COVID 19: Downtown Business Impacts, Part Two

Deserts and Bar, Tomato Head, Market Square, Knoxville, January 2014

This is the second part in our series on the pandemic’s impact on downtown businesses. I asked business owners a series of questions about the current situation. If you missed the first installment, you can find it here. Today we are joined by two more business owners telling their story in their own words.

Scott Partin, Co-Owner with wife Mahaste Vafaie of two locations of Tomato Head, plus Flour Head Bakery:

We have been closed on Market Square since Monday March 24 as our west Knox store was doing significantly more business than downtown.  Downtown reminds me of the early 90’s these days, a ghost town. (There has been a) massive impact on staff, most are on unemployment, a handful are working in west Knox.  I think unemployment checks are slow to come as it takes a couple of weeks of certifying before the deposits begin.

There is no question that some businesses won’t survive this.  They either won’t be able to access government assistance or won’t have the necessary relationships with bankers and their landlords. The restaurant industry is really hard, even in good times, there isn’t enough profit for anyone to have a huge bankroll to sustain without any customers for 4-12 weeks.

Scott Partin, Co-Owner of Flour Head Bakery and Tomato Head, Knoxville, August 2016

Saying they have requested help but, as of his response, they have “not gotten anything yet”. As to whether the requested help will be enough to help the business survive, he says it “depends on what the “recovery” looks like”, and as Aaron said, it’s impossible to know how comfortable folks will be gathering in groups any time in the near future

We may have an every-other-table mandate that would cut our capacity.  Consumer confidence will be badly hurt by this experience, and many consumers will feel the financial pinch of these weeks for years to come.

Regarding the return of staff, he replied, “Many staff will return but for some this will be the straw that breaks them, and they will find a new industry in which to make a living.”

Ken Mills and Scott West Shake on the Deal while Bernadette makes it happen, 36 Market Square, November 2018

Scott and Bernadette West, Preservation Pub, Scruffy City Hall, Lost Tavern, Tommy Trent’s and Earth to Old City (and soon, Bernadette’s):

On Monday March 16, the White House suggested no groups greater than 10 gather in places like bars and restaurants due to the coronavirus crisis. As soon as we heard that, we made the decision to be the first downtown bar or restaurant to close, and locked our doors at 8pm on Monday March 16, 2020.

For the first time since opening in 1993, our revenues were officially $0. (This includes the infamous year of 2006, when despite prison terms and asset seizures, our businesses never closed.)

Let’s be clear how this number might instill a sense of panic in an owner-operator. It’s a very cold comfort when politicians make promises of help somewhere down the road, even as they ask you to close down the businesses that are the livelihood of nearly one hundred people, and even as mortgages and taxes and payroll of those businesses are still disappearing in large automatically-debited amounts from their respective bank accounts.

Translation: that’s $0 in revenues to pay the 90 employees, 6 rents/mortgages, 6 utilities, near-countless taxes, tidal waves of insurance bills and sooo much more encompassing the 7 addresses and eight levels of bars, restaurants and retail we own and/or operate on Historic Market Square, including Earth to Old City, Tommy Trent’s Sports Saloon, Scruffy City Hall, Preservation Pub and The Lost Tavern.

Andy Pirkle, Preservation Pub, Knoxville, December 2018

We were closed and ZERO concrete help had actually occurred. Worse, we had to close literally on the first week of our season, on the very week our patios and rooftops are able to open again and pay off our winter debts.

Even’ worser,’ as an East European friend of mine might say, we had coasted into March on fumes, having continued to work construction all through Winter, as we prepared to open the four floors of Bernadette’s Crystal Gardens (now about two years into its creation, and our biggest bar/restaurant project to date, and believe me, that’s saying something).

On Monday, March 16, the same day we closed at 8pm, we watched a giant chunk of money disappear from our lean bank accounts (sucked out by local and state governments for taxes, national banks for our mortgages and international insurance companies for our premiums), and we knew we could not wait on others or discuss our options further after closing. We had to act quickly.

