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On Ninth Street, Happy + Hale offers to-go fare and ‘kindness’

On a Sunday in March, Duke University student Olivia Stohrer arrived at Happy + Hale ready to work another dinner rush.

After tucking her bun under a signature green hat, she saw what had become familiar: customers crowding the order line and filling cafeteria-style tables.

Within two weeks, those tables would stand empty. Bottles of hand sanitizer and buckets of disinfectant would appear. And Stohrer’s job would be gone.

After Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all restaurants to suspend dine-in operations on March 17, Durham’s lively restaurant scene was thrown into chaos. Many of the city’s 400 eateries had to recreate themselves or close.

Happy + Hale turned to curbside delivery and pickup orders, but the revenue doesn’t match that of sit-down service. The immediate impact for the cafe was a 90% decrease in business across its locations as of March 22, according to CEO and founder Tyler Helikson.

 “We’ve never seen anything like this,” Helikson said.“A lot of restaurant jobs will be lost because of this, unfortunately permanently.”

While Durham restaurants are suffering in their own ways, many share the loss of key customers: Duke University students and staff. Just a walk away from East Campus and many off-campus apartments, Happy + Hale’s Ninth Street location is a hot spot among the Duke community.

On any given day, 50% to 60% of customers were Duke students before the coronavirus outbreak, Helikson said. Happy + Hale’s business fluctuated with Duke’s social calendar. “If there’s a Duke game, then our business goes down during the hours of the game,” Stohrer said.

As restaurants scramble to break even in a world of social distancing, payroll is often the first cost to cut. While Happy + Hale Durham transitioned from 13-hour weekdays to limited service hours from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., more than half of the employees lost their jobs, Helikson said. And a smaller staff’s hours were reduced by more than half.

Cutting jobs was painful for Helikson because it broke apart a tight-knit co-worker group established over years, he said. In March he wrote a heartfelt letter to the “Happy + Hale Family” detailing the tough changes ahead.

“My heart is breaking thinking about all of you who come in every day and give everything you have to make our communities happier and healthier,” Helikson wrote. “We have an extraordinary team of leaders in this company who stop at nothing to keep us moving forward. There’s no other way to say it — this time is different.”

To ease some of the hardship, Helikson promised to reinstate employees’ jobs if the business reopens as normal. He also offered assistance with filing for unemployment and help with emergency food, financial or shelter needs, he said.

Happy + Hale has delivered meals to hospitals and medical practices during the coronavirus outbreak, generating praise when it posts photos like this on Instagram.

Patty Davis, a Happy + Hale shift manager, is one of seven employees who kept his job. As a full-time employee, Davis worked over 40 hours per week before the epidemic, but shifted to 20 hours a week, at most, after it started.

Right away, the difference in Davis’s paycheck was palpable. Like many of his co-workers, he planned to file for partial unemployment to recover lost income. Yet, the high volume of filings caused the state unemployment website to crash, making it difficult for Davis and many others to submit an application.

Amid the rapid changes, Davis took on various impromptu roles. Some days he’s a delivery driver, other days he’s on dish duty, and still other days he helps in the kitchen. The most difficult adjustment has been the loss of his work community. “I really see them as my family, everyone was super tight,” he said. “I guess we still are, but you know, you don’t see these people anymore.”

Stohrer, who worked the counter at Happy + Hale, misses a steady paycheck too. But like Davis, she misses the people she worked with the most. She misses the staff meetings when Helikson would treat everyone to burgers and drinks at a local bar. She misses the hours spent ranting to her co-workers about school problems that would somehow alleviate her stress by the end of the night.

“You know how people say at college, ‘Go join a club, find your people,’” Stohrer said. “Happy + Hale was one of those things for me where I had these really cool people that I worked with, and it felt like a community.”

The National Restaurant Association has warned that $225 billion could be lost within the restaurant industry countrywide between March and June. Five to seven million jobs could be eliminated.

Recently, Cooper launched a three-phase plan to reopen North Carolina businesses. Starting May 8, phase one reopened many retail shops. However, limited dine-in services won’t be permitted until phase two, to begin May 22 at the earliest.

One sign that Happy + Hale is hanging on came on May 11, when its Durham store expanded hours to 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Sunday.

Even as Durham restaurants are strained by the crisis, many are doing what they can to help others. Happy + Hale promoted the Triangle Restaurant Workers Relief Fund, a project raising money for restaurant staff who have lost wages due to the coronavirus.

Happy + Hale also added a Kindness Bowl option to the menu at its Durham restaurant and North Hills Raleigh restaurant, enabling customers to purchase a $5 rice bowl donated to frontline hospital staff. Customers responded quickly.

“Because of your generosity we’ve been able to deliver over 800 Kindness Bowls to various hospitals in our communities and still have several hundreds to go,” read a Happy + Hale Instagram post on April 3.

Renee Weisz