As virus rages and city changes, Torrie's Restaurant endures

·4 min read

Washington (AFP) - The coronavirus pandemic has shut its doors, but if John Goodwin has his way, Torrie's Restaurant will remain one of the last places to get cheap southern cooking in Washington for years to come.

Every day since the pandemic arrived, Goodwin has been coming in to cook for his small number of catering clients, knowing full well that, for diners like his, their already tenuous existence in the US capitol is in jeopardy.

"When we open back up, I don't know where you're going to find a place like this. It's not going to be there," Goodwin, 69 and with long hair spilling down his back from beneath a white chef's cap, told AFP.

Housed in a squat, gable-roofed building in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, Torrie's already had to cut its hours due to nearby construction before the pandemic came.

The recent months of shutdowns have created an additional challenge like nothing Goodwin has seen in his decades of business, but one which he is determined to overcome.

"My philosophy is, you throw me in the ditch, you gotta hold me in the ditch, otherwise I'm coming out," he told AFP.

- Good business -

The United States is facing a once-in-a generation economic downturn, and Torrie's and other small businesses, which the government last year estimated provide nearly half of all employment, are particularly vulnerable.

A culinary school graduate and Vietnam War veteran, Goodwin began providing catering services to historically black colleges in the southern US and setting up restaurants named after his daughter Torrie from the early 1980s, with around seven separate operations and approximately 250 employees at its height.

The business was successful but by 2005 the South Carolina native decided to scale back to just the location in Washington.

About 60 percent of his business came from catering to halfway houses, senior centers and childcare centers, while the rest came from in-house diners.

"We do the same thing IHOP does, anybody who's getting breakfast," Goodwin said, referring to the American diner chain. But at Torrie's, you can get southern specialities like salmon cakes, country ham and chicken livers.

"We keep it simple and we keep it kind of country."

- The shifting city -

Goodwin's customer base was at first mostly African American, in line with a city that was predominantly so.

But as the white population increased and many of the older black families moved out, the clientele at breakfast became more diverse.

"We had a good crowd in here, we were full up on the weekend. A lot of mixed people, people from the community," Goodwin said.

Adorning the restaurant's walls are photos of celebrities and regulars alike who once sat in the restaurant's red-and-green vinyl booths, along with football helmets and high-heeled shoes customers brought. In one section are souvenirs from fraternities and sororities at historically black Howard University, located across the street.

With more white patrons, Goodwin lined up photos of all the American presidents above the soda fountain, hoping to give people something to talk about.

"Spices of life is the changes that you make and are able to deal with, and everybody need to understand that," Goodwin said.

Change also came to the cityscape outside the restaurant's doors.

A block away from Torrie's, where a plate of steak and eggs goes for $8.95, rose a new ten story glass-and-steel apartment block, where rents start at upwards of $2,100 per-month.

- Challenges ahead -

A few months ago, the restaurant lost much of its parking to construction on a new building, forcing Goodwin to cut the restaurant's hours to only open on the weekend.

After the coronavirus hit, Goodwin applied for money from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to see the business through, only to be told the fund had run out of money.

His experience correlates with the findings of a Goldman Sachs survey published in April saying black businesses face lower chances of getting their PPP applications approved.

"You get a harder time than the big boys for whatever reason," Goodwin said.

He's lately been operating at a loss, dipping into his company's savings to keep thing afloat, but planning to open again after the city permitted restaurants to do so at half capacity on Monday.

"I got a lot of faith, and I'm very spiritually motivated," he said. "So I don't have no fear about anything."