Hudson K, Scruffy City Hall, Knoxville, January 2017

We would have to make and roll out Plans as fast as we could. Sooo, within an hour of closing Tommy Trent’s Sports Saloon, Scruffy City Hall, Earth to Old City, Preservation Pub and The Lost Tavern, we had formulated Plans A- Z.  We could hope for help of course, but we couldn’t wait around on anyone for our own survival. So, on Tuesday March 16, we were already at full gallop.

Plan A: Reopen, but we had a bad feeling that that was a long ways off.

Plan B: We asked ALL of our staff to apply for unemployment, knowing that unemployment was the only concrete aid available to us at that moment. So to help us cope with our growing uncertainty, ALL of our staff were super-gracious and accepted our request to apply for unemployment (which we as a business have been paying into for thirty years), ALL our staffs took these needed furloughs with only our promise that we’d hire EVERYONE back as soon as we knew when we could reopen.

Plan K: We called our friend Ken Mills (who’d sold us 36 Market Square). Before we finished asking, he’d already told us to not worry about any payments owed to him till the crisis passed.

Plan M: Calling Ken had given us tremendous relief. And it had emboldened us to call our various loan officers at our various banks. Although one or two required a few calls to work their offers of help down to the needed kicking of debt payments down their respective roads for three months, we succeeded on all of them.

Good start. Each debt-can kicked down the road relieved us for a few minutes, till we thought of the next monster payment due from something else. Mortgages and rents aren’t the largest cost for a small business, after all, far from it. Sooo, we continued searching for respite.

Paula West, Earth to Old City, 22 Market Square, Knoxville, February 2016

Plan I: We called our insurance companies and were told that nowhere in the hundreds of pages of policies for which we pay crazy amounts of money to maintain each year are we covered when closed by our government due to disease with no fault of our own whatsoever. Somewhat disbelieving our ears, we read the extremely dry reams of policies ourselves and indeed could find no coverage for the most obvious need we could ever have imagined a business ever having. Being ordered to close by its government. We wondered aloud why we pay for insurance at all.

Plan SBA: After our federal government acted quickly and voted unanimously for a $2.2 trillion CARES Act disaster aid package, we spent days filling out all the necessary forms for Emergency Disaster Relief from the Small Business Administration . . .  then filled them out again when the SBA system crashed.

Plan PPP: We harassed our banks for the Payroll Protection Plan Loans the government had promised. Finally, a few days after the CARES Act was signed into law by the President, we were able to apply for the PPP loans (which essentially is a forgivable loan equal to 10 weeks of payroll to help small businesses weather this storm). The bank system also crashed so we filled those forms out again also.

Plan H: We scoured sources of aid for unemployed hospitality sector workers and shared all those we came across with our staff.

Tommy Trent’s Sports Bar, 36 Market Square, Knoxville, September 2018

Plan W: Now, we wait. We’ve received no aid as of yet from the CARES Act federal stimulus package. One of our 90 furloughed staff has received a normal unemployment check for $275/wk (there was nothing in the check involving the promised $600 in additional unemployment aid we’ve all heard about) and we know of no one who has yet received the $1,200 check from the government

Plan X: We applied for a home equity loan against our house.

Plan S: We’re fairly confident in our abilities to survive (we need only to think back to 2006 to restore our self-confidence in that), and we still have most of our lettered Plans still remaining even if Plans A, K, M, B, I, S, SBA, PPP, H, W or X don’t pan out (and Z is a doozie ;-).

Plan PS: Our staff still come around scouring and cleaning and painting the various levels of the bars. And our skeleton crew of construction fellas are still working diligently towards a grand reopening of our places and a new fabulous palace of sparkling energy in four levels called Bernadette’s Crystal Gardens, so we are still feeling tremendous optimism.

It’s gonna be one helluva party when this is over!


