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City Lights alters business model to weather dine-in closure

City Lights Café has been a fixture in Sylva since first opening its doors in 2011. Those doors are now closed as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, but behind them owner Bernadette Peters is working to find new ways to sustain her business even as dine-in eateries like hers are ordered closed. 

Unlike many local businesses, Peters received Paycheck Protection Program money in the first round of funding, but she doesn’t expect it to do her much good. In fact, right now she’s planning to send most of the money back. Of the $49,500 she received, Peters plans to return $30,000 of it.  

“We were working so fast to try to apply for it that no one could really think through it, because they thought the money was going to run out and it did,” she said. “In hindsight, if I knew there was going to be another round of funding I would have waited.”

The loan is forgivable only if the business continues to employ all its workers at the same level of compensation for eight weeks after the loan money is received. But City Lights’ 14 pre-pandemic employees were all paid for jobs the business no longer needs to be done. Peters needed carpenters and web designers, not baristas. 

“We all closed, and we all laid off our employees, and now all of a sudden it’s in your account and your eight-week clock is ticking, and you have to spend it on payroll,” she said. “We could pay them to stay home, but what good does that do the business?”

Including herself, Peters is now paying six people, not 14, and she’s the only one who was part of the original staff. She needed carpenters to reconfigure the space, a web developer to facilitate the business’s new emphasis on online ordering, and a professional cleaner to sanitize the place and help develop processes for reopening. 

During the initial days of the closure, City Lights remained open for take-out, but that quickly proved not to be a viable option, for multiple reasons. The space just wasn’t conducive to safely serving customers and welcoming employees, and because the restaurant had already lost about $10,000 worth of perishable food, the uncertainty surrounding demand for takeout was risky. Finally, there was the fact that Peters lives with her parents, who would be at high risk if exposed to the virus. 

“I couldn’t personally expose myself, and it’s always the owner who does the work when things are slower, because financially it makes sense,” she said. 

So, Peters got innovative. City Lights has launched Café At Home, offering take-and-bake meals as well as snacks and drinks. It was like starting a whole new business. 

“I felt like I was starting back at square one in 2011 starting City Lights again, because we were running into the same thing — getting the processes down and trying to tweak messaging,” said Peters. 

Serving the area between Cullowhee and Whittier, Café At Home offers weekly menus of six two-person meals for $85, available for pick-up at the restaurant or by delivery. Every week, there’s a rice dish, pasta dish, quesadilla meal, soup and bread combo, hearty salad and breakfast casserole, with both meat and vegan options available. Those who don’t want to purchase an entire week’s worth of meals can also buy them individually, but orders must be placed a week ahead of time. 

In addition, customers can call one day ahead to order daily items like dips, bagels, desserts, biscuit dough, groceries, wine, beer and coffee. These items are available for pickup after noon Tuesday through Saturday. 

“My goal is to pay for our fixed costs with this take-and-bake program,” Peters said. “In an ideal world, that would limit the amount of new debt that we take on, because that is going to be the difference between life and death for every restaurant — the amount of debt they take on in this process.”

With fixed costs hopefully covered with Café At Home sales, Peters aims to receive sufficient grant funds from the Economic Injury Disaster Loan to cover the cost of preparing to reopen. 

While the PPP focuses on an eight-week window, the impact of coronavirus is all but guaranteed to linger longer than that. 

Before reopening, City Lights will have an outside pickup window, exit-only and enter-only doors, and a larger employees-only area so that workers can pass each other without touching. Peters is looking at options for screening panels to separate tables and will install signage encouraging customers to use the contactless ordering system if they’ve traveled abroad or been exposed to COVID-19. She also plans to reduce the number of tables in the restaurant to prevent crowding and make way for the outdoor pickup area. Upon clock-in, employees will have their temperature checked and answer screening questions about possible coronavirus exposure. 

Peters expects that business will be slow upon reopening, and the restaurant will have reduced capacity to seat and feed customers. It’s hard to say what that will mean for Main Street in the long term. 

“Nobody’s said definitely that they’re not going to make it, but I think we all have a fear that we won’t, especially during the second wave of infection,” she said. “Most restaurants only have at most a couple weeks’ worth of payroll in their account. Our inventory is all expiring stuff. It’s hard to determine whether you’re going to make it or not.”

 

Take the Café home

Learn more about City Lights’ Café at Home program and order food at www.citylightscafe.com. Weekly meal orders must be placed by Saturday of each week and picked up or received for delivery on Wednesday. Daily items like specialty groceries, baked goods and beverages must be ordered a day ahead. 

828.586.9499.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Peters planned to refuse the entire PPP loan she'd been given. She will in fact be refusing only 60 percent of the loan amount. The Smoky Mountain News regrets the error. 

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