HAMLIN — After juggling a house full of ravenous teenage boys for multiple years, April Browning knows how to feed a bunch of hungry people.
She is well versed in going with the flow. Knows how to find a Plan B, or a Plan C or D if she needs it.
She’s an eternal optimist.
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, all of those personal traits have become vital survival skills for Carnivore BBQ, the brand-new restaurant she opened to rave reviews in this rural community.
“If this continues, our business probably won’t even survive it and we’ll probably end up closing down,” she said.
Even for her, it is hard to be optimistic.
“We were just two weeks into it; we were doing great,” she said. “But I’ve got creditors that are gonna be asking for money next week, and if we’re not bringing anything in this week, it’s gonna be hard to pay those bills.”
Things were already tighter than tight.
“I only had $50 when I opened these doors,” Browning said. “We were strapped with everything. My husband had been laid off for three months ... our personal bills and everything, we were trying to maintain those plus open the doors, so we were pretty strapped.”
Until the government-ordered shutdown, business was booming.
“It’s very frustrating, because we have so much invested,” she said. “We’ve put our house up against this, so we can’t just bounce back from it. If we don’t make it through, then we have more at stake than just the business, we have our home to lose. I know a lot of small businesses are like that.”
She never really expected to be opening a new business in her 40s. But she enjoyed cooking, her husband did too, and so it began as something fun, a good family project.
“In 2017, we started out with two tents and a smoker, doing barbecue competitions; that’s all we had,” Browning laughed.
“We bought a smoker one weekend and decided to do a competition two weeks later,” she said. “We were very new at it, very novice.”
They made their own sauces from scratch. What they didn’t win in elite awards they won in customer loyalty.
“It was always suggested that, ‘Why don’t you cater?’ or ‘Why don’t you set up downtown somewhere?’ so we tried catering and it went really well,” Browning said.
That led to a custom trailer with a custom smoker, catering and a foray into the fairs and festivals circuit.
Meanwhile, Browning attended workshops, worked with small business advisers and mentors.
Finally, the timing seemed right.
She bought the building, oversaw the renovations, and Carnivore BBQ opened, full of caveman appeal, with menu items like Deep Fried Deviled Eggs; Jurassic Fries (waffle fries loaded with melted cheese, pulled pork, bacon, jalapenos, ranch dressing and Carnivore’s original barbecue sauce); The Knuckle Dragger 2.0 (seasoned, deep-fried waffle bowl with baked beans, pulled pork, mac & cheese, jalapenos, bacon and barbecue sauce); The Barbarian Burger (one-half-pound beef short rib patty with pulled pork, bacon, American cheese, onion rings and original barbecue sauce); and The Neanderthal hot dog (grilled all-beef dog topped with bacon, pulled pork, coleslaw, cheese, jalapeno and original barbecue sauce).
Business was booming.
That was two-and-a-half weeks before West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice ordered restaurants and bars across the state to close because of the coronavirus.
Browning, with a skeleton crew that includes her husband and one son, has quickly transitioned to curbside pickup and delivery service. Some days have been better than others.
She’s hoping for word of an economic stimulus that provides funds quickly. She’s asked vendors to work with her on payments. She’s spread the word across her community that she’s open for business.
It is hard, harder than she expected it to be.
But for now, the optimist in her is winning.
“We’re taking a lot of proactive steps to keep it going,” she said, “because I worked too hard to quit now.”
Reach Maria Young at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5115 or follow @mariapyoung on Twitter.