Jackson’s restaurants have suffered from the pandemic and now from the water crisis

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JACKSON, Miss. – Opening a restaurant in the capital eight years ago was John Tierre’s way of investing in the renewal of the Farish Street Historic District, a old deteriorated enclave for black businesses.

A graduate of Jackson State, a historically black university, Tierre felt responsible for reviving the area, which he said was “once known as the mecca of black business after Harlem.”

His restaurant, Johnny T’s Bistro & Blues, flourished when it opened, hiring 25 employees and attracting loyal crowds who recognized the portraits on the brick walls of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne, all of whom took the stage at the restaurant. when it was the Crystal Palace ballroom in the 1930s and 1940s, Tierre said.

Then the pandemic hit. City of Jackson officials, like Democrats elsewhere, closed restaurants inside local eateries, weeks before Gov. Tate Reeves (R) issued a nationwide shutdown order State. Restaurants in surrounding towns initially remained open, attracting customers and staff from Tierre. The Farish Street revival that Tierre had bet on did not materialize, leaving his establishment surrounded by derelict buildings. And conditions quickly worsened.

“Now there are supply chain issues, rising labor costs and shortages and here is this water crisis,” Tierre, 45, said on Sunday as he walked was preparing to open amid a citywide boiling water order that has it spending more than $300 a day on bottles. bagged water and ice.

State and local authorities have pledged to find at least a temporary solution to the failing water system in the city, which serves 150,000 residents as well as businesses like Tierre’s. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials arrived last week to provide assistance to state and local leaders, and water pressure was restored over the weekend in many areas. But the city’s tap water must still be boiled before use, and neither official could provide a timeline for restoration. drinking water service.

Many restaurant owners said they saw Jackson’s water crisis coming, but felt powerless to stop it. Last month, in a letter to Reeves, Mississippi restaurants have appealed to state and local authorities to respond to the capital’s problems water problems. Now some fear they will have to close permanently if they cannot restore consumer confidence and bear the additional costs necessary to meet sanitary requirements, including a steady supply of bagged ice and bottled water.

Pat Fontaine, executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality & Restaurant Association, said some restaurant owners in Jackson told him their sales fell 30% last week, while restaurants in surrounding towns had no problems. of water. reports an increase in its turnover.

Volunteers donated and distributed bottled water to select restaurants and held GoFundMe fundraisers for servers who had lost money, he said.

But some restaurants spend $500 to $600 a day on bottled water, ice packs, canned drinks and extra garbage service, as well as portable toilets, which cost $2,100 to $5,000 a week. , said Fontaine.

“These are costs they can’t recoup,” Fontaine said. “A small restaurant does not have the resources to resist this kind of pressure for long.”

eZra Brown, another Jackson State graduate, returned from Florence, SC, to open Soulé + bubbletea cafe two weeks ago. He had planned to add another location in the coming weeks, as well as two food trucks. But then he was forced to close the toilets at the new cafe for two days last week due to water issues. Now he has to deal with the unexpected costs of buying hundreds of bags of ice at $3 a day, plus bottled water. And he fears losing customers.

“People are staying at home. I talk to a lot of other business owners, it’s abbreviated hours because people don’t go out, ”said Brown, 47, as he sat outside his cafe on Sunday, where a dozen customers were hanging out. are lying and taking online orders.

Brown still plans to grow and is training a staff member to help him. But he said officials needed to do more to fix the water system quickly.

“We need an immediate solution because we cannot live with a boil water order for next year,” he said.

Jeff Good has run restaurants in Jackson since 1994, but had to temporarily close all three of his restaurants last week due to the water cut. He was able to reopen one site last Wednesday, the other two on Friday. But he said business had been “devastated”. He had to spend $2,000 a week just on bottled water.

He worries that if he has to close for too long, he risks losing some of his 210 employees, as he has done during the pandemic.

Good said he has been facing temporary closures due to water issues for 15 years, from broken water pipes to water contamination and a freeze that broke the pipes last year.

“If you can’t wash your hands or do the dishes, you can’t open. It’s the death knell for restaurants,” Good said. “I don’t know how we got here. It is unacceptable.

Traffic was lower than usual at his Broad Street Baking Company & Cafe on Sunday afternoon, staff said, with about a dozen people outside and twice as many inside.

On the patio, Bob and Kathy Barnes shared lunch with their 4-year-old great-granddaughter after church. The couple live in the surrounding neighborhood, Fondren, a tony area of ​​sprawling lawns and stately homes that has also suffered this week their water being unreliable.

Kathy, 81, a retired consignment store owner, said they came to the restaurant because “we want them to stay open. It’s a nightmare for them.

“It’s also for us,” said her husband Bob, 82, a part-time civil engineer, who said he believed the governor would work with city and federal officials to find money to fix the troubled water system.

“We will fix this problem,” he said.

Inside, signs warned customers not to use the soda machine, except for ice, which workers poured into the machine from bags.

Susan Goss filled her tea with ice from the machine, saying she trusted the restaurant to be safe. Goss, 40, a stay-at-home mom who lives in suburban Flowood, came to lunch with her husband and 15-month-old daughter to support the restaurant. She had seen the restaurant association’s letter to the governor and realized their plight. She appreciated the note on the machine and being able to see the workers unloading ice and bottled water.

“It makes a big difference. Character goes a long way in the restaurant business,” she said.

Johnny T’s customers agreed and hoped to do their part to help save the restaurant.

“A lot of people still want to support businesses. We saw the pandemic situation – a lot of people were really hurt,” said James Lee, a Jackson native now living in Miami who was having dinner with his wife, sister and brother-in-law after returning to town to attend a marriage.

Sitting at the bar with her sister, regular Jasmine McWillie said the water crisis wouldn’t stop her from eating salmon and almandine prawns.

McWillie, 28, a worker at Nissan’s assembly plant, said she got used to Jackson’s water problems.

“It’s been going on since I was in college,” she said. “I didn’t think it would get to this point.”

Tierre sat in the back, surveying the room. With the Jackson State football team playing its season opener in Florida, he wasn’t expecting the usual weekend crowds. But by late afternoon, several dozen people had arrived to watch the game, filling the bar and temporarily easing Tierre’s spirit.

As Tierre watched the game on TV, the ESPN announcer — a regular when he’s in town — offered prayers for Jackson, then shouted out Johnny T’s folks. Tierre said he felt “blessed” to always be open.

He hoped the water crisis would soon be resolved as national attention forces officials to act quickly.

“They don’t have a choice now. If they don’t whatever it is, shame on them,” he said. “There are a lot of restaurants that may not make it. Farish has always dreamed of being who he was again. Who knows how long it will be?

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