“I have grown to appreciate downtime,” said Anthony Debreceny in a phone interview this past Saturday. “Something I hadn’t had before.”
Despite closing down his four local restaurants due to the COVID-19 pandemic, despite having to furlough 172 employees, and despite having back surgery about ten days ago, to his extraordinary credit, Savannah’s favorite Australian son does not sound any different.
Since The Deck Beach Bar and Kitchen and The Fitzroy locked up on March 16 and the two Collins Quarters - Bull Street and the Fort on Forsyth Park - ceased operations the following Friday, Debreceny has loved spending time with his daughter, Gracie, “becoming friends again,” as he put it with a chuckle.
“Dad, this is really weird,” he recalled her saying to him one morning when quarantine precautions had just begun. “You’ve never had breakfast with us.”
Those who know the super-dedicated restaurateur know that he is up and at work every morning before the rest of us have even considered turning the pillow over to the cool side, so these several weeks of being at home have had a parental profit that he spoke of before mentioning anything about business.
“It’s been good,” Debreceny said. “We’ve been homeschooling, and we’ve been plating gardens and building bird nests.”
With Mom and Dad as teachers, nine-year-old Gracie studied the difference between yeast-leavened and bicarbonate-leavened breads, and even the fixing of a fountain turned into a lesson on evaluating risk - something her father has had plenty of over the last two months.
AMAZING OPENING, BAD TIMING
I last talked to Debreceny in the days prior to Collins Quarter at Forsyth’s grand opening, right before St. Patrick’s Day.
And then, well, you know.
“We were only open at Collins Quarter at Forsyth for seven days,” he explained, really having the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of the pre-St. Patrick’s Day weekend to gauge what he called “normal business-volume days” might be like.
“We did a thousand people in those three days in eighteen hours,” said Debreceny. “We were very very busy.” 275 customers that first Friday, 486 on Saturday, and 572 on Sunday.
By Tuesday, business had already dropped off because tourism in Savannah had ebbed in the wake of the outbreak. At that point, he and his management teams at the four Southern Cross restaurants decided that it was just best to close.
The price tag of opening up his fourth Savannah restaurant proved to be more significant because paid staff had been brought in for training, and the shelves had been stocked with liquor and the refrigerators with all sorts of food, only to have everything grind to a halt weeks later with very little revenue generated.
“We had about $120,000 in costs associated just with that,” he estimated of CQ Forsyth’s grand opening.
“The closing down [was] traumatic, but that was always going to be, what I felt, the easiest part of the exercise,” reasoned Debreceny, an entrepreneur who, like others, is now staring down an entirely different obstacle course.
THE COST OF CLOSURE
“Writing 172 final paychecks certainly leaves a dent in any cash-flow reserves that you may have,” Debreceny explained, noting the very real finances of an industry that is predicated on day-to-day cash flow.
Restaurateurs may have no revenue coming in, but accounts payable, if you will, is still very real: sales tax payments, contracted disbursements to suppliers, workers’ compensation insurance, utilities and public works bills, and rent chief among the expenses that have not ended.
For Debreceny as owner-proprietor, the $50,000 per month rent payment for all four restaurant spaces has not lessened by one penny, and for so many locally owned non-chain restaurants, the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is a relative non-factor. The Forsyth location is not under this protection, as an example, because it was not open prior to February of 2019, even though Debreceny’s costs of being open in March of 2020 were comparable to any other eatery that had been open for a full year or longer.
“You have to be at 75% the staffing levels you were pre-closure,” he said. “So there’s not a restaurant in the country that will be able to meet those obligations of the PPP’s forgiveness criteria.”
Not only that, but “from day one, I was told that I didn’t qualify because I was a foreigner,” said the native Melburnian with a wry laugh, adding, “That was a half-bourbon day.”
A BRAND NEW G’DAY
While he called the closures a “very difficult and stressful period,” Debreceny anticipated that “this opening-up is going to be, I think, more difficult” because it poses totally new challenges, not the least of which is the Catch-22 of appreciable unemployment benefits that are giving some American hourly-wage earners incentive to eschew the possible health risks of heading back to work.
“We had to make the choice of sitting on our hands for another four weeks and paying out another potential hundred-thousand dollars in total overall expenditures without bringing anything in,” he soberly said.
Because Tybee Island was already starting to build back some visitor “momentum,” the decision was made to reopen The Deck over the Friday, May 8, weekend with an altered menu and enhanced health and safety protocols.
Collins Quarter Forsyth reopened last Friday with a completely different take-out-style menu, designed more for patrons to eat in the park - which was going to be part and parcel of Debreceny’s four-fold concept for the revitalized landmark space anyway: sitdown restaurant, cocktails bar, coffee bar, and takeaway.
At the revitalized Fort on Forsyth Park, Debreceny said his staff is running a “cafeteria-style ordering system: order at the counter, pick up drinks at the bar, wait either at some of the available tables or outside in the park, and receive a cellphone notification when the food is ready.” The same procedure is currently being used at The Deck.
Hours at Collins Quarter Forsyth are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and The Deck is open those same days but from noon until 9 p.m. Mondays will be added over Memorial Day weekend.
Debreceny hopes that the original Collins Quarter will be back open this Friday, Sunday, Saturday, and Monday, largely depending on staffing.
At The Fitzroy, the prospects for reopening rest on the “tourism dynamic in that part of town,” as Debreceny put it, but the stylish downtown Drayton Street restaurant might well be used as a commissary kitchen to enable nighttime dinner service at CQ Forsyth.
THE BUSINESS WORD OF 2020: PIVOT
“What we’re experiencing at the moment are significant supply-chain issues,” Debreceny said. “So what we may have today we may not have tomorrow.”
For his three restaurants, like most others, this means that menus may change on a daily basis.
“The word of the industry at the moment is ‘pivot’,” he added.
Effectively, this creates the ultimate test of professional kitchen management, like a Food Network game show called, “What Can We Make Out of What Got Delivered Today?”
The economics of the reality is anything but a game, though, as Debreceny cited the price increases he has witnessed and incurred, such as a case of burger patties that jumped from $53 to $97 from one order to the next.
“It’s all part of ‘adulting’,” said a resigned but still happy Debreceny. “You’ve got these things that happen, and you’ve just got to learn how to deal with them. No one’s going to fix them for you.”
“Every decision that we make has a two-day expiring period,” he concluded, coining a ‘new normal’ for his restaurant group that is holding true for so many folks right now. “We revisit and recalculate and pivot again.”