How dedicated locals helped keep a diner in Portland and a tavern in Atlanta open through the pandemic.

When COVID-19 restrictions were lifted and businesses were allowed to gradually reopen last spring, Fat City Cafe in Portland, Oregon was not doing well. 

“We opened up for to-go orders and it was horrible,” Helen Johnson told COURIER. Johnson co-owns the classic diner with her husband. “It’s hard to stay open for a $10 hamburger.” 

The cafe is small, no more than ten tables, but it has a lot of regulars. It’s decorated with license plates and street signs from all over the country. The Johnsons often hire kids in the neighborhood as servers, and it’s rare to see an unfamiliar face. The classic charm and enormous cinnamon rolls usually have the place packed, but the coronavirus slashed the diner’s revenues.

In the early days of the pandemic,, Johnson said the neighborhood hangout was only making $100 or $200 a day, a sum that barely covered the cost of keeping the diner open. .  

The entire restaurant industry has been hit hard by the pandemic. The National Restaurant Association says the industry is in freefall, losing $120 billion in sales from March through June, and faced more job losses than any other industry. 

When the first shutdown in Oregon came,  the cafe had just purchased a large order of perishable ingredients, like eggs and bacon. In the subsequent weeks, Fat City had to throw away thousands of dollars worth of food that had spoiled. 

By April, Johnson felt like she had two choices: close down permanently, or turn to the crowd funding website GoFundMe. 

She said the idea to use GoFundMe came from the community.

“They kept saying Helen you can’t leave, we can’t let Fat City leave. It was so hard to ask but they kept saying that the community would be there for the cafe,” she said. 

And Fat City’s community was there. The cafe reached their goal in three days. 

“It was incredible,” Johnson said.

How One Faithful Bar Patron Helped Save Manuel’s in Atlanta

Fat City isn’t alone in turning to their community for help. Restaurants, local retail shops, even individuals have turned to neighbors to stay afloat as federal aid programs run out of money, expire, or didn’t provide help in the first place. Right now GoFundMe lists hundreds of small businesses looking to find financial help from their communities. 

“But that GoFundMe was back in April and I just asked for enough money for like a couple months because I had no idea that we would be going into our tenth month. I had no idea we would have to  shut down again,” Johnson said. 

Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta, Georgia is another local institution that was facing permanent closure before the community stepped in to help.

The tavern, which opened in the 1950s, is a favorite of local politicians and members of the neighborhood, according to Angelo Fuster. Fuster organized a GoFundMe campaign to keep the bar operating. 

He started going to the bar and met its original owner, Manuel Maloof, in its early days through his work in local politics. He watched the bar grow and pass down to Manuel’s sons. So when the current owner, Brian Maloof, told Fuster there just wasn’t enough money to keep operating, he turned to crowdsourcing. 

“I didn’t really have a whole lot of faith in using GoFundMe but I said well, when you don’t have any other choices you do whatever you have to do,” Fuster said. 

He cleared the idea with Maloof and Fuster set up the campaign. 

“I put the campaign out there with the goal of reaching $75,000 and I crossed my fingers and my toes. I put it out at 10 o’clock that night… and by midnight or so there was $10,000 in donations,” Fuster said. 

The tavern reached its goal in 17 hours, Fuster said. “I was blown away by that,” he added. 

Donations rolled in from all over the country, from people who had studied nearby at Emory University, members of the community, even people who had lost their jobs donated to the fundraiser. 

“An Atlanta without Manuel’s? Forget it,” wrote one donor. 

Community hotspots like Fat City and Manuel’s clearly mean a lot to locals, and many have deep personal connections to them. Olivia Ormond, who worked at Fat City Cafe when she was 17, still picks up shifts when she’s home.  

“Fat City Cafe is special to me because my family and I have been customers since I was very little,” she told COURIER. “I remember my mom was pregnant with my brother and her belly was almost too big for the bathroom.”  

She noted the diner’s atmosphere and the comfort food make the place feel like home and the holidays are a special time to visit. 

“One of my favorite things is decorating for Christmas because Helen just tells us, ‘make it look like Santa threw up in here.’ Every year I think we succeed,” Ormond said. 

They’ve Made it This Far. But Survival for Fat City and So Many Other Restaurants Isn’t Guaranteed.

Both Fat City Cafe and Manuel’s Tavern have adapted their menus and made changes to their operations to keep business running. 

The cafe has changed its menu slightly to adapt to more demand for takeout and is offering weekly spaghetti dinners. They also expanded their limited seating with a tent outside the front of the building. 

“We’ve had some pretty good days. Nothing like before, but we were doing okay,” Johnson said.

Fuster estimates that Manuel’s has five or six months of safety net from the campaign now. At the time of this writing, the tavern has accumulated over $178,000. 

Now in their second GoFundMe campaign, Fat City Cafe’s fundraising is a little slower. But the donations keep coming from all over, often in amounts under $100. One donor who hasn’t lived in Portland since 2002 wrote that she and her family visit the cafe every summer.

“Helen greets us like old friends and helps us feel that we’ve never left our beloved village. I wish I could donate more!” she wrote

Small businesses turning to their communities for help shows just how dire the situation is. Johnson has tried to get financial help from the federal aid programs. She was able to get $5,000 from the first round of loans, but has had trouble getting anything more. 

Now Oregon, like a number of other states, is implementing new restrictions as COVID-19 cases rise rapidly, making running the diner a real challenge. 

“If Fat City were to close it would just be another step towards the Village being unrecognizable to me and probably many of the locals. It would be tragic,” Ormond said. 

Johnson said she doesn’t want to have to close her doors, so for now, GoFundMe is a lifeline.

“I feel like this is going to be the darkest time and I don’t know when we’re going to get up and fully running again,” she said.“It was even harder to ask this time but I thought, the reality of the situation is that if we don’t, we can’t stay here.”