Pot au Feu owner hopes contest essay can be a “lifeline”

BOB BURKE, owner of Pot au Feu Restaurant in Providence, submitted an essay into Barclays Bank's COVID-19 Essay Contest and is among the top 10 finalists for a $50,000 grand prize. / PBN FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO
BOB BURKE, owner of Pot au Feu Restaurant in Providence, submitted an essay into Barclays Bank's COVID-19 Essay Contest and is among the top 10 finalists for a $50,000 grand prize. / PBN FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

PROVIDENCE – Pot au Feu Restaurant owner Bob Burke’s heartfelt tribute to his employees for their response to COVID-19 has him in the running for a $50,000 prize he says would be a much-needed “lifeline” during the ongoing pandemic.

The longtime restaurateur’s 548-word essay is among the top 10 national finalists in Barclays Bank’s 2020 Small Business Big Wins COVID Essay Contest. The contest features essays from more than 3,000 business owners from across the country on how they’ve adapted to the pandemic for a chance to win top prize money to help their operations.

Burke wrote that his employees have “helped caregivers, customers, artists and each other. They battled fear, disease, injustice, fire, riots, regulations, shutdowns, shortages, despair. We find our way anew every day.”

The essay, along with thanking loyal customers for their support, also highlights Pot au Feu’s efforts to revamp its operations overnight in order to remain sustainable during this health crisis. “Winning without whining,” Burke wrote.

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Burke says the top prize of $50,000 “would be a massive infusion of much-needed cash for the business.”

Pot au Feu was the lone small business from the Ocean State to make it to the final round, where the public can vote online for their favorite essay starting Friday through Dec. 14. The winning essay will be announced Dec. 17. Each top-10 finalist, including Pot au Feu, receives $5,000, with second place paying $25,000 and third place being $15,000.

Burke said the top prize money would help Pot au Feu get through the vaccination period in the coming months, as the restaurant sector is currently dealing with more-stringent regulations, including being limited to 33% indoor capacity during the two-week “pause.” Keeping his staff employed will be the biggest boost the $50,000 would provide Pot au Feu, Burke said, since labor costs account for the majority of his business expenses.

“We are a product you just can’t automate. It’s hands on and it’s personal service,” Burke told Providence Business News. “Those are the business dynamics that make it incredibly challenging, where other businesses adapted with Zoom and adapted with other things. Unless I can slide a plate of Beef Perignon through your Zoom window, we’re stuck.”

Burke said he received a $14,500 state grant to help with his operations early on in the pandemic, but the expenses at Pot au Feu are great.

On top of his normal operating expenses, Burke said he spent “well north” of $10,000 on safety measures and procedures alone. Among the safety upgrades Burke had installed were UVC germicidal lights, disinfectant fogging, HEPA filters, wood and glass ceiling-to-floor partitions, touchless restrooms and personal protective equipment, including KN95 masks, for employees.

“We made out to be the safest restaurant in America,” Burke said. “We’ve really been aggressive about that. At a time when we are trying to cut down on every single discretionary expense possible, we felt it was worth it. It meant keeping our employees, some of them have been with us for decades, safe. Our customers, many of them have been coming to us for a half century.

“As a business owner, you have an enormous obligation to those people,” he said. “If they’re going to come out, we owe it to them to make it the safest experience possible.”

Burke also said the $5,000 Pot au Feu has already received for being among the 10 finalists will help with some costs. He is also hopeful that Congress will provide stimulus money for additional business support.

Burke also recently submitted an application for R.I. Commerce Corp.’s business adaptation grants, which provides financial support to businesses that had to significantly change its operations.

“We just hope with the election over that we’re going to start to see a more serious response from government,” Burke said.

And he’s hoping supporters come out in force to earn him the top prize in the essay contest.

“We’re going to say please vote [for us],” he said. “Go online and click it, and maybe a Rhode Island company will still be around as a result of you just pressing the send button.”

James Bessette is PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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