(Updated at 10:15 p.m.) Like other local business owners, Andre Matini feels like he’s building his franchise back from the ground up.
Andre Matini and his sister Arita are the cofounders of Sweet Leaf Cafe, a bowl and sandwich-focused local restaurant with a handful of regional locations. The store’s Courthouse location (2200 Wilson Blvd) is set to reopen Thursday for takeout and delivery, with orders ideally placed online or — if necessary — with walk-ins.
Matini said the location is reopening with ambitious 9 a.m.-8 p.m. hours, 7 days a week, but that could change as it adjusts to operating during the pandemic.
“It’s like starting the whole business from scratch,” Matini said. “So many things go into getting production.”
The big problem, Matini said, is trying to rehire staff. Matini said he has had zero responses to a help-wanted ad he put out recently.
“Right now, my ex-employees won’t come back, which is causing a problem,” Matini said. “Some of them are making more by staying home because of $600 [weekly enhanced unemployment] bonus. That bonus runs out in mid-July, and then they all want to come back.”
For Sweet Leaf, though, Matini said that leaves businesses opening before July with very little to offer former employees to come back to work, potentially risking their health to earn less than they would staying at home. While some larger companies have offered extra pay for employees to work through the pandemic, Matini said many smaller businesses don’t have the profit margins to afford that kind of package.
“Who wants to risk possibly getting sick to break even and work for the money when you could get it for unemployment,” Matini said. “One of our biggest problems is getting anyone to come back. We’re staffing managers on salary, but that’s not a long term possibility here, to pay people $50 to $60 grand for hourly work.”
As frustrating as that is, Matini said he’s still happy about receiving a federally-based Paycheck Protection Program loan, saying even with an imperfect implementation it’s allowed the company some breathing room. He’s not sure there will be many customers when he reopens, but now that he has the PPP loan he has to most of the money on rent, utilities and employee pay within 8 weeks in order to have that portion of the loan forgiven, according to Small Business Administration guidelines.
Matini said he’s preparing for the careful balancing act of keeping employees and other customers safe while not embarrassing those who don’t follow social distancing standards.
“We have all these new procedures in place to keep customers and employees safe, but with the nature of the virus, it’s difficult,” Matini said. “It’s a balancing act. We’ll be asking people without masks to order online without embarrassing them. There are no issues right now, but you can see as businesses open up in a month and you have 20 people in a store, it might be difficult to single someone out.”
Matini said he’d prefer government step in to establish what the rules are — Arlington County officials are considering doing so by making masks mandatory while out in public — so individual businesses don’t have to set their own rules.
“We’re excited to open, but it’s not a grand opening type of excitement, it’s just ‘let’s get something rolling again we can keep in place for a couple of months or a year,'” Matini said. “We’re doing walk-ins, but you just can’t sit down. Please use delivery or takeout, it’s easier, you’ll get a discount. It’s about a 10% discount. If you spend $25, you get $2 off.”
As the Courthouse location gets restarted, Matini said the focus isn’t on thriving, but surviving.
“We’re not growing businesses, just seeing what we can do,” Matini said.
While Courthouse is reopening, one of the two Sweet Leaf locations in Ballston will remain closed — the one in an office building on N. Glebe Road. “There’s nothing going on there,” Matini said. The N. Quincy Street location is currently open with limited hours.
Sweet Leaf isn’t alone in reopening. McNamara’s Pub and Restaurant in Crystal City (456 23rd Street S.) is also planning to reopen tomorrow, offering dinner along with beer, wine and cocktails from 3-9 p.m. Other restaurants, like Mexicali Blues, have been reopening over the last few weeks and offering take-out and delivery options.
Photo courtesy Sweet Leaf