With local businesses facing major impacts from the COVID-19 outbreak, many are looking for help wherever they can find it. For one such business, help came this past week in the form of an envelope full of cash.
A regular customer of North Point Cafe at 2000 W. University Drive gave employees an envelope containing $100 cash on March 16.
Owner Luto Luigi Begaj said the customer wanted to help the employees as business slowed down as a result of the virus’s spread.
“The courtesy of one of my customers, my friends, he came in and [gave] me $100,” Begaj, 54, said.
“He says, ‘Luigi, this is for your employees most needed here.’ That was a very great gesture. It’s a good gesture. You know, we’re trying to survive.”
From late December to mid-January, Luto switched over his previous business, Luigi’s Italian Restaurant, to become North Point Cafe, a breakfast and lunch spot.
Manager Adriatik Begaj, Begaj’s 23-year-old son, said the Italian restaurant’s regular customers continued to support the new cafe after the switch, but the risks of coronavirus brought a major decrease in business.
“Honestly, I expect a bigger surge of people after everything calms down because people will want to go out again,” Adriatik Begaj said. “So we’re expecting more people once everything calms down a little bit. I think we should be fine after everything.”
Sales have decreased at most local businesses, said Phil Shirley, owner of Hannah’s Off the Square. The downtown restaurant’s revenue was off by 60% as of March 16. Those shared concerns are why he created the Denton County Restaurant Owners Group on Facebook.
The group — which has more than 42 members, including Luto Begaj — is meant to be a place for restaurateurs to share information and advice during this time of crisis as they try to keep local businesses afloat. Shirley mentioned transitioning to to-go and delivery orders as one of the pieces of advice shared among the group.
“We’re not competitors any more; we’re a team, and we’ve got to do this together and communicate what works and doesn’t work,” said Shirley, 50. “We’ve got to take care of our employees, so that’s what we’re trying to do. … I don’t want anybody to close here. We do not want any of these hourly employees or tip employees on the street.”
Luto Begaj said he’s struggled with not being able to rely on to-go services because his restaurant makes food to order that needs to be served within a short period of time.
But as restaurant owners, he and Shirley said they’re doing everything they can to make sure their restaurants stay open so employees have money to pay the rent.
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make sure they’re taken care of,” Shirley said. “Our main goal is to feed our employees and make sure they’re taken care of and get a paycheck because the last thing we want is all our workers not getting paid, so that’s my main goal.”
However, noting the importance of health and safety, the Begajes and Shirley said they want their customers to do what’s best for them.
With Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order Thursday that closed restaurants’ dining areas to help slow the spread of coronavirus, Luto Begaj said he wants his customers to stay safe, especially if they’re at risk. Having family in Italy, one of the hardest-hit countries in the pandemic, the Begajes stressed the importance of taking the virus seriously.
“I have family in Italy, and they’ve been begging me to stay inside,” Luto Begaj said. “I mean, this is not a joke. This is just a situation, we have to beat this. I mean, this virus, we have to beat it altogether. … And we have to have, which we really do in the restaurant industry, professionally clean everything spotless.”
He and Shirley both noted that customers seem concerned about employees having the money they need to survive, with many leaving larger tips over this past week.
“We’re very personal with our customers,” Adriatik Begaj said. “A lot of what we’ve seen is worry, for us and for themselves. On Facebook, we’ve been trying to talk to people and just communicate, ‘Hey, we’re pushing through. We’re going to do what we can. This is where we are right now.’ I don’t believe we’ll lose a lot of clients through all this; I believe people will come back. But it’s tough.”
Even with the drop in sales, the envelope of cash left by the customer left Luto Begaj and other local business owners hopeful.
“In Jesus’ name, we will survive and be stronger out of this,” Begaj said. “I hope the good things that people do goes back to their families, for having prosperity. I think we’re blessed to have each other around. I call it a blessing to have this kind of people help you out in this day.
“So I hope that this is a very short-time situation. … We have to appreciate our service and sacrifice for each one of us and [on a] daily basis, we serve each other. That’s very important.”