Orlando Watson is co-owner of Prime 55 Restaurant as well as a music producer and concert promoter through his RockHouse Ent. brand. Thanks to social distancing and stay at home orders as lines of defense in the fight against the coronavirus global pandemic, he is essentially out of business for the foreseeable future.
“It’s flatline across the board,” Watson said. “I got hit twice. I’ve got the restaurant and the concerts. Everything is just dead.”
Prime 55 had 24 employees and was bustling with patrons just days before coronavirus was declared a pandemic. They had a popular brunch on the weekend, live music on Wednesday nights and a robust dinner menu five days a week. As of Tuesday, they are down to two employees – a chef and someone to take phone carry out orders for their limited to-go menu.
They are still serving food, though not to make money. Their carry-out menu options are a service to people looking for dining options as they self-contain.
They can’t make a profit from the diminished capacity of the restaurant – even minus the payroll – because of the overhead costs and bills. Much of the expenses come from renting the building that houses the eatery, located in the heart of the Delmar Loop.
“I had a conference call with several other restaurateurs earlier today – and to hear seasoned restaurateurs on the phone as nervous as they were, that sent a jolt through me,” said Watson.
He opened the restaurant last June with fellow music industry veteran Tony “T-Luv” Davis.
“I was like, ‘I’m a newbie to this and these guys are twenty-plus years in, and they are spooked,’” Watson said. “It’s unchartered territory for all of us. I don’t know what to make of this. Because we don’t know where this is going, and we don’t know how long this can last – and there’s no blueprint or barometer.”
The restaurant is a few steps away from The Pageant, where RockHouse Ent. has brought some of the biggest names in music, including Lil Kim, Yo Gotti, Jeezy and Meghan Thee Stallion.
“Every event that I was planning from now until the end of the summer – all of that stuff is canceled,” Watson said. “I haven’t rescheduled anything.”
One of his biggest concerns as the nation braces for how things shake out is the team of people he employs.
On top of the twenty-plus restaurant employees on indefinite furlough, another dozen or so work with him on the shows.
“That’s almost forty people that we give jobs to that look like me and you and they are all hurting right now, and we all want to get back to work as soon as possible,” Watson said. “Some of these small businesses might not rebound from this. Hell, I could be one of them, God forbid.”
Technically, Watson was hit three times. Mai Lee, an R&B artist with a national presence that Watson has worked closely with over the years, was ready to release her album.
“We finally got done with that, and we have to push that back,” Watson said.
“It’s a ghost town right now, and people are scrambling trying to figure out what to do, and where are they are going to get income from. And is there a business after this is over?”
He’s filled with uncertainty about what the economy will look like when the smoke from coronavirus clears and feels that Donald Trump is to blame.
“His approach is so terrible,” Watson said. “We were late to the dance, that’s why we are in the predicament we are in now. And this fool is talking about having [expletive] open by Easter. That’s two weeks from now. Just the thought of him saying that [expletive] me off. It’s something wrong with that man.”
All of this is happening as Watson faces his greatest health crisis. A cancer survivor who enjoyed years of remission, the disease came back with a vengeance in November. He had surgery that removed all the bone from his leg and his knee, which was replaced with metal. He had a staph infection at his point of surgery, had to be re-hospitalized and is currently unable to walk.
“I’m trying to balance all of that while this is going on,” Watson said. “It’s equally difficult to process all of this.”
His own health challenges are part of the reason he’s more concerned with the countless individuals whose health are at risk because of coronavirus than his business suffering because of social distancing. He considers the extreme measures that have cost him his business in the short term to be necessary.
“I just don’t know how long it’s going to last,” Watson said. “I don’t want to see any of us going through this – but we’re here now.”
He is nervous, but hopeful for how the outcome of the economy will impact his business.
“As black folks in this country we have been through storms for centuries,” Watson said. “I’ve been broke, I’ve had money and been broke again. I’ve been sick and I’ve been healthy and sick again.”
He feels that staying vigilant and getting creative as the financial aftershock of coronavirus hits is essential.
“As for right now, I’m just praying,” Watson said. “At this point it’s all we can do – that and stay in the damn house.”