Sixteen years ago, Melba Wilson opened her namesake Harlem restaurant, Melba's, with money that, she says, "I saved up under my mattress." Over the years, Melba's became a bustling neighborhood fixture, serving American comfort food.
But three weeks ago, the novel coronavirus pandemic took Wilson and her staff off course. Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered all New York City restaurants to close down or switch their business to takeout and delivery only. For Wilson and her staff, that order was life changing; 24 employees were laid off, and Wilson says the impact has been severe.
"I think we're grieving our lives as we knew it," "It's like an ongoing death. It's an ongoing grieving period. And the scary thing is we don't know when it's going to end.
Wilson says she fears for the wellbeing of staff who are now unemployed, and those fears keep her up at night. "I'm concerned about Champ, who is in his seventies," she said. "I worry about Josh, one of our busboys who just found out that his girlfriend is expecting. I worry about Mohammed, who is a phenomenal cook, whose family depends on him to send money back home to Africa."
Melba's is one of the 27,000 restaurants in New York City fighting for survival on takeout and delivery alone. Full-service restaurants employ over 300,000 workers in the city. Many restaurant owners, like Wilson, are hoping a federal economic stimulus package will provide some relief. But Wilson doesn't know when that relief will come or how long it will last. "We're hoping that's going to kick in and ease some of the burden. But for how long?"
"I personally think that they should forgive rents for the time that we're mandated to close," Wilson said. "When you look at over 300,000 employees that are out of work, that's a huge number. And we are truly the economic engine of our communities."