Alabama eatery turns itself into bodega during coronavirus outbreak

Published 7:43 am Sunday, March 29, 2020

Two weeks ago, Cahawba House was one of the hottest local eateries in downtown Montgomery’s tourist district.

Today you can still get a hot lunch delivered curbside, or you can walk in to buy a roll of toilet paper and some sanitizer.

Social distancing measures meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic has crushed restaurants across Alabama and the nation, forcing people to lay off workers and stop traditional service.

Cahawba House’s owners said they’re trying to adapt. Siblings Tara and Tim Essary have converted their farm-to-table Southern diner into a neighborhood bodega offering some of the most in-demand grocery essentials and supplies.

Walk inside the restaurant, steps away from where Rosa Parks once boarded a Montgomery bus, and you won’t find any tables. Instead it’s filled with trays of locally sourced fresh fruit, refrigerated eggs and milk, and more.

They’re still forming partnerships with River Region farmers. They just added fresh-baked bread, and collard greens are on the way. Family members have come in to cook homemade casseroles and chicken salad for an expanded grab-and-go area.

“We’re not turning into a farmer’s market, but just a bodega where you can get stuff that’s made in Alabama,” Tim Essary said.

Gov. Kay Ivey issued an order Friday that prevents people from eating or drinking on-site at a restaurant within the state as part of a range of measures meant to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

The highly contagious disease can cause extreme respiratory distress and has the potential to quickly overwhelm hospitals. Ivey’s order is in effect until at least April 5, but she urged people to continue to support local businesses by ordering takeout and delivery over the next few weeks

The tourism business was booming around Cahawba House just before the pandemic. It disappeared in days. Tim Essary said people have cancelled nearly $10,000 in catering orders alone so far.

They’re still serving food from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., with a limited menu and only to-go, and they’ve had to cut down on staff. But they’re still open.

Not every Montgomery restaurant has been as fortunate. Essary has watched people around him being forced to lay off longtime co-workers and friends and shut everything down, at least temporarily. “It really breaks my heart,” he said.

The siblings at Cahawba House are trying to adjust to the changes, like they did when the restaurant opened a few years ago.

“We’re kind of starting all over again, and that’s the best thing we can do,” Tim Essary said. “Except now we sell toilet paper.”