Natalie Young is a giver. Her fried chicken dinners raise money to buy computers for at-risk youth, the same kids she employs at her Downtown Las Vegas breakfast and lunch restaurant Eat. When she opened in 2012, Young borrowed $225,000 from the Downtown Project to get her started, and paid the loan back within a year, a testament to the popularity of the restaurant that helped Fremont East turn into a magnet for scrappy chefs who wanted to open their own place. Her story of losing her family, partner, and job to addiction before she opened Eat even lead to a starring role in a commercial for American Express that aired during the Academy Awards in 2015.
Flash back to March 2020, when the state closed all nonessential businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19. Young didn’t know what to do. She opted to take all the food at Eat and split it into packages that could be cooked at home or eaten immediately and then gave it away to neighbors. “They’re hard working, good people that live check to check,” Young says of her neighbors. “There were good, hard working people in there that literally didn’t know how they were going to eat the next day, so I gave them the ability for at least four or five days where they don’t have to worry about food. They can worry about everything else.”
Young didn’t offer takeout and delivery while restaurants remained closed until early May 2020, and waited until June to reopen Eat. She knew she couldn’t survive at 50 percent capacity that cut her profits so deeply that Eat would close within three months without a solution.
In steps Todd Graves, the founder and CEO of Raising Cane’s, the Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based fried chicken restaurant with more than 500 locations nationwide and a legion of Craniac fans. When the pandemic hit, Graves says his restaurants immediately took a 30 percent loss with dining rooms closed. Luckily, his restaurants have drive-thrus, which helped Raising Cane’s boost sales by 10 percent overall in 2020. His good fortune inspired him to help other restaurateurs through his new TV show, Restaurant Recovery. Graves wanted to showcase restaurants and people who are doing good things in their community but just needed a little help getting back on their feet.
The show streaming on Discovery+ heads to Eat to help Young on Thursday.
“She just stood out to me. She was the one that was going to always pay it forward and always think of others,” says Graves, who invested about $100,000 of his own money at each of 10 restaurants to help them recover for the show.
At first when Young found out she was going to appear on the show, she thought the money could go toward each of her employees, or at least help her get a new air conditioner and maybe some garage doors. “He smiled at me and said, ‘Okay,’” she recalls about talking to Graves and his team. “Then when I came in I had literally two new dining rooms, which gave me the ability to have a bigger earning capacity so that I could take care of and pay my staff, and eventually get those things that I want to get.”
Graves and his team at Restaurant Recovery added 22 seats on the patio and 22 seats in a secret dining room in the garage that he rented next door to Eat during a two-day makeover last September. “We literally have three dining rooms now socially distanced, which is just insane, because I wanted an air conditioner that wouldn’t pay the bills,” Young says.
Graves says he doesn’t blame restaurant owners for thinking small when they’re in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. He credits his team with bringing a new set of eyes to the bigger problem of staying alive. “I’ve been through it. It happens when you have a crisis, and you’re just trying to keep your head above water. When you’re like chef Natalie and you’re not paying yourself and you’re trying to keep all your people employed, it’s that survival mode that you’re just in every day,” he says.
Young admits that she had some help from the community as well to keep afloat. “If it wasn’t for some really amazing people like Todd and some other people, I’m not sure if we would have made it.”
Now her biggest issue is too many diners. Last Sunday, 350 people dined at the restaurant that Young says has a kitchen built to feed 250 tops. “We are doing more covers than we did before we closed because he gave me the seating that give me the ability with social distancing, so it’s brilliant.” Young just bought some new kitchen equipment and is making enough money that she is offering her staff health insurance.
“It takes people like Todd, who set an example for people like me,” Young says. “The reason I am the way I am is because people like Todd who pave the way for us.”
• All Coverage of Eat [ELV]
• How Coronavirus Is Affecting Las Vegas Food and Restaurants [ELV]