  1. Oslo Cole says

    Glad y’all are finding ways to keep your heads above water, but again, the failings of our government are on full display. The CARES Act was passed and signed on March 27th yet scant few have received any kind of assistance thus far. This seems to be taking longer than necessary and begs the question, how much longer will people have to wait?

    • It takes a while for the behemoth that is the federal government to get moving. Surprisingly, people began receiving the $1,200 as early as last Friday and more than 60,000,000 will receive it by April 17th (according to the IRS). The issue with the $600/week unemployment check is that it required every single state to come to agreement with the federal government on how to participate and administer it. This means the overburdened unemployment offices around the country that are dealing with more than 16 million unemployment claims at once (nationwide, it’s usually no more than 200,000 a week in bad times). Unfortunately, this means that portion of the CARES Act is going to be slow. Likewise, the PPP money depends on the SBA and thousands of lending institutions to work together to handle hundreds of thousands of PPP applications. You can imagine, this is going to take time. Two weeks and change is pretty short when you consider the vast numbers involved here and the fact that many of these institutions are dealing with the same types of limited manpower and social distancing requirements that those seek relief are dealing with.

      • Dave,
        As of this morning, I am pleased to report that we know of more of our staff getting unemployment checks (just the $275/wk ones from the state do far).
        Also, we have received approval on our PPP and SBA loans which are moving forward, which is very reassuring.
        So things seem to be moving along quickly now!
        (Fingers crossed)

      • Oslo Cole says

        Just an update, Dave since you were so quick to defend our government’s handling and execution of the CARES Act. It has been over a month (5 weeks and 4 days to be exact) now and i’m still waiting for my stimulus check AND unemployment benefits. Is that enough time for our government to get its act together or do i need to wait another month before i’m allowed to start complaining?

  2. Downtown Denizen says

    I love the rewriting of history. Scott West proudly proclaimed via social media that he would not shut down, he’d have to be forced. That profits were more important than people. He got *hammered* by people telling him how irresponsible that was and only because of that, made the decision to close when he did.

    Now he acts like he was selfless and that he’s taking measures above and beyond what *every* small business owner is doing to try to survive.

    He’s correct that the promised help is nowhere to be found. And I feel for all of the small business owners impacted by this. But Scott’s plight is no worse than it is for any of the rest of the responsible business owners who put people over profits.

    • As soon as it was announced by current administration that no more than 10 people could meet together, he shut down. He could have chosen to stay open like certain other downtown restaurants and bars did, but he didn’t. Some bars were still serving crowds of 20+ at the bar at least a week after the Wests shut down. Yes, Scott was reticent to shut down given the likely negative economic impact it would have on him and all of his employees (many of whom are still waiting on state unemployment checks despite having filed three+ weeks ago), however, given the economic uncertainty at the time, I can’t blame him. The keyboard warriors screeching at the top of their lungs had nothing to do with his change of heart. His care for his people and this city did.

    • Dear Downtown Denizen,

      Although it is somewhat surprising to hear you twist our very difficult decision to close and put 92 people out of work into some kind of bizarre badge of pride for which you would like to take credit…

      You are 100% wrong.

      And though we always appreciate the haters as they give us strength to persevere…

      To be extremely clear on this, we made no decision to close our businesses based on you or anyone else trolling us. We care a lot more about our staff than anonymous insults.

      Go ahead and pride yourself as an internet bully if that floats your boat, but while you’re doing that, keep in mind, lots bigger folks than you have tried to cow us in the past and failed. We don’t tremble and grovel to people who hide behind pseudonyms on social media.

      I repeat the facts, on Monday March 16, after the White House suggested no groups greater than 10 gather in places like bars and restaurants due to the coronavirus crisis, we made the very difficult decision to close all of our bars and restaurants and put 92 people out of work at 8pm.

