City restaurants fight to stay alive after COVID-19, campus closure and protests

Ebrik Coffee Room closes its doors in the first quarter of the COVID-19 shut down. Photo by Matt Siciliano-Salazar | The Signal

Downtown Atlanta was once full of bustling city life, and it now stands still. Many had gotten used to the sound of cars whizzing by during lunch hour — working professionals and students alike scrambling to their favorite restaurants. Now, lunch hour is eerily quiet and the streets mostly bare. 

Only serving a fraction of their usual customer base, Downtown Atlanta’s restaurants struggle to stay afloat with the transition to take out and delivery orders only. Losing the last five weeks of business from Georgia State students when the spring semester was moved online prematurely due to COVID-19, made the transition even more challenging. 

After the emotional and financial damage of COVID-19, some found that their businesses could not survive the hit. 

Saying goodbye to Ébrìk

On May 24, Georgia State students were disheartened to hear through Instagram that their beloved coffee shop, Ébrìk Coffee Room, would be closing. The cafe announced their closing of the Downtown location with a picture of the shop’s signature chalkboard saying goodbye and the caption: “Did you hear? COVID kicked us out.” 

Abbas Barzegar is a founding partner of Ébrìk along with Abbas Arman and Basel Nassri. Barzegar foresaw the closure of Ébrìk’s Downtown location as students began to leave campus due to COVID-19 but he said that many Downtown businesses were already struggling, even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The macroeconomics aside, there is also the harsh reality of the changing face of downtown, a kind of corporate gentrification that very few recognize has really forced small family-owned businesses into difficult times, even before the pandemic,” Barzegar said. “So, there was no real way out.” 

Barzegar knew that the pandemic would continue to change the lives of Downtown restaurants in the next year and that Ébrìk would not be able to survive. 

Ébrìk was a staple for many Georgia State students, who could indulge in specialty coffees while studying with friends, attending in-house art galleries and slam poetry nights. It offered a community space that many students took advantage of, and according to Barzegar, the students became the “heart and soul” of Ébrìk. 

“You can get a latte anywhere now, but that’s not why you come to Ébrìk,” Barzegar said. “So sure, students will have their coffee, but the community and culture that was built in the space will be — frankly — impossible to replicate.”

Kennedy Culver, a student at Georgia State, frequented Ébrìk for its welcoming ambiance, described it as a stress-free environment with great energy. Culver also enjoyed the music played at Ébrìk and mentioned that her study sessions often turned into “jam sessions.” 

“The chai tea lattes weren’t the only things that were warm,” Culver said. “The staff was amazing, and I enjoyed the conversations we had.”

Georgia State student Kathryn Whitley always felt a sense of “belonging” whenever she stepped through the doors at Ébrìk. Whether she was visiting to study or just to hang out with some friends, she always felt welcome and would often talk to the employees during her visit. The cafe also offered a peaceful setting for her to find love again. 

“My favorite memory [from Ébrìk] is reuniting with my ex, who is now no longer an ex, and rekindling our relationship,” Whitley said. “So, it will always hold a special place in my heart because of that.” 

Keelin Unger, a Georgia State student, found that Ébrìk was an environment conducive to studying that allowed her to make connections with other customers as well as staff. 

“I felt at home whenever I was in Ébrìk,” Unger said. “It was super welcoming, and the staff there were literally the nicest people. It’s one of those places where whoever you are, you’re bound to feel comfortable.

Barzegar never anticipated that Ébrìk’s fate would be a sudden halt at the hands of a worldwide pandemic.

“No one thinks of the sunset at dawn. So no, I didn’t ever think Ébrìk on Park Street would come to an end,” Barzegar said.

Former customers and employees also feel Ébrìk’s closing will leave a void on campus. 

“Walking down the street [Ébrìk] was on will just be so weird,” Unger said. “You could glance through the window at any time and see people laughing and enjoying themselves; it’ll feel empty there.”

Both Whitley and Culver felt that they would still find themselves walking towards Ébrìk’s former location upon their fall return, forgetting that it was now gone. 

“I feel like campus lost a safe peaceful haven,” Culver said. 

Samiyah Malik, a former Ébrìk barista and gallery curator, started working at the cafe in August 2019. 

“Ébrìk has always been good to me,” Malik said. “They support my art and have given me space to be myself. Working there, even for a short period of time, was important to me because it connected me with some of my favorite people and creatives in the city.”

For those looking for a cup of coffee on campus, Ébrìk’s loyal customers and former employees say nothing will compare. 

“Without Ébrìk, I honestly think a staple of campus is lost,” Whitley said. “It was a coffee shop that celebrated diversity and was definitely not Starbucks.” 

The cost of COVID-19

Although some restaurants have managed to stay afloat during the pandemic, the staggering decline in customers has been distressing and costly. 

The Salvadoran-inspired cuisine served by Buenos Dias Cafe became a lunchtime favorite of many Georgia State students and Downtown locals. 

Owners Ken and Jeannette Katz would see 300 customers a day during the school semester. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, students having to leave campus five weeks early and transitioning to take-out only, Buenos Dias now serves around seven customers a day ― an almost 98% drop in patrons. 

Ken Katz admitted that the effects of the pandemic on Downtown businesses have been “devastating.” Most rely on the school semesters to get them through the slower business days in the summer. 

“As soon as we lost the last five weeks of school, we knew there was going to be a great challenge,” Katz said. “All the restaurants I’ve spoken to that are here are transitioning themselves to catch whatever business they can as well as support the few people that are still Downtown.”

