Two prep cooks working at Union Square Hospitality Group, which was a client of ESL Works
Rachael Nemeth, Opus (mobile employee training company) formerly known as ESL Works, New York City: It’s been a wild few months, for sure, but it’s also been a reminder of how important frontline workers are. I founded ESL Works in 2016, and we taught work-specific English in New York City restaurants. In March 2019 we launched proprietary technology that delivers interactive training to frontline workers: English training through text message. Frontline workers are a completely underserved population that modern technology has ignored. Every training platform is built by white collar workers for white collar workers, then repurposed for blue collar workers. It doesn’t help people develop in their jobs.
The majority of frontline workers—hourly workers who are in production, delivery, and guest-facing jobs—don’t have work email addresses or apps on their phone, but they have texting. So we created three-minute training drills with questions, answers, feedback, and facts that relate to the learning module. The whole thing is interactive, so there is a high level of engagement. Beyond that, we created a connective tissue between frontline workers, managers, and executives. Managers could track progress through text message so they can encourage employees and hold them accountable. Executives can get metrics on their entire workforce.
When COVID hit, around mid-March, we knew everything was about to change, so we began to offer tech-based hygiene training. We did this as a courtesy beyond English training to our clients. Everyone said yes.
Within two weeks, we used the same text-messaging technology to help our customers deliver rapid hand-washing training and all the basics. We voluntarily paused invoicing our customers since the industry was going through a rocky time. We knew what we were doing could help every single essential worker out there. I only had a team of three, so I called Dan Terran, the CEO of Managed by Q and an early investor, and he helped us source a team of 12 engineers and product design to build Stop COVID. It’s COVID training from the CDC and WHO, graded down to a fifth-grade level and delivered in multiple languages, so it’s accessible to every person who needs it. In under 60 days we grew to reach over 500 essential businesses across the country. That became our focus.
Today ESL Works is becoming a new company, Opus. This allows us to expand into the food industry and deepen our product offerings, with frontline workers in mind. Now we’re not just working with restaurants; we’re trying to serve the entire food ecosystem, so manufacturing, distribution, logistics companies. We’re taking things like workplace safety guidelines from OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), which can take 10 to 30 hours to complete, and turning it text-based training. We’ve gotten a lot of requests for sexual harassment training, so we created that text with sources from the Department of Labor. And of course we still have my favorite, operational English.
We’ve got a long way to go. The frontline workforce is huge, and now we’re able to serve 100 percent of the workforce, not just the 30 percent who don’t speak English.
Wednesday, July 8
“I’m a Black man, and business really became second once this Black Lives Matter movement came.”
Troy “Chef T” King and Selena Johnson, Six Forks Burger Co., Louisville, KY.
TK: I’ve always been trained as an entrepreneur to not mix business and politics. This is the first time where I actually said no—business actually is with politics. With me being Black and us having interracial children, it was a no-brainer that we were going to start speaking out about injustices.
We put Black Lives Matter signs up in our restaurant. We made a statement on our Facebook and Instagram page on where we stand. And we said, If that is what would keep you from eating in our restaurant…
SJ: …then we do not want you in our restaurant.
TK: Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, it’s a little different for us because we’re an interracial couple. Some people think that maybe I don’t identify as much. But I’m a Black man, and business really became second once this Black Lives Matter movement came. Every morning I wake up to another act of police brutality or some unjust acts. And even though I am a former police officer, I believe in police officers and I support police officers, I am not down for this continuing.
SJ: My husband is very, very driven. He is constantly going, he’s always working. But the day Louisville restaurant owner David McAtee was killed, he kept thinking, Am I next? That just kind of consumed him, so we decided to close and let him take that time.
TK: When I looked at him, I looked at me. That day I just, I just couldn’t do it. Nothing else really mattered, not the restaurant, none of that. Two big things for me are, of course, profits and sales and being open so my employees can earn. I was so mentally distraught that I didn’t even take those things into consideration. Life got really, really real to me. I don’t think I’ve ever had a day where I couldn’t do it or didn’t want to do it. But then, it was both of those things. I just wanted to be at home.
A certain amount of fear and anger set in. I am a 52-year-old Black man and I’ve never feared anything in my life. Now I walk around in fear. But I’m not gonna allow it to control me.
SJ: He was pretty quick to get it open the next day. We care a lot about our employees and want them to be able to work. You got to get back open, you got to get back out there, and you can’t let those things rule your life. You got to follow through with your dreams and what you’re doing.
Before we opened Six Forks, Troy would talk about how he wanted it to make a difference for the people that live there. The protests have definitely cemented our thoughts that it was definitely the right thing and the right place for us.
TK: Our restaurant is in a pretty diverse neighborhood, Shelby Park. It’s located on the corner of a street known for drugs and prostitution, and, you know, we turned it into a place that changed all that.
Our whole staff is from the neighborhood. Our manager lives like four houses away. We hire a lot of what we call second-chancers. I don’t really care about your criminal backgrounds whatsoever. I’m not as much concerned about your past as I am concerned about your future. So to be quite honest with you—I know people are probably going to think that we’re crazy—if you ask us for a job, we hire you. I don’t think we’ve ever not hired anyone. And we stand by that. You don’t have to have experience. I didn’t have any experience cooking; I just had a deep, deep passion for it. I taught myself. So I feel like we don’t really provide jobs—we provide opportunities, and it depends on what people are going to do with those opportunities.
We have to admit, we probably don’t really quite know what we’re doing. We are very, very new in this whole situation, but we’re kind of just following our gut and following…
SJ: …what we think is right.
TK: And it hasn’t failed us yet. —As told to Heather Schröering
Tuesday, July 7
“The American Indian Movement and the Black civil rights movement—we’ve always supported each other.”