      Scott West

  3. Most of Knoxville says

    We all watched as Scott West defiantly refused to close his businesses posting on Facebook over and over that essentially he’d do whatever he wanted to until someone forced his hand and now is trying to position himself as Mr. Responsible when he was finally forced to shut down by the city. Scott, as many people have tried to tell you: your narcissistic self-promotional act with little to back it up was old long before today. Your comments above prove that you have grossly mismanaged your finances if you have to beg for relief from the government, insurance companies, lien holders and a home equity loan while running multiple operations and simultaneously renovating yet another building. You, like major corporations who have been so grievously injured by this situation (sarcasm) have apparently got what was coming to them if you didn’t have substantial financial reserves put aside in case a catastrophe erupted. Stop the self-promotional crap now that you’ve laid bare the truth that we suspected all along – that you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. Signed very sincerely yours, The Entire City of Knoxville

    • Dear “Most of Knoxville” but not really,

      You are 100% wrong.

      How can we have been forced to shut down by the city of Knoxville when we were the first bar or restaurant to close???

      Your statement would be laughable if it weren’t so hateful. Why are we the source of your vehemence? To restate, we made the decision to close. We were not forced. We were closed and countless other bars and restaurants remained open. I am not judging the other bars and restaurants, this is a fact.

      Secondly, for you to attack us and only us for acquiring federal loans during a national shutdown boggles the mind. Countless other businesses and people have also applied for trillions in grants and loans… Why does our particular application for a loan so enrage you? We’ve borrowed lots of times in the past (as we are sure have you with your credit cards, car and 30 years mortgage for starters), so why the frowny face?

      Help me understand the source of your hatred because I don’t get it.

      Scott West

  4. Downtown Worker says

    The vitriol toward business owners doing their best for their employees in this comment section is disheartening. Same goes for attacks against our government employees who, mind you, are working from home to process unprecedented benefits claims. Everybody was knocked on their heels with this virus and to act like anybody is at fault or negligent is hateful.

    Despite claims otherwise, no one knew for certain how hard and fast this would hit us. This is unprecedented and there is no clear path forward. We should be encouraging and helping each other in any way we can rather than getting dopamine hits from saying “I told you so” or “you got what was coming.”

    We should be giving thanks and support to all the small business owners, vital employees, and healthcare workers out there bearing the brunt of this virus. We hope to see you on the other end of this chaos.

  5. I never really post on here but here we go. Downtown worker, I do not know who you are, but I completely agree with your sentiment. It’s reasonable, bankrupt of bias and vitriol and previous bones to pick. Most importantly, it’s true, I think. These are uncharted waters and Scott was not the only business owner I talked to (especially those in the food and beverage industry) who was trying to stay open as long as they could for their employees, as well as themselves. Every conversation I had with these owners was focused on the employees, including Scott. Then he shut down when the time came. And in most cases, before other businesses like his. For the people complaining, I hope you might give having a little more understanding of situations that have many levels of detail a chance. This is tough for you, for business owner like Scott and for myself. That’s all there is to it. We’re together here. Now I’m very lucky that my business has not been impacted terribly as of yet, so I’m very careful to tell other people whose situations are more dire in nature how to operate. It’s a time for support, in my humble o. Every single business owner I talked to had the same thought process as Scott. They were holding on as long as they could, knowing they’d inevitably have to be shut down. Most hoped that the Gub’ment would shut them down so employees could file for unemployment. I saw the original facebook thread and to be honest, I saw several other businesses present similar posts, but without the hate. I’m sure this will make some folks upset with me, and that’s fine. I don’t want to see someone go in on Scott for a situation where he, just like most everyone I’ve talked to, is just trying to make things work. And while I’m here, I’d like to extend praise to Bernadette, who quietly makes everything sail. She’s the oil that runs the machine. And you should know, Scott and I haven’t always been peaches and cream. We worked together to put together many shows and festivals over the years and we didn’t always get along. Why, we’ve even screamed at each other before, but I recognize that I wouldn’t be where I am without both he and B and I am eternally grateful. He taught me more than I could ever teach. If you were to build a family tree of all the things that have come from this family and their businesses, I think you’d see that this city is infinitely better because of the Wests. And Downtown Worker, when all this is over, I think we should get an apartment together.

