Chef Deborah Van Trece, Owner of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Verses on the West Side of Atlanta, has spent the past 20 years exploring the meaning of “Soul” in Southern cuisine. For the classically trained chef, her restaurant showcases the foods she grew up with in Kansas City, Missouri – first brought to Atlanta through her old restaurant business, then on the Twisted Soul menu. The restaurant has garnered a lot of national attention since it opened in 2016, landing on several “best of” lists, including a perennial spot on Eater Atlanta’s 38 Essential Restaurants.
While the dining room is empty on Huff Road, VanTrece has turned to offering take-out meals a few days a week and fish fries on Friday. She wonders what the future holds for the restaurant, especially now that the funding for the paycheque protection program (PPP) – part of the federal COVID-19 stimulus package for small businesses – is exhausted.
“We asked for a P3 very early on,” said VanTrece, who was concerned early on that federal funds would run out. “PPP is just a bandage and not necessarily a bandage that will stop the bleeding, but at least [it could] slow the bleeding.
Like so many of his colleagues in Atlanta and Across the country, VanTrece fears that take-out and delivery will not be enough to save the restaurant industry, which is struggling to survive the brutal economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
Of the 25 people she has already employed at Twisted Soul, only four remain part-time. VanTrece says the restaurant’s sales are down nearly 90% and there just isn’t enough takeaway revenue to rehire more staff. The chief is hoping that one of the grants or loans she has applied for will come soon to provide temporary financial relief.
Currently, VanTrece and its small staff work a few days a week serving take out food. She has implemented a “pay what you can” option for clients facing financial difficulties due to layoffs or reduced wages or hours of work.
“We try to make sure the prices are affordable for those who are on a budget due to layoffs. We probably give as much as we sell, ”she says. “We have just implemented curbside delivery and pickup, but we can’t afford the extreme fees charged by most [food delivery] companies, so we employed our own staff to make the deliveries.
Staff must wear masks and gloves at all times. She staggers the days of her cooks to minimize the number of people in the kitchen, allowing employees to work safely and at least six feet apart. Temperatures are measured daily and surfaces are constantly wiped down.
“We live a daily life of the unknown, and I am physically and mentally tired because of it,” says VanTrece. “I wake up in the morning feeling blessed to see another day and praying for all those who have lost loved ones or who are struggling to stay alive. I spend hours wondering what I can do to improve the situation.
Twisted Soul recently partnered with Mercedes Benz car dealership in Buckhead to help prepare meals for healthcare workers in the Grady healthcare system who assist COVID-19 patients. The restaurant also offers free meals for service sector workers who find themselves unemployed.
Cooking food for people in her restaurant kitchen has been her solace and a source of solace throughout the dining room’s shutdown for the past month or so.
As for the future, VanTrece is concerned about the reopening of dining rooms in Atlanta and what that entails. Whether staff will need to wear masks and gloves, what service looks like after the pandemic in restaurants and whether she will be able to rehire her employees are questions she continues to ask herself every day. Despite all the uncertainties surrounding the future, VanTrece clings to the original purpose of Twisted Soul.
“I don’t know if Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours, in its current location, will withstand the storm,” says VanTrece. “What I do know is that the foundation of Twisted Soul is the love, comfort and nourishment that makes us who we are. Space can change, but our ‘soul’ will always find a home. . ”
Stay home if you are sick. Check the Georgia Department of Public Health website for advice and twice-daily updates on the latest number of reported COVID-19 cases.