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“Asheville is incredibly resilient’ Restaurateurs bring optimism into the new year

By Anjali Patel

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    ASHEVILLE, NORTH Carolina (WLOS) — In typical 2021 fashion, the final week of the year has brought more challenges for Asheville restaurants, from temporary — to even permanent — closures.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve is typically a big one for local restaurants — a promised propellant heading into January and February, which have historically been slower months, said Jane Anderson, the executive director of the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association (AIR).

However, the recent surge in COVID-19 cases is putting a damper on holiday profits for some. This week, several local restaurants, including Jettie Rae’s Oyster House, had to close temporarily due to COVID-19 exposures among staff.

“This is a significant week and to have it disrupted by the random COVID cases is devastating,” Anderson said. “To have a traditionally robust period of time evaporate, it will make for a very lean January and February.”

Thankfully, Jettie Rae’s was able to pull together enough employees to reopen on Thursday, just in time for New Year’s weekend. Other restaurateurs haven’t been so fortunate.

“It’s a huge sigh of relief for us to be open this evening,” said Eric Scheffer, the owner of Jettie Rae’s.

This week hasn’t just seen temporary closures in Asheville, but a permanent one, too. On Monday, Dec. 27, Newton Clark announced he was closing his beloved Montford Italian restaurant, Chiesa, for good.

“The COVID thing has changed the world and that’s all there is to it,” Clark said. “It was tough, it was all the gamut of every emotion you can imagine closing the restaurant.”

He said it was a difficult decision he and his employees came to after many conversations about the obstacles they were facing. He cited staffing issues and the frustrations the pandemic has caused for both restaurant employees and restaurant patrons alike. He said there’s no one to blame — it’s just the reality of the situation they were in.

“I had limited staff and those poor kids and young adults were working 70, 80 hours a week. It was brutal,” Clark said. “There wasn’t enough staff to adequately provide the service Chiesa was known for.”

He said he’s still cheering on the restaurants who have been able to persist through the pandemic, though.

“I think the ones that are still going — keep on going, because we need you,” Clark said.

Despite the problems 2021 has brought, several local restaurateurs are optimistic going into 2022, because the issues they’re dealing with now — while inconvenient — are nothing new. Restaurants have been changing, adapting and fighting for survival for the last two years, all while remaining a vital part of the mountain economy.

“We’ve been here before. We’ve been through worse. We can do this,” Anderson said.” Yes, we’re weary. But we can do this. We know what we’re supposed to do. I am so humbled by the chef-owners that own our independent restaurants because that’s the way they think, it’s pivoting to what’s happening today.”

Although the uncertainty of COVID-19 will remain going into the new year, restaurant owners believe with the continued support of tourists and locals, 2022 shows promise.

“I’m incredibly optimistic. Asheville is incredibly resilient. We, as a community of culinarians, are very resilient,” Scheffer said.

“I’ve never met a more optimistic group of business owners in my life. They have pivoted, they have been resilient, and I think we will continue to see that,” Anderson said.

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