Business In A Slump: Scraping By Three Years Later
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So, as we just mentioned, Americans have little faith in Congress these days. Well, let's talk now about their faith in the economy. Three years ago, I went out on the road to travel the country and chat with people about how the recession was affecting their lives. That was during President Obama's first 100 days in office. One place I visited was the Stone Soup Kitchen in Atlanta. The diner is in the heart of Cabbage Town, this young, artsy neighborhood. The place is famous for its pancakes. At the time, Jason McDonald, who owns the diner, was seeing signs of economic trouble.
JASON MCDONALD: Our business is doing well. I mean, we're selling comfort food so we've seen a big increase of pancake sales. I think people just want to eat those fluffy pancakes and forget about their problems. But I put an ad on Craigslist for a server, and in the past I would usually get about 40 responses. I got 350 this time.
GREENE: That was three years ago.
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GREENE: This past week, I returned to Stone Soup and sat down for breakfast with some of the people I had met there, including Jason. It was interesting timing because he had just posted another job opening - this one for a cook. He only got 100 or so responses, which makes him feel like the economy has improved from three years ago. Then again, the resumes suggest Atlanta still has a lot of people desperate for work.
MCDONALD: I've seen everything from security guards to a guy that was a private pilot. This morning, in fact, I looked at a few and there was one, he just had really high-end restaurant experience. He was a sous chef at some standout restaurants that have been written up in Food and Wine and Gourmet. But this one person in particular, I thought about emailing and saying you sure you know where you've applied?
GREENE: One person who knows Stone Soup very well is Raqi Carter. In 2009, she was a 24-year-old waitress dreaming of a career in hip-hop dancing. Rocky has since left the restaurant behind and is trying to dance full-time. It isn't easy.
RAQI CARTER: Oh my gosh. It's very difficult. I mean, I used to always have a little cash on me, working at a steady job. But now it's like big money or no money in this industry. If you don't have a gig in between time, you just have to budget out your money or do little gigs here and there, you know, just to make the rent. And you just cross your fingers that some gig comes through or you work with an artist who can keep a steady flow.
GREENE: And Jelani Cobb, remind us who you are, just so our listeners remember.
JELANI COBB: My name is Jelani Cobb and when you talked to me last I was a history professor at Spelman College. I'm now a history professor at the University of Connecticut.
GREENE: But still living in Atlanta?
COBB: I'm moving. I haven't moved north yet, but I will be.
GREENE: Well, Jelani, have your plans changed? I mean, you're switching to a different college.
COBB: I'm moving to a university in a different part of the country. I don't think my plans have changed. I was pursuing an academic career and I'm still, you know, an academic and I write. I think one of the things that has happened in the last three years is a lack of belief in stability, just having seen how the seemingly stable situations could just collapse. I grew up with my parents telling me the most responsible thing that you can do as an adult is buy a home. Buying my house was one of the worst decisions I've made, you know, because it's been an albatross. It's about $100,000 underwater maybe. It's not unusual. I mean, Atlanta got hit very hard. You know, looking around at it and going you can short-sell it and damage your credit, you know, or hold onto a house that you have no hope of ever making a profit on, or even breaking even on. And so the snap judgment that homeownership is a good thing no longer applies.
GREENE: And are you going to sell the house or are you going to...
COBB: Probably, yeah. And I'm going to take a good while before I buy anything else, 'cause simply I don't want a repeat of this experience.
GREENE: Another person who felt the economic squeeze in Atlanta is Jason Palmer. When I first met him, he had just taken a new job with the Federal Reserve in Atlanta after being unemployed for nine months. To make ends meet during that time, he searched the streets for scrap metal to sell. Now, since I've first met Jason, he and his wife had a son. Jason told me last week that he has friends who are out of work or are struggling with homes that are underwater. He's counting his blessings.
JASON PALMER: I think even if I get a lot of stability, I have a tendency to - it creates doubt. Once you've been shaken up, it's hard to see stability and embrace it. It almost feels foolhardy to me. I know that sounds pessimistic, but that's kind of the way I feel. But what it does do is it makes me thankful for every day that I'm able to go to work and do what I do. And I'm totally thankful for that.
GREENE: There was a time when things were very unstable for you. You had been laid off and you were out searching for scrap metal.
PALMER: That's correct, yeah. I still scrap metal occasionally. Again, I'm not afraid to roll up my sleeves and get some stuff done. Yeah, that was a tough time, I was. I was back looking for jobs. I had put on my Sunday best, go to some job interviews and kind of fight the market that way. And if I saw some scrap metal on the side of the road, I'd just try to pick it up without getting my suit dirty. And it definitely food on the table at the times and it helped pay utility bills and put gas in the car, that type of things. But, yeah, that was a real trying time. But I look back on. It's not that I necessarily pride myself over it. I just know when you got to do hard work. I just know when you've got to be humbled. There's merit in hardship. There's new perspectives in times that aren't easy. I'm not saying desperate is a way to go. I'm saying that when you only have a few tools in life, you learn how to use those tools more efficiently and you learn how to use a crescent wrench like a hammer, you know?
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GREENE: Wherever this economy is headed, the regulars at Stone Soup seem to be soldiering on together. Well, almost. Jason McDonald, the owner, has got to hold onto those customers.
MCDONALD: I have a real problem with our customers leaving Atlanta.
GREENE: Why, why?
MCDONALD: I know, shocking. Especially customers who were here, you know, three days a week every week.
COBB: I'll come back in summer.
MCDONALD: OK. All right.
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GREENE: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.