Green Leaf Grill owner donates food to needy

The first place I’m going to dine out at when the coronavirus shutdown is lifted: The Green Leaf Grill in Waynesboro.

My new favorite place, and my new favorite local restaurant owner, for eternity: Chris Hollinger.

“It was pretty much our complete inventory that we were going to lose because of the outbreak. And we just wanted it to go to those who needed it more than we do,” said Hollinger, watching as two teams of volunteers packed up perishable food from his Downtown Waynesboro restaurant, to redistribute to a local homeless shelter and needy families.

Choking back emotion Tuesday evening at his restaurant on Main Street, Hollinger said he’d contacted Jeff Fife, the executive director at the Waynesboro YMCA, to coordinate donating thousands of dollars of food to people in need.

Fife found volunteers from the Waynesboro Rotary Club, the YMCA board and the local community, including staff at Augusta Free Press, to bag the food for distribution to people in need.

Which is all well and good.

But, holy crap, this is a guy’s business, his life’s work.

A week ago, Hollinger, who opened Green Leaf Grill in 2011, was doing just fine.

“We’d finally made it through the slow season into the busy season. We had two weeks of good times, and this pulled the rug out from under us with all this,” said Hollinger, speaking, you have to assume, for local restaurant owners across the country, who, no matter how good business was going a few days ago, are screwed in the here and now, with the country basically on lockdown, for the foreseeable future.

We’ll all eat, to the degree that we can, but we don’t go out to eat just to eat; going out to eat is an experience, good food, good atmosphere, maybe an adult beverage.

With the coronavirus lockdown forcing us to distance ourselves socially for the time being, restaurants have been forced to scramble.

“We had to redo our whole game plan, and we just decided it wasn’t going to be worth trying to do what everybody else is doing with delivery and curbside, that our people needed immediate help with their finances,” Hollinger said.

It’s a Faustian bargain for small restaurant owners like Hollinger, who decided to furlough his 31 employees to allow them to apply for unemployment benefits, hours after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced that the Commonwealth would facilitate immediate benefits for people added to the unemployment rolls due to the coronavirus shutdown.

Literally a week ago, none of this was in the thinking of Hollinger, whose business has built a steady clientele in Downtown Waynesboro.

It’s one thing when a business goes under because the people running it don’t know what they’re doing.

It’s entirely another when something out of the friggin’ blue comes about and pushes the business plan to the extreme.

“He said, I don’t care how you do it, I’ve just got a bunch of food here, and I want to make sure that it gets to people in need, and I want to be able to have something good that comes out of the situation that I’m in right now,” said Fife, telling his side of the phone call from Hollinger, a YMCA benefactor for several years, earlier in the day on Thursday.

The volunteers that Fife recruited worked into the night late Tuesday creating to-go packages that will be distributed Wednesday to a local homeless shelter, to YMCA families in childcare that are in need, and to the general community.

“It sort of hits you,” said Fife, choking back emotion, “when you’re watching Chris hug his employees as they’re handing in keys, and the commitment he has to his people and his community, and then he hands me the keys from his employee, and says, now take care of this. It’s pretty powerful.”

For Hollinger, it’s reality.

“I’ve been in contact with a few other business owners. Sales were not going to be improving. They were just going to get worse. Instead of adding to the problem, we decided to just be proactive and shut down the doors for – it’s going to be at least two weeks to a month,” Hollinger said.

“Right now we’re in an economic crisis, it’s hard, but I felt that for my staff, it would be easier for them to claim unemployment, to be able to guarantee their pay, since a lot of those restrictions had been lifted, to try to keep them going, as opposed to us going under in the process of trying to save jobs.”

This, from a business owner who was thriving seven goddamn days ago.

“It’s terrifying,” Hollinger said. “We don’t know what’s happening. We don’t know when it’s going to be over. We can’t make any decisions based on anything until, essentially, the crisis is over. That’s why we wanted to close now, so that we could ensure that we could have enough funds to reopen if we’re not able to get any government assistance.

“Right now, I feel comfortable with what we’ve done. We should be fine moving forward, and hopefully, hopefully, everyone will make it through it OK.”

My first dinner out, when this is all done, and many more after, are at Green Leaf Grill.

Story by Chris Graham

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