; although, he said he knows just how difficult the past year has been on small businesses across the Commonwealth.

The Governor said there was no timeframe yet on when those guidelines will change, and the decision will be based on advice from health experts.

On 10th St. in the heart of the business district in downtown Richmond, Nikki Gregory and Paul Polk remember well the day when businesses around them began shutting their doors around this time last year.

The couple owns and operates Charlotte’s Southern Deli and Tapas.

“It was crazy. We have all these glass windows, and you could see everybody filling their cars up with their computers and their desk files,” Gregory said.

“Everybody was packing up that day,” Polk added.

The couple was just wrapping up their first year in business when COVID-19 restrictions went into effect. To that point, their restaurant was so busy they worked long hours at least six days each week and hired several employees.

They call Charlotte’s their “love child,” and the last year has meant providing a whole new level of care.

“Man, the second year of this baby has been pretty interesting. It’s not necessarily been crying all the time, but it definitely needs some attention,” Polk said.

“We’ve got our winging it down to a science by now,” Gregory said.

The early days meant trying to figure out exactly what their new business model would look like. Because they only had a handful of employees, including themselves, Gregory and Polk said it would have been too complicated to apply for small business loans.

To this point, Charlotte’s has not gotten any financial assistance during the pandemic, they said.

“It took preparation, working with our landlords, again, winging it,” Gregory said with a laugh. “I can’t stress that enough.”

“Communication with everyone,” Polk continued.

At lunchtime this Tuesday, a steady stream of online orders piled up on their digital screen and several workers from the surrounding business district stood, at a distance inside the store, waiting to order.

Gregory and Polk said their customers have been very understanding about their fluctuating situation and are a big reason their “love child” has made it this far.

“We come in every day, we make a lot of our food from scratch, we painted, we helped build our own tables. I mean we put effort into this, and we’re just so glad to still be here. We hope we can continue on for the next five - 10 years,” Gregory said.

Since Charlotte’s opened, they have been trying to host a special Juneteenth event, complete with local Black chefs from around the city hosting their own tasting booths, specialty cocktails, live music, and hopefully an African storyteller.

They hope with improving metrics and vaccination numbers, plus warming weather, restrictions will allow for such events to promote community this summer.

“I think it will be a really good intro back into what is’ normal,’” Gregory said with air quotes. “People feel like they can go to events again. Everyone has been itching for it.”

You can check out the lunch menu at Charlotte’s here.

Gregory and Polk said they hope to begin hosting “Happy Hour” with outdoor seating and a new cocktail menu very soon.