How Melba Wilson is Keeping Her NYC Comfort Food Restaurant Afloat During COVID-19

Melba's in Harlem, NY
Melba Wilson, owner of Melba’s,
an iconic restaurant in Harlem.

When New York City restaurateur Melba Wilson first heard about the COVID-19 pandemic, she didn’t think it would come knocking on her eponymous eatery’s door. She is a resilient native New Yorker, after all. But on March 16, she had to temporarily close the dine in portion of her popular comfort food restaurant in Harlem, lay off staff, and secure emergency government funding to try to stay afloat. Melba also had to get creative, shifting to a takeout and delivery model, expanding business hours, offering “family meals serving four to five” – one entrée and two sides and dessert at a discounted $79.99 – and selling her cookbook, all to generate revenue that still falls short of pre-pandemic levels and leaves her business unprofitable 15 years after she first opened using $312,000 cash she had saved in a “just in case” fund.

“Days are hard and the revenue is definitely not the same, but what's most important is to keep Melba's as a staple in this community,” Melba explained. “Comfort reigns supreme in more than just food. It's about providing hope, opportunity, and love for my community.”

As her city begins to reopen, the Harlem native many call the “Godmama of 8th Avenue” is focused on creating a safe and sustained revival that lets customers dine outdoors on signature dishes like crispy fried chicken and decadent waffles, rich macaroni and cheese, and other indulgences. It’s all meant to share joy and evoke warm memories like the ones Melba has from childhood visits to her grandmother’s South Carolina farm – a place where Melba says she dined “farm-to-table” long before the term was coined.

Melba's Restaurant Exterior
Melba’s introduced outdoor seating in response
to the COVID-19 pandemic to give diners a
safe, in-person dining experience.

Melba’s pandemic playbook is useful guidance to fellow restaurateurs who may need some help navigating this next phase of business uncertainty: make the Internet your friend, stay connected to your community, offer a contact-free payment method for customers, master takeout and delivery, and remember why you started your eatery.

“I have a whole newfound respect for takeout and delivery. It's such a separate business,” said Melba. “It's definitely been challenging in so many ways. However, I'm used to being challenged, it fuels me,” she said.

For Melba, the first order of business for resuming on-site dining has been ensuring service that’s personal, yet contact-free, in ways that make both customers and employees feel comfortable and safe. That means personal protective equipment for staff and diners who need it; temperature checks for employees; special takeout containers with individually-wrapped utensils; new outdoor dining on sidewalks and streets through New York City’s “Open Streets” program; digital menus, and a new touch-free payment option she calls “a miracle.” 

“A lot of our customers were asking if the restaurant had a touch-free in-person payment option,” Melba said, “and we did not.” In looking for a quick, safe, secure and affordable payment method that minimizes physical contact and the need for cash, Melba chose to use PayPal QR Code, which enables in-person touch-free payments by scanning a QR Code that is printed or present on another device.

Melba's in Harlem, NY
Melba Wilson prepares orders of her restaurant’s
signature comfort food.

PayPal is waiving seller transaction fees through Sept. 30 for small- and medium-sized businesses like Melba’s who offer PayPal QR code as a payment option, helping keep money in these businesses’ pockets at a critical time. Businesses can create a PayPal-generated QR code from their PayPal account by following the steps outlined here. For customers looking to pay via PayPal QR Code, all they have to do is download the PayPal app, log in or sign up, scan the QR Code presented at their local retailer’s window or counter, enter the amount, and send payment quickly and easily, with no receipts to sign or cash or cards to handle.

“We think that this will bring a level of safety and security not just to our team members at Melba's, but also to our guests,” Melba said. “We're looking at a world where touchless is important…so many things are transmitted through our fingertips and to be able to pay a bill without having to touch cash that somebody else's hands touched, or to touch a machine that someone else may have touched… to be able to go on your smartphone and to pay your bill at Melba's or any other restaurant – at any place –with PayPal, it's everything,” she added.

Melba's in Harlem, NY
PayPal’s QR Code allows restaurants to offer
a completely touch-free payment option.

Melba’s focus on safety and logistics underscores how running a restaurant, or most any business these days, requires creative measures in what has fast become a new normal – not only to keep employees healthy and proactively make customers feel safe, but also as many people demand touchless transactions and social distancing as conditions of doing business. From airports and retail stores to restaurants  and coffee shops, many places are implementing new protocols that limit touch and contact in the hope of restoring public trust in safety and winning back business lost because of the pandemic.

For the restaurant industry, winning back business is critical to survival, not only for the owners and their staff but also for the farmers, factory workers, truck drivers and vineyards that supply the goods. “When you see a restaurant shut down, it has a layered effect on people that are being put out of work. It's not just one physical business. It truly is an industry. And I just want people to remember that,” Melba said, noting that many Black restaurateurs, including she, have had to try to keep their businesses afloat while coping with deaths of family members impacted by COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black Americans. 

Melba's in Harlem, NY
Melba Wilson, known as the “Godmama of 8th Avenue”,
at her restaurant in Harlem.

The Internet, in part, has helped Melba’s business start to bounce back in the aftermath of New York City mandating that restaurants close their on-site dining areas in mid-March. She has stepped up her use of social media to keep the public informed, partnered with Team Unity Incorporated to create a COVID-19 relief fund for Melba’s employees, and made it a priority to stay connected to her Harlem community and fellow restaurateurs throughout the city. This has given Melba a source of support and an outlet to give back through programs that have fed laid off restaurant staff and frontline workers at Harlem Hospital, Mount Sinai Hospital, and Bronx Lebanon Hospital, among others.

But perhaps most important for Melba, who has clocked many 18-hour days during the pandemic that would make any restaurant owner weary, is staying mindful of what first inspired her to open her doors. It was the example of her father’s hard work, her housewife mother’s diligence at saving money, and her grandmother’s culinary skills. It was also her desire to pursue a dream of her own that would uplift her community and take a chance on the neighborhood that shaped her.

“Harlem has given me wits. It has given me smarts. It has given me style. It has given me courage. It is not just my responsibility but my honor to invest into the community that has poured so much into me,” said Melba Wilson. 

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