GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. (CBS46) -- Vice President Mike Pence and Governor Brian Kemp spent Friday afternoon in a Norcross basement conference room of Waffle House headquarters.
With them, Atlanta restaurant executives talked over reopening the nation's food service industry. That's not all, of course. The main course came with a side of politics.
A quarter of the nation's laid off workers are in the restaurant business, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia told the roomful of business and political leaders. Getting those jobs back by re-opening restaurants was the subject of the roundtable, including five Atlanta restaurant owners.
First, everyone in the room, carefully separated in chairs ten feet apart, applauded the federal government's support through the PPP, the Paycheck Protection Program.
Many restaurant owners used those dollars to pay employees to stay home. Several asked for more, a fresh round of those dollars, including Nancy Goodrich. Her restaurant near Chastain Park, Southern Bistro, is re-opening for indoor service. She told the vice president when the pandemic forced her to close weeks ago, nearby customers showed up un-announced with tips for her workers. That family feeling she said was a salvation to her staff. Plus, her own equity kept her workers paid before federal PPP dollars came through.
The entrepreneur behind the Flying Biscuit restaurants in Midtown and Candler Park, Joseph Hsiao, told the Vice President about eighty percent of his workers are back full time.
Ponce City Market entrepreneur Kelvin Slater is re-opening his popular roof-top restaurant with careful restrictions this weekend.
"When the consumer is comfortable, everything starts to work," Michael Arnette of Word of Mouth restaurants concluded. His business includes four restaurants in Brookhaven.
The largest employer, Walt Ehmer, CEO of Waffle House, closed 700 of his 2,000 restaurants during the pandemic. The slow, careful re-opening of more Waffle House businesses depends on convincing customers it is safe to come out and eat.
Throughout the 90-minute session, Vice President Pence repeatedly praised Governor Kemp for re-opening Georgia, saying the state sets "an example to the nation".
Governor Kemp was quick to turn the praise back to the White House for what he called President Trump's leadership in fighting the coronavirus with supplies of masks, gloves and an anti-viral drug, Remdesivir. Two shipments of that medicine for treating severe cases of COVID-19 arrived recently for use by Georgia doctors. The volleys of compliments made it clear the White House is now backing Governor Kemp's handling of the pandemic, and his decision to re-open Georgia more quickly than other states. Just weeks ago President Trump appeared to condemn Georgia's reopening as too hasty. Hours earlier, both Pence and Trump endorsed the decision in separate conversations with Governor Kemp.
In the audience, hearing the pleas for more public spending, Senator Kelly Loeffler sat a careful distance from two US congressional representatives. One of them, Rep. Doug Collins is competing against Senator Loeffler for the seat vacated by Senator Johnny Isakson. Vice President Pence praised both, called Rep. Collins a dear friend of the administration. Neither said a word during the discussion. Vice President Pence explained the absence of US Senator David Perdue was due to his feeling ill.