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Peterson: Inside a small-town Iowa restaurant doing its best to survive a pandemic – Des Moines Register


CARLISLE, Ia. — I called on a friend who opened a restaurant on July 11. I called James Hamm to see how his new place, Coco and Nini’s, was handling the carry-out, drive-thru or delivery mandate handed down by the state.

Eight months after he opened his 90-seat Italian eatery within a few steps of the Carlisle High School football field, Hamm’s place been forced to dramatically scale back and reluctantly lay off employees.

He now heaps pasta into a to-go box instead of on a plate. The bar sits empty. The number of food orders isn’t the same, and neither are the profits.

While central Iowa mainstays in the industry have temporarily closed — like Jesse’s Embers just west of downtown Des Moines within walking distance of the governor’s mansion, or Tumea and Sons, across the river on the south side and within the night-time summer glow of lights at Principal Park — Hamm is still making sauces and creating cavatelli and lasagna just as he did two months ago.

More: Get the latest news on the coronavirus in Iowa

Coco and Nini’s doesn’t have a rich history like Baratta’s, Hilltop, Now or Later and others who will likely survive even though they decided to temporarily close — a move Hamm hasn’t done.

“I don’t want to strain my checking account to stay afloat, or my bookkeeper will be on my butt,” Hamm, 38, said shortly after the restaurant closed Saturday night, “but as long as we can cover expenses and keep things going out — if you don’t, startups like me run the risk of losing business.”

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Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association, estimated that “anywhere from 2,500 to 3,000” establishments could go under in these uncertain times without governmental financial aid packages. We communicated before aid packages were later announced.

Dunker also said: “I think we lose 15% of our establishments specifically because of this virus, no matter what.”

Hamm hopes to be on the other side of that sobering statistic.

“I never did think about closing; I don’t have any loans for the restaurant,” Hamm said after his phone stopped ringing Saturday. “I don’t have to worry about making a payment to the bank, other than my bills.

“I figured I’d try it out the first week, and see if there was support. If the money coming in didn’t offset the daily expenses, I wasn’t going to do it. We were just going to close until we’re allowed to open again.”

A week later, he’s still open. With modified hours, of course.

“The community has been great,” he said. “A man who’s a Carlisle bus driver offered to come in and help us deliver because he wants to do his part. Not just the people of Carlisle, but people in general have been great. I’ve had people from the south side of Des Moines asking if we’d deliver to them. I’ve had people from West Des Moines asking.”

Hamm’s current workforce consists of someone answering the phone, someone helping in the kitchen — and a whole lot of family.

“This is huge to me, because I don’t have any other income — besides my wife, who’s a full-time nurse,” Hamm said. “She’s the breadwinner. Being a startup — it’s a while before you as an owner get paid.”

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On this Saturday night, his wife, Tierney, was helping in the kitchen. Their kids worked in the dish room. Other family and friends helped, too.

“Thank God for friends and family,” Hamm said. “The people I couldn’t keep are on unemployment. I can’t call them back in.”

His restaurant closes around 7 p.m. Like others in his line of work, Hamm is still trying to figure out how much food to order.

“You don’t know how many people will come in,” he said. “I ordered a very minimal order the first week. I’m usually between a $2,500 and $3,000 order every week. I spent around $600 the first week, so it’s a huge difference.”

He feeds between 200 and 300 people on an average Saturday night. On this Saturday, he filled 45 to-go orders.

“We just delivered to a family in Hartford that’s lived there 30 years, and nobody’s even delivered food there,” said Hamm, whose restaurant didn’t deliver prior to the coronavirus outbreak. “She said it was great. She said she can’t wait to get into the restaurant when this all passes.”

None of us can.

Iowa State columnist Randy Peterson has been writing for the Des Moines Register for parts of six decades. Reach him at rpeterson@dmreg.com, 515-284-8132, and on Twitter at @RandyPete.



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