By Jane Smith
Two Delray Beach dads, concerned about how restaurants could survive a shutdown during the onslaught of COVID-19, came up with a plan to help the local eateries.
The men — John Brewer and Iain Paterson — founded the Socially Distanced Supper Club, an online effort to drive business to area restaurants hanging on for dear life.
The club debuted in mid-March after the state shut down all nonessential businesses and limited the size of groups as Florida attempted to mitigate the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
With more time on their hands, Brewer and Paterson began talking about ways to save the small restaurants they enjoyed in Delray Beach.
“The mom-and-pop restaurants are the last bastion of small business where the owners live locally,” said Brewer, a 55-year-old commercial real estate broker whose first job was busing tables at the Driftwood restaurant (currently Riggins Crabhouse) his dad owned in Lantana. “It will be the end of an era if all Delray restaurants have corporate owners. … Who wants that?” he said.
Brewer knows Paterson from Trinity Lutheran School. Brewer’s son went there, and Paterson has three children enrolled at the school. Paterson had started a Dads Club. Brewer jokingly called it “an excuse to go over to the Saltwater Brewery to play shuffleboard table games and drink a few IPA,” meaning India pale ale.
“Iain called me up and talked about my taking pictures of food and posting them on Instagram,” said Brewer. “He suggested I do that on Facebook and help small restaurants.”
Restaurants were relegated to takeout sales. Few would survive that business model. If they could count on business from catering, Brewer said, more could ride out the pandemic.
The Socially Distanced Supper Club name came from the 6 feet of separation rule. By early May, the Delray club had more than 13,000 members and spawned at least 15 other chapters in five states.
The Supper Club, accessible on Facebook (www.facebook.com/groups/664927070929564/), directs diners to buy at a choice of two or three restaurants nightly, in a flash-mob style. That way the owners know how much staff they’ll need and how much product to order, Brewer said.
Even though restaurants are now allowed to open with 50% occupancy, the club likely will continue until occupancy is closer to 80%, Brewer says. Few restaurants can make it on the reduced occupancy, he says, and some people won’t feel comfortable going out to eat until there is a vaccine.
It’s a simple but brilliant idea, making people think “I wish I had thought of it,” Brewer said. “For once, I am ahead of the curve.”
A Delray Beach native, Brewer has become the face of the club with daily videos on Facebook. He discusses the night’s featured restaurants and reminds people to be patient when picking up their meals.
Brewer and Paterson volunteer their time. Diners must call in their orders to restaurants by a deadline and pay for meals via credit cards.
“We’re helping Delray people find restaurants that they didn’t know existed,” said Paterson, 46, the southeast Florida sales director for Hufcor. Based in Wisconsin, the firm makes acoustic moveable walls sold internationally to hotels, music halls and universities.
The Delray Beach supper club chapter’s success won national attention when NBC’s Kerry Sanders came to town to film a segment that appeared May 9 on the “Weekend Today” show.
Mayor Shelly Petrolia gave the story a shout-out during a commission meeting, saying, “It showed what makes Delray, Delray, by people thinking outside of the box.”
“Besides, considering the stay-at-home restrictions, no one from Delray is going to drive up to Palm Beach Gardens to get a meal,” said Paterson, who moved to the U.S. from the Bahamas when he was 11.
Two other volunteers created the forms needed to assist the small restaurants onto the catering platform.
In addition, Paterson and Brewer are involved with a new hot lunch program based at Trinity Lutheran School intended to help unemployed restaurant workers.
Jamie Wagner, the school’s executive director, was moved by a video that showed restaurateur Rodney Mayo in tears. Mayo was talking about the worst day of his life, March 20, when he laid off 650 employees. Since then Mayo opened a daily feeding spot at his Howley’s restaurant in West Palm Beach. In Delray Beach, Mayo’s group owns the Subculture Coffee house, Dada restaurant and Honey nightclub.
Wagner also wanted to help. He had enough money to pay for two weeks’ worth of meals, but the program continues with funding from sales of vehicle decals, baseball caps and T-shirts from the Socially Distanced Supper Club. Another volunteer coordinates the sales.
As of mid-May, more than 16,000 meals had been served.
The results of these efforts?
“The community feels closer,” Brewer said, “with people stepping up to volunteer. And the mom-and-pops will expose themselves to a new audience.”