STONEVILLE — Amy Sparks-Martin found herself with 500 plates of her famed Chicken Francaise on Saturday, but not a soul to serve.
“We were scheduled to feed 500 people, but then the governor made the announcement about restrictions on gatherings of more than 50 people … ,’’ said Sparks-Martin, co-owner of Debbie’s Restaurant & Catering in downtown Stoneville. “We thought, certainly there was someone who could eat this food.’’
Eden’s Osborne Baptist Church had ordered and paid for the meals for a planned couple’s retreat on Saturday. But safety precautions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic made such a large gathering impossible.
So Debbie’s Catering teamed up with the church to deliver the meals to local folks on the front line during this risky time of potential coronavirus contagion.
Doctors, nurses and emergency room workers at UNC Rockingham Health Care in Eden were treated to the warm gravy-laden chicken with vegetables. And Eden’s firefighters and police got their share of the tasty bounty during the weekend that had health care officials and first responders hustling to adapt to a hybrid public health crisis.
The tasty to-go orders couldn’t have come at a better time, said UNC Rockingham’s Interim CEO Steve Eblin.
“Osborne Baptist Church made an incredibly kind gesture in donating these meals to our team at the hospital and to first responders,’’ Eblin said. “I want to thank the church for their kindness. It comes at a time when all 600-plus UNC Rockingham Health team members are being diligent in making sure we are ready for the challenges the coronavirus will bring us. Without knowing it, the church was helping to reward our team for their tireless work.”
Similarly generous acts have come from small businesses all across Rockingham County. The Mad Bean Coffee Shop in Madison offered use of free wifi to any student needing to get online. And local restaurants rushed to put together kid-friendly options to offer free to youngsters who will lose access to school sustenance during the COVID-19 countywide schools closure. (See list of restaurants at base of this story)
In the eye of a perfect storm
Sparks-Martin finds herself in the eye of a perfect storm, it seems. She’s not only a small business owner who wants to retain her staff of 16, but a mother of seven, ages 2-21, and a caterer to several major annual and seasonal events. Add to that, she’s mother to a bride-to-be who had hoped to lift her veil on June 20. That all may change, though.
“As of today, our catering business is down 98%,’’ Sparks-Martin said from her restaurant’s dining room where a few patrons had come in to grab a down home lunch on Monday. “The restaurant business was down today about 20 percent,’’ she noted, as she rallied staff for an upcoming shift to curb service.
Her hunch to adapt was right, because by Tuesday at 5 p.m., N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper mandated all state restaurants close their dining rooms and offer drive-thru and curb options only.
“I don’t know anybody that this is not going to impact,’’ Sparks-Martin said. “We are a no-debt company getting ready to celebrate our 40th anniversary on March 30, and I’d hate to come out of this owing the government for SBA (Small Business Association) loans.’’
Sparks-Martin felt a particularly sharp sting of loss this week as Cone Health Systems delayed a large event she was slated to cater. News of other likely-to-be-lost catering contracts came from Martinsville Speedway and the furniture industry's High Point Market — not to mention spring and summer wedding gigs.
Nervous, but hopeful, Sparks-Martin said, “ I feel responsible for all these individuals I gave a job to.’’
Her 21-year-old daughter, at home helping care for Sparks-Martin’s smallest youngsters, was in from East Carolina University, which extended Spring Break due to COVID-19.
The civic-minded Sparks-Martin and her father Dennis Sparks, co-owner, were also in talks Monday afternoon with the Town of Stoneville and several anonymous donors to offer wholesome “Pandemic Relief Meals’’ to citizens for $5 each, starting soon.
“It would be a way for us to keep our people working and to help folks in the community who may have gaps in pay and are gonna be struggling,’’ Sparks said.
“Everybody’s in shock right now,’’ said Sparks, 63. “The government has never taken such drastic measures. No one knows what to expect.’’
“My father served in the military, so we’ve always been proactive in times of disaster,’’ said Sparks, who has long held contracts with Duke Energy and the Red Cross for work with the agencies during disaster relief.
“For us, staying in motion is therapeutic, even if we aren’t making money,’’ Sparks said. “It’s better than sitting at home feeling helpless.''
In Mayodan, Bobby Bishop sat in his idling truck waiting for his son Austin to retrieve his clarinet and books from McMichael High School on Monday morning. Austin, 16, and brother Jude, 13, a Western Rockingham Middle School student, will be on school break due to the COVID-19 threat for at least a few more weeks.
“It’s kinda a blessing to have this kind of time with my boys,’’ said Bishop, a long haul trucker, who has flexible hours and will take his kids to hang out at his home in Horse Pasture, Virginia.
Jude plays with his new puppy on the McMichael lawn as his dad reflected on how a rustic upbringing in the Virginia mountains helped him learn how to prepare for uncertain times.
“I’m old school,’’ Bishop said. “I’ve been prepared for stuff like this since I was a little kid. We grew up in the mountains in Lee County and after big storms, we might be without power and water for a month at a time.’’
Governor orders take out
Restaurateurs learned of the new restrictions in the middle of lunch rush Monday and were scrambling to make plans to convert to curb service and pick up from pop-up tents.
In Madison, Mayflower Restaurant got the news that their dining room would have to shut down to comply with Cooper’s order.
“We’re still in planning on doing take out,’’ a manager said. “We’re gonna handle it the best the we can, but we just heard the news and we’re just focusing on getting through to 5 o’clock.’’
A few miles away, popular Fuzzy’s Barbecue restaurant in Madison planned to expand its curb service in response to the order that dining rooms close.
Meanwhile, a Canadian couple stopped in at the Mayodan McDonald’s for a quick burger in the dining room before heading back to Quebec. “We were on vacation at Myrtle Beach, but with the coronavirus, we realized we needed to head home,’’ said Pierre Paradis, a retired General Motors engineer, who will likely face health screenings with is wife, Mireille. “We are going to go into isolation.’’
A number of area businesses came forth with offers of free meals and free services to parents and school kids:
- The Mad Bean in Madison offers free wifi to any student needing to access online classes or assignments.
- Monterrey and El Parral restaurants in Reidsville are offing a free soft chicken taco and drink to students k-12 this week from noon-2 p.m. Limit 1 per child.
Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas have pledged they will not disconnect service for nonpayment of bills due to COVID-19 restrictions and hardship.
- Church Street Station in Eden offers school-aged children a hot dog with one side order and a small drink or a grilled cheese and side with small drink at no charge, no questions asked.
- Spectrum is offering free internet for students who are in need. Call: 1-844-488-8395.
- Riverside Pawn of Eden and Reidsville is offering free bag lunches for children this week, for those in need. Limit one per child per household.
- Mom’s Kitchen in Wentworth is giving out free meals to school-aged children while school is out of session. Meal includes a corn dog, fries and a small drink.
- Grill 573 in Stoneville is offering free meals to any child who depends on school lunches, Call Alan at 336-339-3435.
- Foster’s Grill will offer free hotdogs, chips and small drinks to any student 12 and under during the break. Eat in only and limit one per day.
- Dick’s Drive-In in Eden offers free lunch to any school child from 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Monday through Friday. Choices include hamburger or hotdog, kid’s French fry and kid’s drink.
RockinghamNow reporter Joe Dexter contributed to this report