Save the Restaurants We Love

I just got a text from my friend George Sarris who owns The Fish Market Restaurant on Birmingham’s Southside. George’s restaurant has a special place in my heart.

When our kids were young, Rick and I had a weekly date night there. That was at the old place–the one that looked like a big styrofoam box. We’d crowd around a table with friends and strangers. It was not unusual for people visiting Birmingham from around the world to realize they knew someone at that table.

When George moved across the parking lot to his current location in a wonderful old warehouse with a custom bar and centuries-old timbers, my friend Lisa DeCarlo and I went with him and a small group to Greece (and then Lisa and I went to Turkey) to gather furnishings and decor (including genuine Greek fishing boats) for the place.

Our oldest child got her first job at The Fish Market and worked there as a cashier for years through high school and during summers home from college. To say she learned a lot about life there is a huge understatement.

Freshly shucked oysters and ice-cold local beer at The Fish Market bar are two of my favorite things in this world.

So, yes, this restaurant means something to me. And I’m not alone in this. So I want you to read what George sent me. Then do whatever you can to save the independent restaurants we love.

Here is George’s message in his own words:

Restaurants are the common ground of life in the United States. During my 50 years as a restaurant operator, I have watched customers grow up, get married, have kids, pass away – and now their kids are regular customers. If someone dies, gets married, has children, or a birthday party – we go to  a restaurant. In my home country of Greece, we have the coffee shop – the roundtable of the community – but here, it is restaurants. Not everyone likes to drink at bars, or dance in clubs, or even go to church, but everyone eats. If something happens to restaurants in the United States, then the way of life that we have come to cherish is at risk of changing irrevocably.

Without substantial help, I do not see 80% of independent restaurants surviving into 2021. 

My Name is George Sarris and I have lived in Birmingham, Alabama, for the past 50 years. I immigrated through New York on April 1, 1969 from Tsitalia, a small village in the Greek Peloponnese. Our voyage was with the 2nd-to-last passenger ship that ferried immigrants to the United States from Europe.

My village consisted of mostly subsistence farming, and our 9-person household family struggled to make ends meet, with  5 kids, 2 parents and 2 grandparents. We had a “modest” house: 2 rooms reserved for the grandparents, parents, children, a bedroom for the goats and sheep, and the last bedroom was for our donkey and Truman, a Missouri Mule. 

Our mule was given to us under the Marshall Plan, a $700 million aid package provided by the United States to assist Europeans in the wake of World War II. There were 28 Missouri mules given to families in Tsitalia, and we named ours Truman. Most everyone in the village gave their mules American names. 

At the age of 12, the children left the mountainous village to begin high school in the plains down below. Our parents stayed above, tending to the small groves in the terraced rocky hills, while we lived amongst ourselves. By necessity, we were self-sufficient: cleaning, washing clothes, cooking,  all handled by kids no older than 15 . We were taught to take care of ourselves from a young age–as long as you can work, everything else will fall into place.  

At the age of 18, I started working in restaurants. I paid my dues in every position of the business. I worked a stint in New York to learn a little bit about delis, so I went with what I knew.  I opened a “Kosher Style” deli in downtown Birmingham. Of course back then in Birmingham, “Kosher  Style” might even include a little pork.  I have owned  restaurants for the last 48 years and have always applied the same model that I learned back then: work hard, keep cost low, and appeal to blue and white collar clientele alike. 80 hour work weeks are the rule, not the exception, and that remains true to this day. 

For the last 37 years I have owned The Fish Market Restaurant on the Southside of Birmingham. When we opened in 1983, there were 8 seats in the dining room; today there are 375. I have been fortunate to have a long-lasting restaurant, and it all goes back to what I learned in the beginning of my career: work hard, save your money, and be fair to customers. If you can do those three things, then you can make a living. 

For the first time in my life, that is no longer true. My business’ future is no longer in my hands. 

My son Dino has worked with me from the age of 9 years old. He is 32 and now, I don’t even know if the restaurant business will be for him over the next four decades as it was for me.   

The US employs over 11.5 million people via the restaurant industry, with countless others whose jobs are directly tied to the industry via farming, manufacturing, importing, shipping, transporting, etc. At the Fish Market, we employ some of the most marginalized in our community: those who have been afforded minimal education;  persons who have been previously incarcerated (and, in some cases, currently incarcerated), and those experiencing homelessness. These Birmingham residents can find a career at our restaurant.  And, more importantly, they can grow from that position. The restaurant industry thrives on giving people chances, and sometimes second (or third) chances. 

Additionally, independent restaurants are behind community events, fundraisers, helping local schools and churches, and any worthwhile cause. Because we are a big part of everyday life and we live among our customers. We stake our future in our communities. 

As an independent operator, I wear many hats with my staff: preacher, therapist, policeman, social worker, banker, and, above all, a friend. Personally, I see restaurants as a way to teach those of us, like myself, who grew up without some of the basics – personal hygiene, social etiquette, promptness, self control, and stress management. There is a learned art to keep smiling in the face of a customer who is having a bad day. It seems to me that if you learn these basic principles then you can handle most of life’s difficulties. 

So now, more than ever, our country’s independent restaurants need help. After Fish Market’s initial closure on March 17, we received the Payroll Protection Plan/CARES Act (PPP) money to cover 8 weeks of operational costs. We were able to pay all critical expenses:  rent, staff salaries, utilities, interest on existing loans, etc.. But, once that all was paid, we were back to square one. There was nothing left to keep the business going beyond those 8 weeks. The CARES Act did not address the actual problem that business owners were facing: the pandemic (and restrictions placed on businesses) were not going away anytime soon. 

The newly proposed “Prioritized Paycheck Protection Program (P4) Act”, seems, on its face, to have improved from the previous bailout. Businesses will have to show, through financial records, that their business is still being negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  In the spring, numerous businesses receive grants who were thriving yet still remained eligible for huge amounts of money that could have helped those of us who are genuinely in a crisis. The P4 Act could provide funds to those who truly need it, and will allow us to keep our industry afloat through the end of the year. 

Truman, along with 28 other mules, was instrumental in the survival of our small mountain village in Greece. 70 years later, the community is still there, preserving the way of life that they hold dear. If the airlines, farmers, hospitals, bankers, carmakers, insurance companies, Wall Street, and multinational corporations can get a caravan of mules, when will the independent restaurant industry get theirs?

The restaurant business has never in the history of this country needed help from the government. We were able to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps in order to make it. This time, all we need from the government is a mule, and we can take it from there.

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