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In small towns, barbecue has a way of bringing the community together, and during a time of crisis, it’s no surprise that a local restaurant is doing all it can to support the community.
With the COVID-19 outbreak, Socks’ Love Barbecue, like most restaurants, has had to make tough decisions about how to deal with the pandemic, but owner Steve Hartsock said the company wants to focus on the community and those fighting the disease on the front lines, like healthcare workers and first responders.
“We had a lady call this morning, actually from a nursing home, and they have pooled together some money to feed one of the local fire departments, so it’s pretty cool to see what people do when their backs are against the wall,” Hartsock said. “I kind of assumed in the beginning, ‘You’re going to see a lot of bad,’ and we do, it’s not all great, but for the most part, people are incredible what they’re willing to do with their resources, and it’s almost like the less you have, the more you want to give, is what I’ve seen.”
Hartsock said in the last few weeks, the restaurant has been making sure customers could still be served while also providing meals for first responders and those who are in tough situations, some of which is being paid for out of donations from the community.
“Right now, we’ve got two designated gift cards, one that is stockpiled to go toward anyone that comes here and is hungry that doesn’t have the means to feed themselves, we’ll feed them,” Hartsock said. “Then, Mountain Lake Church, their congregation pulled together some money and hired us to cater for 100 hospital workers. Then the balance of what they raised, they put on a gift card for us to designate to first responders and hospital workers.”
While adults have been impacted by changing working schedules and some by the loss of their jobs, Hartsock said his biggest concern was for those too young to provide for themselves and often rely on meals from schools.
“It’s been interesting,” he said. “My knee-jerk reaction to the whole thing, from an emotional standpoint, was, at first, it was like, ‘How are these kids that are not in school, that rely on free and reduced lunch, how are they going to get fed?’ The school systems, Forsyth and Gwinnett County, they, in a real hurry, formulated a plan to get that taken care of. We’re really proud that they did that, proud to see that.”
To help provide meals, Socks’ Love Barbecue has teamed with nonprofits like The Place of Forsyth County and Meals by Grace to provide food and fundraise online.
“That’s how we’re trying to give back to the community,” Hartsock said. “I feel like as long as we’re able to stay in business, as long as I’m able to keep a large portion of our staff employed and as long as our customers are coming here and spending money and we’re able to pay our bills, I feel like we have a duty to give back to the community because that’s what they’re doing for us right now.
“So, as long as we can help, we will. As long as we can stay in business and provide a safe product to the community, we will. As long as it makes good business sense for us to be here, we’ll be here.”
Once the outbreak started to spread, Hartsock said Socks’ Love Barbecue made some quick moves to make sure the restaurant was as safe as possible. Early on, they went to cashless payments.
“We assumed that was sort of the best start to protect ourselves from the virus,” Hartsock said. “Then it just became this really big deal that’s kind of consumed the world, especially the medical field, the restaurant industry and things like that.”
Restaurants have been among the hardest-hit industries during the outbreak, and Hartsock said his business had taken its own lumps recently.
“Sales are down, for sure,” Hartsock said. “Our catering is pretty much non-existent. The first week that this got real serious, the stuff that we had on the books for at least two months ... immediately went away because most of the catering we do is corporate, large events, and obviously we can’t do those right now, so out goes the catering, which hurts because it’s a good thing for a restaurant to have catering from a financial standpoint, and when that goes away, we’re relying pretty much 100 percent on the restaurant, which are small margins.”
Though facing some hardships, Socks’ Love Barbecue has also seen some positives, Hartsock said, and has still had the support of customers.
“The biggest change for us that we’ve seen is our phone is ringing a lot now because people are doing takeout, so they’re thinking ahead and calling,” he said. “We’re actually adding a second line, hopefully, this week, if not next week, to accommodate that increase in call volume.”
Staying positive during the crisis has been a big focus. Hartsock made his own message of hope and service in a video that he posted to social media and quickly spread throughout the community.
“My intention was to just tell my Instagram followers, ‘Hey, if you’re hungry, if you know someone that’s hungry, come by and we’re going to help you out,’ and that’s it,” Hartsock said. “I don’t want a handout, I don’t want people to feel sorry for me.
“That post went to Facebook and has taken a life of its own and has reached thousands and thousands of people, and my hope is that it has impacted people in a positive way.”