  6. urban bar, tern club, cafe 4 all closed before scott closed any of his bars. he was not the first. and in fact, on march 16, at 825AM, he posted ok facebook that his businesses will stay open and will promote being open. yes, later that day he announced he would close them. but by that point, the above businesses (and including landing house in south knox) had already closed.

    • Dear To Box,

      We strongly support all of our neighbors and wish them the very best. We have no doubt that closing their bars and restaurants was a very difficult decision for them as it was for us.

      Urban Bar, Tern Club, Landing House and Cafe 4 are all businesses we respect and hope the best for on the other side of all this.

      You seem to be trying to incite some kind of animosity between us and other bars and restaurants. We refuse to be drawn in to the ugliness you offer.

      Instead, we offer our very best wishes to Urban Bar, Tern Club, Landing House, Cafe 4 and all of our friends and neighbors who make downtown and SoKno such exciting places to live, work and visit. We’ll see you all soon.

      Scott West

      • I don’t believe that this commenter is trying to draw you into any “ugliness” or sow discord, Scott. Instead, they’re pointing out facts that run contrary to your claim that you were “the first downtown bar or restaurant to close.”

        I’m a big fan of Pres Pub/the Scruffy City empire and look forward to going back as soon as you’re open. I’m understanding and appreciative of business owners who waited to close, be it for their own pockets/political/personal reasons or with solely their employees’ wellbeing at heart, and appreciated your position on Facebook in contrast to the reactions of many (none of whom I recognize as regulars, for what its worth). I’m in full support of Glenn Jacobs looking to open up the county sooner rather than later with a structured timeline. I just don’t think you needed to make an unnecessary flex regarding the closure of Pres Pub that doesn’t align with the very public reality of the situation.

      • i’m not trying to stoke any animosity at all. please don’t put words in my mouth.

        i am simply calling you a liar. “we made the decision to be the first downtown bar or restaurant to close“ – that is not the case. the bars and restaurants i brought up did it first. that is why i mentioned them.

        • Dear To Box,

          I didn’t lie. When we closed at 8pm on March 16, we were unaware that Urban Bar and Cafe 4 had just posted they would be closing on March 17, and we were unaware that Tern Bar closed at 7pm on March 16. We have no doubt that the reasoning behind their decisions to close mirrored our own and we wish them the very best on reopening. We hope our neighboring businesses have a gloriously successful 2020.

          We feel the same and more towards Landing House in SoKno. The owner Hao worked with us at Preservation Pub for years, so of course she and her husband know we wish them great success.

          Can we please stop attacking one another and work together to get through this? I would really like for us to get along and not debate quibbling details.

          To everyone reading this we wish you the best and we very much hope to see all of you in one of our places or one of yours after this is over.

          Cheers and sincere wishes of health and happiness to you all, including To Box,
          Scott West

      • ScamminAndy's says

        Scott, don’t pay attention to these dirtbags. You did nothing wrong. This is the usual bunch of downtown hipsters and hack local musicians with Joe Dirt beards who are starting drama because you didn’t meet THEIR standards. Not going to name names about who’s posting about it all over Facebook today, but it shouldn’t be hard to find. I wouldn’t book a single one of them in the future if I were you, because you know they would attack and criticize you again for anything they see fit. Think about it – this was from OVER A MONTH AGO and (bored) people at home need something to whine about TODAY.

        Source: played in a local band 15-20 years ago and have watched the scenesters (many of whom are still around) go backwards in maturity and adopt an attitude even more smug and elitist than before. They are the most uptight group of people you can ever hope to meet. Their only real skill is complain, complain, complain because they have nothing else to worry about.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.