Mon, March 23, 2020
Businesswoman Ellen Korbin began to feel the stress brought by novel coronavirus pandemic when shows started canceling at the convention center, where she sells coffee. Then came her funnel cake outlet at the theme parks. And now the restaurant she owns in Ocoee is limited to takeout.
The 9/11 terror attacks were over in a day. The spate of hurricanes in 2004 came and went. Nobody was quarantined or urged to avoid restaurants during the 2008 recession.
“This is very different,” said Korbin, Ellie Lou of Ellie Lou’s Brews & BBQ in Ocoee, one of three food-service businesses she owns. "Nobody knows when this will end.”
Before COVID-19, Korbin’s businesses employed 90 full- or part-time workers. She’s down to 22.
For now, she is paying those 22, a dozen of whom have been with her a decade or more. Eight others are receiving two weeks pay for accrued personal time.
But it can’t last more than a month unless something changes fast.
“My pockets aren’t that deep,” she said.
Korbin had expected 2020 to be possibly the best year ever for her businesses, the barbecue restaurant in Ocoee, the Hill of Beans Coffee Co. at the Orange County Convention Center, and the funnel-cake concessions at Disney’s BoardWalk, Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon and the American Adventure in EPCOT’s World Showcase.
She signed a lease for a second Ellie Lou’s location.
“My goal now is to survive,” Korbin said in her clean and shiny but empty restaurant Wednesday at lunch time.
Most restaurants and tourist-dependent businesses are in the same sinking boat. Some hotels have closed, the outlet malls have shut down.
Stina D’Uva, president and CEO of the West Orange Chamber of Commerce, said she was worried for her 1,100 members, especially mom-and-pop places like Korbin’s.
“In this time of uncertainty and ever-changing directives, our concern is for all our members surviving the COVID-19 crisis,” D’Uva said.
Korbin had based this year’s rosy business forecast on the convention center’s impressive 2020 schedule, which included springtime mega-shows like the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, or HIMSS, expected to draw 44,000 conventioneers, and the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, expected to bring 30,000 attendees.
For HIMSS, Korbin planned to staff 12 coffee kiosks and two quick-service locations with 58 workers, pulling some from the restaurant.
But suddenly, fast as a sneeze, all of those jobs were gone, canceled with the trade shows.
Korbin gathered the Hill of Beans staff and pledged to keep them working in other venues, even sprucing up the Clermont property that was to be the next Ellie Lou’s.
“We’re all family,” she recalled telling them. “We’re going to get through this together. I just don’t know how, but we will somehow.”
Then Disney and Universal announced they were closing through the end of March because of fear of spreading the pandemic. No more funnel cakes.
Then the president, the governor, and the county and city mayor pleaded with restaurants to cut dining-room operations in half. Ellie Lou’s complied.
Then Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued another executive order directing restaurants to close their dining rooms completely.
According to Korbin’s calculations, she’ll lose $406,000 this month to the shut downs and COVID-19′s ripple effects.
Korbin, who holds a master’s degree in psychology, said she tends to look on the bright side of things.
She considered a cancer diagnosis in July 2012 to be “just a blip, an inconvenience.” She wore jewelry and make-up to chemotherapy treatments.
“There are many ways to nurture people, ours is with food,” Korbin said.
The restaurant has applied for a no-interest, emergency-disaster loan; appealed to the bank to defer loan payments; and asked the Ocoee landlord for patience.
Ellie Lou’s also is promoting a curbside pick-up option and, for the first-time ever, home delivery.
Sundays are typically busy for Ellie Lou’s, where families gather in groups after church to laugh and eat “Gospel grits.”
Available only on Sundays, the garlicky mixture of smoked Gouda and cheddar cheeses, diced tomatoes, sliced green onions and corn is so heavenly it inspired a 9-year-old farm boy to name his pig “Ellie Lou” and has led to three marriage proposals for Korbin, though one was withdrawn when the suitor realized she wasn’t actually the chef.
Korbin often mingled with guests after church, but that’s gone now, too, a loss for her and the Sunday regulars like Congressman Daniel Webster, R-Bushnell.
He often brought a brood of grandkids for a turkey platter with collard greens and fried green tomatoes.
"We will miss not being regulars during this time of social distancing, but I’m going to tell my wife and family they have a takeout option,” Webster said.