Huey’s paying all its employees, crossing corporate fingers on CARES Act

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 03, 2020 8:57 AM CT | Published: April 03, 2020 4:00 AM CT
<strong>Huey&rsquo;s employee Jenna Cousino, wearing a a cheeseburger costume, delivers food to lunchtime customers on Thursday, April 2, 2020, at the Midtown Huey's location. Huey's has neither laid off any of their 565 employees nor cut employees' pay.</strong> (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

Huey’s employee Jenna Cousino, wearing a a cheeseburger costume, delivers food to lunchtime customers on Thursday, April 2, 2020, at the Midtown Huey's location. Huey's has neither laid off any of their 565 employees nor cut employees' pay. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

Eddie Carson and Cody Frazier stood outside Huey’s in Midtown, waiting for lunch and enjoying the sunshine. The two work for NexAir, a company that, among other things, delivers industrial gases to hospitals.

They’re essential personnel, so they have to work, and they have to eat. Huey’s was a treat for them.

“I got the Bluff City burger, the best they have,” Carson said. “We’re glad they’re open. It’s so much better than fast food.”

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The vast majority of Memphis restaurants have had no choice but to let their employees go. Many have shut their doors, and those that remain open are doing a fraction of the business they were. Dining rooms are closed by city mandate, so the only business they have is takeout and delivery.

But the Memphis burger institution Huey’s is open for curbside delivery at all nine locations, and all 565 employees are still on the clock — at full salary.

“We’re paying them an average of what they made last year,” said Huey’s CEO president Lauren Robinson, who owns the company with Samantha Boggs Dean, Ashley Boggs Robilio, Alex Boggs and Fulton Boggs, all children of the late Thomas Boggs, and Wight Boggs, his widow. “Whatever they were making for 2019, we took that total and divided it by 52.”

They still have health insurance. The company is still contributing a 4% dollar-for-dollar match to the 401(k).

Server Jenna Cousino has worked at the Midtown Huey’s for almost five years.

“This is the best place I’ve ever worked, and that’s why I’ve been here that long,” she said. “When all this happened and I told my dad what they were doing, he said ‘Well, you always said it was a good place and I guess this just shows you were right.’”

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Folk’s Folly, owned 60% by the daughters of the late Thomas Boggs and 40% by the Folk family, is also open and fully staffed with about 100 employees, who are being paid by the same equation Huey’s uses.

The plan is to recover the lion’s share of the costs with a CARES Act loan.

“We are applying for that loan, which will allow us to pay our people whatever they had been making, for eight weeks,” Robinson said. “We were watching this all last week and hoping it was going to go through and basically decided to take the gamble. We still don’t know exactly how it will work.”

The Paycheck Protection Program is part of the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act passed March 27. If qualifying employers keep their employees and meet other requirements, eight weeks of payroll costs will be forgiven in the loan, though it should be noted that details are still murky.

“We can apply for the loan (Friday), but we still have so many uncertainties,” Robinson said. “Our banker still doesn’t even have all the answers.”

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A handful of other Memphis restaurants, those that already had a significant takeout business, are doing better than some others. Tim Bednarski at Elwood’s Shack has managed to keep his full staff of 17 and hired two more back when they came home from school; Ben Smith at Tsunami has kept all 20; and Mike Garibaldi at Garibaldi’s has retained his 50 employees, most working reduced hours.

At Huey’s, the toothpicks are still in the ceiling, though a ban on shooting them there via a strong puff of air through a straw was enacted in the last few days of dine-in service to discourage a potential for passing the coronavirus. There are full bottles of liquor behind the bar, T-shirts spanning the years hanging in a neat line, posters reflecting the history of Memphis on the walls, and music playing to an empty dining room.

Employees who used to joke with customers are instead keeping distance from each other and writing puns and funny scribbles on to-go packages.

“We want to let all the people who come here know that they’re appreciated,” Cousino said. “We want to brighten their day a little bit, so I’ll write something like ‘We have your back (and your stomach)’ on the box. Someone wrote ‘When life hands you lemons, make lemon pie’ on a to-go pie.”

Business is down about 70%, Robinson said, but customers have been generous with their tips. The tips are pooled, divided among all the employees. While some who worked 40 hours pre-COVID-19 are only working 20 hours now, they’re still getting paid for a full week. And the tips help.

After the tips are distributed among the employees, Huey’s pays them the difference. If each employee gets $100 of the tip share but normally makes $500 per week, Huey’s pays them $400.

Cousino said she’s realized how important it is to her that she gets to interact with people at work.

“These are the only people I’m hanging out with,” she said. “So I get to see people and am so grateful that I’m able to work and be paid. Most of my friends aren’t.”

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Chris Featherstone has worked for Huey’s for 17 years as a server, going back to the days when Thomas Boggs, the current owners’ father, was still around.

Thomas Boggs bought part of Huey’s in 1976 and after he died in 2008, the sisters bought his partner Jay Sheffield’s share. Robinson said she believes her father would try to do the same thing she and her family are doing.

Featherstone said he had no doubt the company was going to come through.

“I knew they’d come up with some way to take care of us,” he said.

But he believes the late Boggs would handle things a bit differently:

“He’d be out on the corner in an apron, flagging down cars and hauling people over here.”

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Huey's Lauren Robinson CAREs Act
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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