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Nashville Chefs Share Extreme Concerns for Staff While Trying to Maintain Hope During the Pandemic

Nashville chefs and owners, in their own words, on how they are coping with the COVID-19 outbreak

Nina Singto of Thai Esane

The Nashville hospitality industry is faced with an unprecedented set of new challenges, due to the novel coronavirus. And that’s not even to mention the tornado that devastated much of North and East Nashville, Germantown, Mount Juliet and beyond.

With customers banned from their dining rooms (now until at least April 30), staff from restaurants of all sizes are dealing with an uncertain future, and trying to forge new paths through this pandemic.

In a new regular features, Eater Nashville will talk to members of Nashville’s restaurant and food scene, asking how they’re coping with everything from mental health to financial issues.

Nina Singto of Thai Esane

Nina Singto, Chef/Owner of Thai Esane: Born in Laos, Singto and her family came to the United States when she was very young, fleeing communism. She grew up in the restaurant industry, her family owning King’s Market — an essential market and restaurant in Antioch. She branched out on her own in Nashville proper with Thai Esane, where she is known for her steamed dumplings, Malaysian-style noodles and spicy Thai dishes. She has closed her restaurant temporarily due to COVID-19 concerns.

“Through crisis like this, I wish our insurance would come through. But eventually, they don’t cover viruses. As for me, being a self proprietor, it’s hard to take care of my staff financially. This has all really impacted my staff mentally, because most of them live paycheck to paycheck. And not knowing when they will be able to get their unemployment checks to feed their families breaks my heart. But, through all of this, we will come back stronger than ever. We will overcome this one day at a time. I’m just staying positive and knowing that we are stronger together.”

James Kerwin of Little Fib

James Kerwin is the executive chef of Little Fib restaurant — a retro American-inspired spot serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner downtown. Little Fib shifted to a limited menu on March 12, then limited hours March 16, then closed the doors temporarily on March 20 in response to COVID-19.

“To express how I feel right now is a very complicated and difficult thing. For my staff and all those affected, I just need to be positive and hope this gets resolved and improved as soon as possible. I am choosing to take the closure of my restaurant with a glass half full (of beer, most likely) approach. Closing the restaurant and having some very difficult conversations with my staff was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. For my crew that has worked so damned hard to overcome every challenge put our way; to fight the good fight and keep our heads up in goods times and bad...this hits especially hard. This wasn’t because I ran a bad business or people didn’t like out food — the COVID-19 crisis has just taken us all by surprise.

If there is one thing I know, it is that we will rebound fast. There are no better people more equipped to handle harsh demand, hard work, and quick change than those in hospitality. We are a people business, and the people who make Little Fib will be back and ready to serve when this is all resolved. I know the recovery won’t be easy, I am not naive to that. As hospitality professionals, our focus is always on the guest. Now is a forced opportunity for us to focus on taking care of ourselves and our families. Do some push-ups, hug your kids, and keep the passion alive. If you don’t work in hospitality, I know you miss us. Remember to support us when the bars and restaurants are back open. I don’t know if I’ll be the first one back — but for the sake of the entire community — I can’t wait.”

Alphonso Anderson Jr. of Big Al’s Deli
Alphonso Anderson Jr. / Facebook

Alphonso Anderson Jr., Chef/Owner Big Al’s Deli. Originally from Boston, Massachusetts, Anderson and his Ma opened Nashville breakfast essential and southern food destination Big Al’s Deli six years ago in Salemtown, and in a rare case for the hospitality industry — they’ve maintained the same staff since the first day of business. His son works there too, and one of the waitresses he says is “like a sister”. Big Al’s is still open for takeout, just check Facebook for the hours, which change daily.

“The tornado and now the virus have both devastated my business. My sales are down by 75 percent, but my faith in God has me centered, as I’m a Christian first and foremost. I wish more people would support small businesses like us, especially now.

Thai Esane

1520 Division Street, , TN 37203 (615) 454-5373 Visit Website

Big Al's Deli

1828 4th Avenue North, , TN 37208 (615) 242-8118 Visit Website

Little Fib

611 Commerce Street, , TN 37203 (615) 493-4050 Visit Website