Coronavirus Stories – Sassafras Eclectic Food Joint in Carson City and employees ponder the future

Sassafras parking lot this weekend, image The Sierra Nevada Ally, Joe McCarthy

Jayme Watts and Tony Fish built Sassafras Eclectic Food Joint from scratch. Over years, they created a distinctive and leading restaurant business in Carson City.

Sassafras provides dining for lunch and dinner, a full-service bar, and live music most evenings. It is also renowned for sponsoring Sassabration, an annual summer event to celebrate Carson City’s LGBTQ community. 

Like every local restaurant/bar in Nevada, Sassafras is closed except for curbside service while Jayme and Tony work on a strategy to keep from shutting entirely, which they have no intention of doing, as of today.

Revenue from curbside pickups, Jayme believes, might forestall the inevitable, while they work out a survival plan.

“We’re even open to starting a delivery service,” Jayme said. “Even if I have to get into my own car and drive around town and do deliveries.” 

As was expected this past week, “our business has been awful, horrible, nowhere near normal. It’s a little bit chaotic right now … this is unprecedented. It’s not anything that has ever happened to us before, or probably anyone else,” Jayme said.

Jayme is using social media to communicate Sassafras’ new way of operating with long-standing customers by offering curbside service. Sassafras’ first full week of closure has seen an abrupt end to regular business, a mad scramble to figure things out.

Partnerships

Next door to Sassafras is the Shoe Tree Brewery Company. Jayme said that both businesses are discussing ways to collaborate.

“We’re talking to Shoe Tree, seeing how we can work together.  

“With Shoe Tree, we might offer a food special and pair it with a beer. Working together, selling beer and food together to try to stay open as long as we can, so we’re not bleeding money.” 

Shoe Tree Brewery empty parking lot, image, The Sierra Nevada Ally, Joe McCarthy

But to succeed during the indefinite time of social distancing, Jayme and Tony are also looking to work with third-party delivery services such as Doordash and Grubhub.

Perishable foodstuffs are going to employees, the local food bank and the Senior Center.

In some good news, Sassafras’ landlord has offered to work with them, in an effort to defer rent and utilities. 

In a typical effort to give back to the community, Sassafras just instituted a “Feed a Cop” program to feed law enforcement individuals on duty.  

Sassafras “Feed a Cop” program, while employees look on, image The Sierra Nevada Ally, Joe McCarthy

Employees

Across the nation, service sector employees are scared. Workers in the restaurant business, in beauty salons, the events sector, housekeeping, and the tourism industry have lost their jobs. These workers are the backbone of the country’s consumer-based economy, with mortgages, rents, and school debt payments due.

To ease some payroll burdens, Jayme has laid off new hires, the new trainee server, seven people so far. As of now, Sassafras has 13 remaining employees including Jayme and Tony.  

“Bussers are next to go because of the halt of dining room service. Two of our servers have other jobs. They will be okay.

“If we don’t get enough takeout business, we are going to talk about closing for an indefinite amount of time because we just can’t keep digging ourselves into a hole. But before we close, we will do a paycheck advance for our staff, a little bit of money. We have a little bit of money saved up.” 

Many workers in these industries live from paycheck to paycheck, without healthcare insurance. Sassafras employees are panicked because there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight to the closure of nonessential businesses.

They hear the call to stay home from those in more comfortable situations, asking all to be safe, work from home. A huge disconnect in the economy has been exposed. To earn a wage, service sector workers have to actually go to work. Working remotely is not an option.

Jayme is giving employees a choice, reduced hours or layoffs to allow them to apply for other jobs, or unemployment insurance. “We’ve encouraged everybody to apply for unemployment,” Jayme said.

Word is Walmart, grocery store chains, pizza delivery businesses, and more are beginning to hire some laid-off service workers.  

For Sassafras to stay open, Jayme estimates they would need a daily revenue stream of 50% of its usual take.

“It’s almost back to the scratching, crawling like we did in the beginning, the Mo and Sluggo’s days, the Farmers Market, doing whatever we can to make this business work.”

According to Holly Morrow, one of Sassafras’s senior employees, Jayme and Tony are like family.

“We’re sticking together as a family … trying to help each other out … keeping an eye out for each other. We talk often.  It’s a little scary when you have kids … and things are ever-changing and you’ve never seen anything like this … we have to stick together; we’re a family.

“I do believe that Tony and Jayme see us all as family, as families in need.”