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Entrepreneurs take creative routes to deal with COVID-19 crisis
From home or work, normal has new meaning
 
Published Saturday, April 25, 2020 8:11 pm
by Ashley Mahoney | The Charlotte Post

COURTESY GREG WILLIAMS AND JAIME BARNES
Greg Williams and Jaime Barnes are co-owners of What the Fries, a food truck business in Charlotte.

Local businesses are getting creative to survive COVID-19.

From taking clients to a virtual space to curbside takeout to changing menus, things look different for everyone compared to life before the pandemic. Jameka Whitten, CEO of JSW Media and the company’s principal publicist, founded her company in 2006, specializing in public relations and brand management.

“We’re heavy on the creative side,” she said. “We work with a bunch of creatives, as well as small businesses and entrepreneurs, but we do have a strong events business as well. When COVID-19 hit with all of its might, we really felt the crush.”

Spring is typically a busy season for Whitten when it comes to corporate and social events for the company’s clients.

“That sort of got wiped out, as we had to pivot quickly and be as creative as possible,” she said.

Moving clients into a virtual space and enhancing their virtual presence has been essential JSW Media during North Carolina’s stay-at-home order, which Gov. Roy Cooper extended until May 8. The company introduced virtual happy hours and weekly public relations chats with clients to keep them visible, particularly artists and speakers who would traditionally appear in person at events.

“We had to get creative,” Whitten said. “I’ve been doing a lot more virtual coaching and consulting sessions. I’m pretty tech savvy, so it wasn’t a huge deal for me.”

Whitten, who has been working from home the last five years, also spends time at The Mill Coworking in South End. Yet not having the human interaction due to the pandemic is what she describes as “taxing for an extrovert.” Being forced to work from home also presents the unique feeling of wanting to go into an office just because she can’t.

“It is definitely one of those, now that you can’t do something, you really, really want to do it,” Whitten said. “The transition has not really been a transition, because I’ve been working from home for so long and working virtually, I have clients all over the country, so I’ve had to adapt to working online, via phone, via video conference early on. I’ve been doing this for years.”

Some industries – like hospitality – are less conducive to a work from home option. Chef Greg and Subrina expected to open their new restaurant Leah & Louise to the public at Camp North End. They spent countless hours perfecting the modern juke joint experience, which they have to wait to showcase. The stay-at-home order and closure of restaurants for dine-in forced them to pivot before they had a chance to open the doors. Their goal had been to be a destination restaurant, but that is on hold. Carryout is vastly different than creating something someone will eat five minutes after you finish cooking it, which changed Greg’s approach. That also impacted their menu, and the addition of a lunch menu.

“The goal with Leah & Louise was to Mississippi River Valley inspired food—Memphis to Louisiana is what we’ve been calling it,” two-time James Beard Foundation nominee Chef Greg said. “With the music and the space, it was going to create an experience. Now it makes less sense for us to cook that kind of food to where we’re pushing boundaries. What makes more sense now is, ‘what do people want for lunch?’ I can make a really good catfish sandwich. It’s not a sandwich you can get in a lot of other places. We’ve got a fried chicken sandwich. We’ve got a burger. We’ve got an oxtail taco on the lunch menu. The fact that we had to do a lunch menu alone is one of the adjustments.”

Leah & Louise also added family-style supper, because now more than ever, people need comfort food.

“Folks want really good food that they can sit at the table and feed their family,” Greg said. “Everybody wants comfort right now. Everybody wants to be comfortable.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology produced a report titled “COVID-19 and Remote Work: An Early Look at US Data.” The survey from April 1-5 showed 34.1% of people who were employed four weeks prior and commuted to work transitioned to working from home. Working from home is possible, but will it carry over after the pandemic?

