As Chattanooga area businesses shift, pivot and change, trying to adapt to a new normal, many are tapping into the passion that led them to open their business in the first place. Over the course of the next number of weeks, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce will profile some of these owners and share their inspirational stories on how they are doing it.
“It’s definitely been the most challenging time in my professional career,” says Josh Carter, owner of St. John’s Restaurant and the Meeting Place, longtime popular restaurants on Chattanooga’s Southside.
But with every incredible challenge came incredible support. Mr. Carter saw it firsthand as he and his team tried curbside delivery early on in the pandemic and then quickly realized customers were not ready. There was too much fear. That’s when Mr. Carter made the call to shut the doors, at least temporarily, and announced it on social media.
“Someone saw that message, came down that day and literally put a wad of money in my hand and said pass this out to your staff,” he says. “There is a lot of love in this community and I feel like people who have the means are generous with their means. I feel like there is a lot of support for our servers. They are certainly part of people’s lives.”
In fact, many of Mr. Carter's staff have been with him for over 10 years. That made letting them go that much harder.
“There was lots of crying and hugging. It’s really a family. But we wanted to preserve as much cash as possible to be able to come back as strong as possible when the moment was right and when we felt there was more opportunity for curbside.”
That time came at the end of April. Mr. Carter and his team changed their entire business model from high-end restaurant to serving food in a box. They combined popular menu items from St. John’s and Meeting Place and got to work.
“We changed the business model on the fly and then tried to get the word out fast enough,” Mr. Carter says. “It’s almost like relearning your job. We had to figure out how the community was responding and then figure out what we needed, how we needed to adapt more and how we needed to staff.”
Immediately the community showed their support. A longtime customer stepped up.
“He told me, ‘I am going to buy dinner for everyone in my office and a bottle of wine to help you get this off the ground.’ That was a great night,” Mr. Carter says. “He took care of the staff and made sure they made a lot of money.”
With each shift and pivot, curbside began to grow and when Phase I started, loyal customers were some of the first in the doors.
“It was a real joy to see people out celebrating who have been dining here 10 to 20 years come back and to see the enthusiasm to join us. I had people tell us we were their first meal out. It does make you feel pretty special when people come to you with that level of trust.”
That’s exactly what got Mr. Carter into the restaurant industry 25 years ago.
“It’s a relationship business. It’s built of genuine relationships with my customers and my staff. People are out celebrating and they are sharing that joy, and we get to be a part of that. It’s one of the things that has kept me in this industry all of these years.”
Mr. Carter found his way into the restaurant business like many; it was a job that paid well for college students trying to pay the bills. He landed his first job waiting tables in 1995 working at Southside Grill and immediately fell in love with the interplay of food and wine.
“I wanted to learn as much as I could learn," he says. “Being young and eager, my mentors there were eager to share the information and then teach me and bring me along in the industry.”
Fast-forward five years and he was asked to be part of the opening team for St. John’s in 2000. From there he transitioned to management in 2003, became a partner in 2005 and in 2014 became the sole owner of St. John’s and the Meeting Place.
Along the way, he completed degrees in English literature and anthropology as his original plan was to someday be a teacher. But Mr. Carter decided he could teach what he was passionate about, food and wine, in the restaurant business and so when the opportunity came, he took it and turned his hobby into his full-time career.
“When I really looked at it, I didn't think I needed to switch gears,” Mr. Carter says. “My hobby is studying wine, traveling to places and trying unique cuisines and to have the opportunity to make that my full-time job was kind of hard to resist.”
Almost three decades later, with two more businesses under his belt, he hasn’t looked back. He is a managing partner for Imbibe Chattanooga - Wine, Spirits, and Beer, as well as a business partner for Kenny’s Southside Sandwiches. Each business has its own set of challenges in today’s environment, but Mr. Carter and his teams are doing it, all masked up. Each day his businesses are growing.
“I don't believe the new directive will hinder our business. We have a pretty thoughtful clientele anyway, to begin with. I think if they are asked to comply with something; I think they'll be happy to do it. We take it seriously, protecting ourselves and protecting our customers. We don't want to go backward. We want to be part of the solution and part of getting our city back to being a safe place so our economy can thrive.”
Mr. Carter’s advice to other small business owners? Take care of yourself, your mental and physical health, and invest in your staff who are working just as hard as you. Finally, don’t lose hope.
“If you are dedicated to what you are doing, you'll find a way and you will find a reason to keep coming back every day.”