Restaurateurs cook up ways to help out-of-work employees

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 24, 2020 7:54 AM CT | Published: March 23, 2020 4:00 AM CT

On Monday, Kelly English closed his restaurants and laid off about 60 employees, keeping two cooks and a handful of support staff for the takeout and delivery operation he hopes will keep his three restaurants afloat.

He awoke Thursday morning to an answered prayer. A regular customer who wants to remain anonymous emailed him overnight to offer a large sum of money for English to help his laid-off workers.

“I told him when we reopen, he has a table whenever he wants one,” said English, the owner of Restaurant Iris, The Second Line and Fino’s.

Restaurants were hit hard and fast by a sucker punch of a virus that knocked them down before Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s order to shut down dining rooms knocked them out. Municipalities followed suit, as did the county and finally, the state. They can operate takeout and delivery, but can’t have diners inside.

They want to do what they can for their employees, but none is in a position to pay most of them when there’s little or no business.

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Karen Carrier, who also owns a trio of restaurants and a catering company, had to lay off about 15 workers so far and has drastically cut hours for others. She set up a GoFundMe account to help them get through, and promised a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow everyone hopes is on the horizon.

“I’m going to throw a huge party at the end of it all, and it will end,” she said. “Everyone who contributes will be invited and we’ll have a crazy blowout at Back Do, have food, drinks, bands, all on me.”

Russ Graham and Tom Powers have events planned at their restaurants, too.

“We’re going to have grand reopening parties at all of our places, and we want people to buy tickets now,” he said. “All of the money will go to our employees now.”

Graham and Powers own Flight, Southern Social, Coastal Fish Company and Porch & Parlor; click on any of the names for the link to buy a ticket for the reopening of that restaurant. 

Letting employees go is not just necessary for the businesses to survive, but also to make the employees eligible for unemployment, a state benefit.

John Vergos, co-owner of the Rendezvous, shut down the dining room last week and laid off about 65 hourly employees so they could be free to collect unemployment. It was his plan to continue to pay their health insurance, but he’s come upon a roadblock that might make employees choose unemployment over health insurance.

<strong>John Vergos</strong>

John Vergos

“If they collect unemployment, then they’re not employees, and they don’t qualify for health care,” he said. “We just found this out and are trying to figure it out.”

As best he can tell, everyone is covered through April because of the way the policy is paid in advance, but before May, employees will have to decide if they want to be officially employed at a job that won’t pay them but will offer health insurance, or to collect unemployment.

“They’re going to be in a position to have to make a draconian choice,” he said. “On the one hand, they need the unemployment money, but what if they have to have an emergency appendectomy?”

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Patrick Reilly, chef/owner of The Majestic Grille, also offers health insurance to his employees and has found himself in the same position. Having the desire to help them counts for little if the law won’t allow it, he said.

Vergos is a lawyer and a former Memphis City Council member. What frustrates him is that these issues could be quickly addressed by state government, he says.

“Bill Lee claims to be a business-minded governor,” he said. “He could cut through this by an executive waiver. The state legislators could wave a magic wand and make this all go away.”

His wish list from the governments, both state and federal? Make unemployment as easy as possible. Increase the dollar amount of unemployment available. Allow businesses to continue paying employee health care while employees are laid off through the COVID-19 crisis. Get any payments to small businesses as efficiently and quickly as possible.

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English said he has a 501(c)3 called the JKE Foundation that hasn’t had a purpose until now.

“It stands for Justice and Kindness Everywhere, and I know what I’m going to do with it now. I’m going to start handing out that money.”


Kelly English Karen Carrier John Vergos Patrick Reilly
Jennifer Biggs

Jennifer Biggs

Jennifer Biggs is a native Memphian and veteran food writer and journalist who covers all things food, dining and spirits related for The Daily Memphian.


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