Watching his Anchorage cafe crumble under the weight of the coronavirus crisis, one quiet day at a time

What it feels like to watch the business you built over a decade collapse in a matter of weeks.

Though there isn’t much to do, Joe Davidson still gets to his restaurant by 6 in the morning.

In the kitchen of Sis’s Cafe and Catering, he makes a batch of gumbo from scratch. He assembles brown-bag lunches.

Then he waits and worries, listening to Keb’ Mo’ on the stereo in his empty restaurant, sun streaming through the windows and chairs stacked on tables. The traffic passing by on Old Seward Highway is light.

He sweeps the sidewalk out front, just for something to do, as a pandemic kills his business.

“It takes a long time to build your reputation, your clientele," he said. "It takes years and years of that, and it doesn’t take much of this to wipe out all of that.”

Davidson is just one of hundreds of small-business owners in Alaska living under the crushing economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, watching the cafe and catering business he built for over a decade collapse in a matter of weeks.

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Alaska restaurants are in a dire situation, said Sarah Daulton Oates, the president of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association, or CHARR. Typically operating on slim margins of between 1% and 7%, they just aren’t able to withstand severely diminished business for very long.

Already, they are closing: A survey by the organization showed that 7% of Alaska restaurants said they planned to close permanently as of March 23, according to Daulton Oates.

By April 1, 14% of Alaska restaurants surveyed said they would be closing for good.

“That means that one out of every seven restaurants in this state is expected to have its doors closed permanently due to the economic impacts of COVID-19,” Daulton Oates said.

Sis’s Cafe and Catering isn’t there — yet. Davidson considers himself one of the lucky ones. Under the mayor’s health mandates, he’s still allowed to operate for takeout. The entire Old Seward Highway strip mall that surrounds him is shut down: Alluring Nails, Hair Sensations, Professional Beauty and Barber Supply, Signs Now. All of them.

“Who am I to sit here and whine and complain?" he said. "At least we’re open and have a little bit of business.”

But that doesn’t make it any easier to watch as your business careens toward failure.

“You know, I’ve been crying here, lately,” he said.

Davidson, 55, was born and raised in Anchorage. He worked as a chef for Marriott hotels and on the North Slope before fulfilling his dream of owning his own cafe and catering business. He’s owned the hole-in-the-wall cafe since since the mid-2000s.

Being a chef isn’t just his job, it’s his identity: His emails are signed “Chef Joe” (“Everyone calls me that,” he says) and he dresses in the kitchen uniform of Crocs, baggy chef pants and a bandanna.

A month ago, the new coronavirus was barely on Davidson’s radar and Sis’s Cafe and Catering was looking to have a profitable year: He had a full slate of catering gigs booked for the busy spring and summer season, ranging from grand weddings to casual business lunches.

“I knew there was this virus, they were taking steps,” he said. “That there was a couple basketball players who had it.”

Then, in mid-March, everything changed. Facing an epic public-health threat, officials began to institute an escalating series of restrictions, all aimed at curbing the spread of the disease.

Office buildings shut down. Schools and businesses closed. Eating in restaurants was banned.

Davidson supports the measures.

“I wholeheartedly think it was the right thing to do,” Davidson said.

All of the catering events Davidson was counting on began to fall away. Then came the terrible week in which Davidson lost $26,000 in catering deposits, phone call after phone call. People called to cancel weddings, business lunches, fundraisers. Every time the phone rang, he braced himself.

The worst was a $10,000 breakfast event at a hospital for which he’d already spent thousands of dollars on waffle irons, egg products and sausage. The waffle irons sit idle in his storeroom, the frozen sausage taking up space in a freezer.

His financial spiral began in earnest: There were still vendors to pay, but there was no more money in the account left to pay them, and little new money coming in.

“Our operating account went from $27,000 to I overdrafted last week for the first time,” Davidson said. He’s now using personal credit cards.

He fretted over his employees, telling one longtime worker to stay home because she has a chronic lung condition. He told the dishwasher there wasn’t enough work for him.

Now there’s just cashier Krystal Hamersley, wearing a face mask and wiping down countertops and door handles with disinfectant. In the kitchen, wearing a bandanna over his face, there’s Davidson’s son Caleb Davidson. His dad can’t afford to pay him right now so he’s basically working for free.

“I appreciate what he’s trying to do,” Davidson said. “But he can only do that so long.”

Despite the disinfecting and the social distancing, Davidson has also considered whether he should even be operating at all.

“You go home at night thinking, certainly I don't want to be responsible for getting someone sick,” he said.

The math of the situation is terrible, and Davidson thinks about it constantly: Davidson estimates he needs to make about $1,500 per day to pay for things like rent, water, electricity, supplies and payroll. Before the pandemic, the business was taking in a comfortable $2,500 to $3,500 per day, including catering jobs.

His rent alone is $3,800 a month.

“I haven’t even talked to my landlord yet,” he said. “The truth is, I don’t have the rent this month. I don’t have it.”

Despite promises from the federal government that small businesses like his will be able to get loans to survive, he is confused by the process of applying and unsure if it’s even worth it. Some of his laid-off employees have tried getting unemployment, but have found that process confusing also.

Taking on debt seems a huge risk.

“I gotta save my business but I certainly can’t afford to keep digging holes and borrowing money,” he said. “I gotta pay that back.”

A GCI manager has been ordering 25 or so box lunches every weekday for workers, Davidson said. The income from those box lunches represents $200 to $250 of the cafe’s daily income of $500 to $600, he said. Another longtime customer, Stusser Electric, has been ordering boxed lunches too, helping to keep him afloat. A few customers have left 100% tips.

“Thank you, brother,” Davidson tells the guy as he walks out with a Black Forest ham sandwich.

Even when the restrictions are lifted, it seems hard to imagine that people will be having big catered weddings or that risk-averse corporations will be hosting 25-person lunches the way they were a few months ago. Catering is a business reliant on people getting together in groups.

“I just don’t know how we can go from this,” he said, gesturing at the empty room, “back to where we were.”

After the lunch box pickups, it gets quiet again. It has been so slow that Davidson and his workers repainted the walls a soft green a week or two ago, to fill some time.

Finally it’s time to go home. Davidson watches CNN until his wife tells him to stop. He researches small-business relief on the internet. And he takes his beagles for a walk.

Tomorrow he’ll be back at Sis’s at 6 a.m. again, making soup and sandwiches

If nothing changes, he can keep going on like this for about three more weeks, he thinks.

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Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.