KENNETT SQUARE—Despite two stimulus packages, more than 100,000 small businesses in the U.S. have closed permanently since the pandemic began in March, according to a study by researchers at the University of Illinois. And for restaurants it's worse. Three percent of all restaurants have gone out of business for good, according to the National Restaurant Association.

But not only has a local man who owns restaurants in Chester and Delaware counties continued to operate in dire financial times, he has continued to pay his chefs despite days in which he has very few customers.

"I guaranteed their pay, and I didn't fire any chefs," said Ahmed Charga, owner of Byrsa Bistro, with locations in Kennett Square and Glen Mills. "Most of our servers were not fired, but they understood (the situation) and walked away."

Charga shut down March 16, and said he had to learn a new way to do business. He focused on his take-out business, but that didn't nearly make up from the lost revenue from the dine-in crowd. So he expanded his menu to add gourmet pizza, which has been a hit, especially for take-out.

"Most customers are scared to come out even to pick up food," he said. "But a lot of our customers supported us, but they couldn't do it every day."

Charga said the restaurant industry is forever changed because habits have been altered by the pandemic. Many now stock up at grocery stores and eat in the safety of their homes, and have noticed that their finances have improved a bit by not eating out so much.

Since the pandemic, Byrsa Bistro has lost 87 percent of its revenue. For most business owners, that alone would be reason enough to close doors forever. But for Charga, he is refusing to let both his employees and the community down.

He worked 18 hours every day. He pored over paperwork to score federal and state grants. Even the borough of Kennett Square helped out a bit on grants. He worked to get some relief from his landlords.

"We took the hit," he said. "I accepted the financial difficulties, but I did not let (the pandemic) from putting more money into my business. Landlords were generous and helpful. They did what they could to and they were fair. If I stopped putting money into the business, we would never be able to keep the businesses open, even with all the government help."

Kennett Square officials, Charga said, helped many businesses by closing down State Street Thursday afternoons through Sunday to allow for expanded outdoor dining. But that solution is temporary at best because rain deters customers and few customers want to eat outside when it is either hot or cold.

Charga, like other small restaurateurs, not only had to deal with a declining customer base, but with rising food costs, due in part from the pandemic. In the past two months, Charga said his price for food has increased 40 percent, but he doesn't dare pass the costs onto his customers, who he said are experiencing financial difficulties.

He did something other restaurant owners were afraid to do - he reduced prices.

"We reduced our prices on the menu because this is not fine dining anymore," he said. "The food costs just killed us, but the overhead stayed the same."

The state restrictions on seating capacity - first 50 percent and now 25 percent - had little impact on Charga. He said most days he could not even fill one indoor table.

"Since the Green Phase on June 26, I have not had more than one table for dining filled inside," he said. "And that is at both restaurants, Glen Mills and Kennett Square. "In the first four or five weeks (of this year) I had 1,000 tables filled."

And now, with colder weather and the flu season approaching, Charga said he will need a bit more magic to keep the chefs busy.

"The winter scares me," he said. "People won't be able to sit outside. And nobody has a plan for this. We are all learning as we go. It's something we never went through before."

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