With neighbors like Kung Fu Tea, Pho King and the now-closed Ébrìk, Katz explained that the restaurant owners and managers in the area are quite a tight-knit group.

“We’re all friends and we all talk to each other, check in on each other and advise each other,” he said. 

Katz described the change of campus closing as “bizarre” and almost apocalyptic. 

“I’ve never watched ‘The Walking Dead,’ but from what I can tell, this is what it must look like because there’s nobody down here,” Katz said.  

Panthers Den — a Black-owned restaurant, by Elle Jackson, a Georgia State alumna — is located on the corner of Decatur Street and Central Avenue. Offering hot dogs, burgers, wings and fried seafood, Panthers Den has a well-rounded menu at an affordable price for college students. 

Situated in the heart of campus, its customers consist mostly of Georgia State students and faculty. 

The pandemic drastically affected my business by closing down campus since the majority of business comes from [Georgia State] students,” Jackson said.“I can hope to rebuild back slowly when school starts for the fall semester in August.”

Panthers Den’s isolated location right on campus sets them apart from other Downtown restaurants and because of this, support from other local restaurant owners has not been as strong as Jackson hoped.

The Signal previously reported on the fall semester’s reopening at Georgia State, which will include a blended learning model, combining online and face-to-face instruction to comply with social distance guidelines. 

“[Business] won’t be back to normal due to the social distancing and capacity levels that will be implemented on campus,” Jackson said

The Downtown location of the Landmark Diner on Luckie Street was opened in 2003, almost ten years after the grand opening of the first location in Buckhead. The diner aimed to bring the 24/7 style of New York City restaurants to the Atlanta area and has become an all-day and all-night favorite of many Georgia State students as well as Downtown-based, working professionals. 

Niko Lambrou, a partner with Landmark Diner, noted, like Katz, the peculiarity of seeing the empty Atlanta streets as “zombie-like.” 

“There’s a good group of us, especially where we are between Broad Street and [Forsyth Street],” Lambrou said. “We help each other out. We communicate with a lot of things.”

Lambrou explained that the structure of the American diner, from being open 24/7 to the wide variety of foods offered, helps them to persevere during difficult times. He is the third generation of his family to be involved in the diner business. 

“We may not thrive during a recession, but we survive — at least, especially in the city,” he said.

Praying for change

Atlanta saw an influx of activity as Black Lives Matter protests took to the streets. 

As night fell on May 29, businesses suffered some damage from small groups of protesters. Several Forsyth Street restaurants had windows broken, including Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks and Landmark Diner. 

“The first couple of days were a little stressful at first,” Lambrou said. “The first night, no one really knew what was coming, especially with all of the window breaking. We caught one person, but when they saw that someone was inside, they left us alone.” 

Many businesses had plans to open their doors at the time, but the damages some suffered during the protests pushed those plans back. Instead, they boarded up their windows, advertising their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Panthers Den did not sustain any storefront damage but closed their restaurant early the night of May 29 out of concern for their restaurant. 

“Overall, protesting both helped and hurt the past couple of weeks. I did manage to avoid being looted, maybe due to the ‘Black-owned business’ and ‘we support George Floyd’ signs that I had posted,” Jackson said.

Panthers Den has received support from a local student-run non-profit organization, NoirUnited, to help them get back on their feet. Started by Georgia State senior Fatoumata Fofana and Mercer alumni Macire Aribot and Nassim Ashford, NoirUnited aims to provide funding for Black-owned businesses that have been affected by COVID-19 and damaged from the protests.

“While we were participating in the protest, we encountered the owner of Panthers Den as she was standing in solidarity with the protesters,” Fofana said. “After learning more about her establishment and how it was negatively impacted by COVID-19, we felt that our donation would make a significant impact in supporting her business.”

Katz learned about the damage from messaging with other restaurant owners and managers nearby. 

The Katz family saw several Buenos Dias regulars waving to them as they marched past. This was far from the first demonstration that Katz had seen in Atlanta, and it certainly will not be the last, he said, expressing his belief in the importance of younger generations striving to make systematic change — including by voting. 

“The metro-Atlanta and beyond communities of Georgia could be greatly influenced by Georgia State voters,” Katz said. “We certainly hope and pray for change. That’s what we need.” 

Returning to “normal”

Despite the situation feeling bleak, restaurants are prepared to transition back to “normal” life as things begin to settle down and more people begin to return. 

Although they are not seeing their usual number of customers, the ones that continue to eat from their favorite Downtown spots are incredibly loyal. 

“We’re looking [forward] to seeing our customers again. We consider some of them as family,” Lambrou said. “Some have been coming religiously, every day. Those people are working still, and they come here to support us. I appreciate that a lot.” 

The Katz family has been discussing how Buenos Dias hopes to serve students upon their return to campus. 

“What we’re thinking about is [that students] will still want somewhere to spend [their] two hours between classes when people would usually come and hang out at Buenos Dias,” Katz said. “We’re thinking we might transition to a smaller seating area and more food options.” 

Although Ébrìk’s Park Street location has closed its doors, the adored cafe may not have permanently disappeared from Downtown.

“We’ll be in a holding pattern for the immediate future, restructuring as an online brand … but I’m quite sure that we will make a return to [Georgia State] once the dust settles and the smoke clears,” Barzegar said. 

Although Downtown Atlanta’s restaurants may not be thriving at the moment, they survive because of the strong bonds they have with their customer base and one another. 

The city has seen its fair share of changes in the first half of the year. The sudden departure of Georgia State’s student body has been a challenge both for students as well as local businesses. Looking forward, the return of the community will breathe life back into Atlanta, especially during lunch hour.