ARLEY - It was an interesting sight Wednesday, Feb. 3, as tables and chairs were removed from the Arley Coffee Shop, as ordered by the health inspector earlier in the day, with threats to shut the business down if not in compliance within one day. Employees had a tape measure trying to discern how to keep all the tables in the restaurant, yet keep them six feet apart, as mandated. The hopeless situation could be seen on the faces of the employees along with the sympathetic customers inside.
The Arley Coffee Shop is working to follow strict rules set forth by the state, rules which have caused tension between customers and owners. The owners’ hands are tied, however, when it comes to rules regarding social distancing and mask wearing, all necessary due to COVID-19. Machelle Woods, manager, was told by the health inspector the tables needed to be moved a distance of six feet apart or plexiglass put in place between each table. Unfortunately, the price of plexiglass, when it can be found, is expensive these days.
“People are scared to get out, which means all businesses have lost money,” Woods said. “We take food out to them if they don’t want to come in. We’ve tried to do our best with it, like everybody else, to keep our heads above water.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Arley Coffee Shop, which employs 11 people, had removed some tables, but was able to return some of them into service. Now, the rules have changed once more, and the tables and chairs have had to be removed again.
In addition, the salad bar had to be removed completely. According to the inspector, only one person would be allowed at the salad bar at a time. Once that person leaves, everything had to be wiped down before the next person was allowed to come forward.
“I don’t have enough people to do that,” Woods said.
The restaurant is helping the community by employing residents and obtaining sales tax. However, they are also giving more by offering discounts to firefighters and police.
“We never stopped that,” Woods added. “This isn’t any more their fault than anyone else, and we need them.
“As long as there is any way possible we can stay open, we will,” Woods said.
All area restaurants have had nearly impossible situations to figure out, though hope is on the horizon, and community support is a major factor. Jill Hayes, the manager of the Facebook group “What’s Happening in Arley, Alabama?” and formerly of Birmingham, understands the situation for the mom-and pop-businesses, since she and her father owned Shelnutt Grocery in the Magic City on First Avenue South.
“Looking at the closed sign at Frog’s Bootleg BBQ made me worry about the other restaurants. I didn’t want Arley to become a ghost town,” Hayes said.
“We know his rent still has to be paid and the lights have to be on,” Hayes said of Frog’s, owned by Fred Montgomery, which temporarily closed Jan. 12. “I wanted to see what we could do to help these restaurants stay here, because this is all we have.”
She took action and began a fundraiser to help out those in the Arley area, including the Arley Coffee Shop, Frog’s, Chef Troy’s Talk of the Town in Houston, La Plaza Bonita and Son’s of Arley. After a month, she had enough to distribute some money to the local eateries. Each one received $200, with the exception of Frog’s, which received $300 since it was struggling the most and had already temporarily closed. The money was distributed last week.
Some area restaurants have participated in payroll protection programs, or loans offered by the U.S. Small Business Administration after the pandemic began.
“It was really hard because we didn’t know what we were going to do,” Luis Plaza of La Plaza Bonita Restaurant, who employs about 18, said. “Then our accountant told us about the PPP and got in touch with Traditions Bank. They guided us through the whole process. Thankfully, we had all six weeks of payroll needed to prove how much was our payroll.”
With the dining room closed, Plaza had to find ways to keep employees while trying to survive himself. He was successful in retaining employees and continuing through the ordeal.
“We’re grateful for the program and glad we were able to keep our employees,” Plaza continued. He thanks the customers and all the people who bought food from his establishment.
“They didn’t just help our family but helped five, six local families and college kids who work with us. When you buy from a local restaurant, you are helping local families,” Plaza said.
A grocery store with a deli and an employer of at least 25 employees, Son’s of Arley has had a difficult time obtaining the items the general public needs.
“We’re unable to get some of the things we need,” Phillip Simmons, manager at Son’s of Arley, stated. “We haven’t had Lysol® on the shelf in three months. We can’t get Clorox® wipes. I know they’re trying to give them to the health care workers, but what about the people who are not in health care? Everyone is taking all the precaution we can, but I don’t know.
“It’s frustrating, but we have a good bunch of employees working here. I love this little town. The community has supported us 100 percent. Without them, we wouldn’t have made it. I’m ready to get back to normal, if there is such a thing any more. This is a community store, and people depend on it,” Simmons said.
The money Hayes gave to Son’s will be used toward bills, Simmons said.
“The bills are going to keep coming regardless,” Simmons said.
“We did not get the boost this summer we were going to get,” Montgomery said. “COVID knocked my breakfast off the first time, but I got it going back again. (Then) my wife got COVID, so I just shut it down.” He hopes to have the business open around the first of March.
“It’s not enough volume,” Montgomery continued. “I’ve never been full. Getting help is difficult right now.
“I am appreciative of the help,” he said of the fundraiser Hayes did. “It may not sound like much, but it helped pay my Coke® bill.”
In addition to the donations the public has sent in, Meek First Baptist Church has offered to pick up tabs for people who dedicate their lives to service, including law enforcement, firefighters and clergy through February for dine-in customers.
Amid the pandemic and the uncertainty, there is a bright spot. A new restaurant is opening in Arley. O’Neal Talley and his daughter, Tiffany Thompson, are opening the new Talley-O Steakhouse, with plans to be open by the end of this month.
Hayes is continuing the fundraiser through February and will include all the small businesses of Arley, not just the restaurants. The public is welcome to donate at Ms. Smirk’s in Arley or to WHIAA, P.O. Box 184, Arley, AL 35541.
Two days after the tables were removed from the coffee shop, Woods mentioned she was already turning customers away. However, there is a bright outlook. The coffee shop has begun serving breakfast again.
“The community is trying to support us all they can,” Woods said. “There are good people here. Arley has good people. It’s a benefit of living in a small town.”
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.