“It doesn’t have to be a cookie cutter solution,” Whitten said. “Nine a.m.-5 p.m. doesn’t mean you have to go into an office and sit in a cubicle for eight hours, not really being productive, just to say that you were in a place so you can get a paycheck. You can still do things from home, as long as you’re held accountable. I don’t think the entire country will go 100% virtual, but I do think companies are looking at this, and more importantly employees are saying, ‘you told me all these years I couldn’t work from home, but that was a lie.’ There’s going to be a reckoning of sorts when the country opens back up.”

The confines of a pandemic have forced people to reevaluate how, where and when they work. Whether or not more will work from home or incorporate video calls to replace meetings after remains to be seen.

“Video calls will open up a lot of spaces and opportunities for people who have other obligations,” Whitten said. “This could be possible for those who have children at home, and they are having difficulty with childcare after work, or people who have disabilities and can’t get into the office on a regular basis, but they can still be productive, and they can still contribute to the workforce in a very meaningful way. We really need to take a hard look at what was normal, and understand what was normal and understand that it wasn’t all that great. COVID-19 has afforded us the opportunity to be innovative when it comes to what working looks like.”

Hygiene is talked about now more than ever to limit the spread of coronavirus, but cleanliness has always been key for the Colliers. Now they take extra steps, sanitizing twice as much.

“It doesn’t matter how hospitable you are,” Greg said. “It doesn’t matter how good the food is. It doesn’t matter how pretty the plates are. It doesn’t matter nice the walls are. If you’re not sanitizing, people can get sick.”

Difficult circumstances like a pandemic show you who is in your corner. To pay their staff, the Colliers split the profits with everyone.

“We’re not paying them what we would normally pay them, because we’ve gone to just splitting all the money,” Colliers said. “We’re saying, ‘this is how much money is left over,’ and we’re splitting it between the crew. The crew wants to make Leah & Louise work. They want make sure that we not only survive this, but thrive through it. That’s a beautiful thing. I think we’re going to be a stronger team, because everybody’s goal right now is to make us work.”

As hard as things are for everyone, local businesses are still taking the time to help others. The Colliers also own Uptown Yolk, which partnered with local nonprofit Heal Charlotte and U.S. Foods to provide 4,000 breakfasts for those in need. Heal Charlotte also partnered with Dish—a restaurant in Plaza Midwood—to serve 1,000 dinners.

“U.S. Foods donated the food for us to provide breakfasts for Heal Charlotte, and Heal Charlotte raised money for us to pay some of our employees at the Yolk,” Greg said. “It’s not normal pay, but to be able to pay them something and being able to give meals to underserved communities is an amazing thing.”

Empowering culinary excellence among African Americans is standard for the Colliers. Greg is also the first African American chef in Charlotte to receive a James Beard Foundation nomination. The Colliers also co-founded Soul Food Sessions in 2017 with fellow chefs Michael Bowling, Jamie Turner, Greg Williams and Jamie Barnes to highlight African American culinary artists in the area.

Jamie Barnes and Greg Williams launched What the Fries in July 2014 after auditioning for the Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race.” They didn’t make the show, but WTF took shape in 2015 when they bought a used FedEx truck for $3,000 and turned it into a space to serve hand-cut fries with a twist.

Typically they would set up the food truck near offices, where people would come for lunch, but they had to change their approach with everyone working from home. Now they meet the people where they are, setting up at apartment complexes and neighborhoods.

“We started using a preorder system to where people can come to the truck and it’s full paid,” Williams said. “It speeds things up for us. Get people in and out.”

As long as the pandemic lasts, they will continue to adapt, but as soon as Food Truck Friday comes back, they will be ready.

“We’ll just keep taking it day by day,” Williams said. “Right now, [the pandemic] kind of limits our creativity, but it’s still good for business. We can’t wait to be creative again with what we’re doing.”

Said Barnes: “I’m looking forward to Food Truck Friday, and getting to try out some more specials.”

For more information about JSW Media: https://www.jswmediagroup.com/

For more information about Leah & Louise: https://www.leahandlouise.com/

For more information about Uptown Yolk: https://theyolkcafe.com/

For more information about What the Fries: http://www.whatthefriesclt.com/

 

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