Robert Rice, Pow Wow Grounds, and Frank Paro, American Indian Movement, Minneapolis: Editor’s note: Robert Rice is the owner of Pow Wow Grounds, a coffee shop and gathering place for the Native American community. He counts students and Native elders among his most loyal customers. Partway through this conversation, one such elder—Frank Paro, president of the American Indian Movement and a veteran of the AIM occupation of Wounded Knee—dropped by for a coffee and joined in.
RR: I’m Anishinaabe from the White Earth Reservation, which is about 200 miles north of Minneapolis. In the 1950s many people were lured off the reservations by the promise of jobs in the city, so Minneapolis has a large Native American community.
Pow Wow Grounds is in a complex with two nonprofit organizations, the Native American Community Development Institute and the American Indian Community Development Corporation, as well as an American Indian art gallery. We’re half a mile away from Little Earth, the only public housing in the country that gives preference to Native Americans. Many tribes have urban offices in this area, and there are clinics and other facilities that service our community. Native Americans spent a lot of time building up this area, which is about a mile away from the Third Precinct—the epicenter of the protests.
I learned about George Floyd’s murder on Facebook. They killed him. The police murdered him, right out in public. This kind of violence happens so often—not only to Black people but also to Native Americans—so while I wasn’t completely shocked, I was very angry. We’re in complete support of the Black community on the issue of police violence against citizens. We stand together. The first day, we all ended up down at 38th and Chicago, and the protest was pretty quiet. But as we moved toward the Third Precinct, it rapidly changed into a deep rage. There was a lot of interaction between the police and the protestors, and at that point, we were like, “We need to protect our community.”
FP: We knew that the police weren’t going to protect us. We have to protect ourselves. So we put out the call.
RR: Back in the ’70s there was something called the AIM patrol, where we would drive around the community to make sure people were safe. Our leaders decided to revive that, and Pow Wow Grounds became the home base for the nightly patrol. We’ve had 300 Native American people come together here, and they’re dispatched to different posts every evening. They communicate back to Pow Wow Grounds—so if there’s a problem, we can send immediate support. We’re not there to be violent. The idea is that if you’re out to cause trouble and you see a group of people standing in front of a health clinic, your inclination is to move along. And it works.
FP: One of our patrols caught four young men—white teenagers who had come from New Richmond, Wisconsin. I don’t believe they came here as agitators. I think they came over here to see what was going on and they got caught up. They broke into and looted one store, and our people stopped them as they were breaking into a liquor store. We called their parents, and those boys will be coming back to Minneapolis to clean up the streets and do some community service. That’s a teaching moment.
RR: Any time you bring a group of Native Americans together, there’s always prayer and there’s always food. Early on we put a Facebook post out asking for food donations so we could feed the Protectors, what we call the people in our patrol. The next day I had an art gallery that was half full of food, and I was like, “What the hell are we going to do with all this?” Then chefs started stepping up to cook with all the donated food. Yesterday we had a fish fry—Red Lake walleye with wild rice.
We’ve also started a free market because many of the grocery stores in the neighborhood have been destroyed. So now we’re receiving not only food donations but also diapers, laundry soap, and things like that. One of my baristas, who is 21, is in charge of the market. She’s doing a bang-up job. While we’re out all night patrolling and protecting, she’s here during the day taking donations and trying to get food out to the people. I’m like, girl, you go.
FP: The American Indian Movement and the Black civil rights movement—we’ve always supported each other. We’re always there for each other. People of color have to support each other. One of the reasons AIM was formed in 1968 was because of police brutality toward American Indians right here on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis. We have always been about peaceful protest. But yes, at times we’ve had to resort to violence. We knocked. No one answered. We knocked louder. No one answered. Sometimes you have to kick in the door. —As told to MacKenzie Fegan
Wednesday, June 24
Founder Lemeir Mitchell outside of the new brick-and-mortar Happy Ice in Los Angeles
Photo courtesy Happy Ice
“At our grand opening during the weekend of Juneteenth, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience.”
Lemeir Mitchell, Happy Ice, Los Angeles: I come from humble beginnings, growing up in Philly, but I didn’t want to stay in the environment that I was in. I lost a lot of family members and friends to gun violence. My dad got life in prison, and my brother passed away in a motorcycle accident. That really showed me that tomorrow isn’t promised. I know that’s a cliché thing to say, but when you have a moment that makes it real to you, you start to move different.
I always had dreams of doing bigger things. Coming to L.A., I wanted to create something new for my family. I thought I would continue to work as a tattoo artist—I was pretty famous in Philly—but then I started to experience the food truck culture. There’s no food truck culture like the Los Angeles food truck culture. It’s huge. I saw how people were bringing a piece of their hometown to Los Angeles. The more I saw that, the more I thought about my hometown and the things that are a part of Philly culture—water ice being one of those things. Imagine if ice cream, sorbet, and shaved ice were smushed together into one product. You’ve got water ice. It has the creamy texture of ice cream, the fruity flavors of sorbet, but it’s refreshing like shaved ice. But here in L.A., I could not get water ice. It was killing me inside. I’ve been eating this since I was a little kid. That’s when the idea for Happy Ice came to me.
Happy Ice is my version of water ice. We opened as a food truck in September 2017, and since then we’ve expanded. We now have two more trucks and serve the L.A. Coliseum during football games and Dodger Stadium. But to meet all the demand, we realized we needed to open a storefront to keep up.
That process was rough. We got all the way to the end of the construction, only to find out our general contractors didn’t file the correct paperwork, so we were set back three months waiting for approval. Once that three months was up, coronavirus hit. And then George Floyd was killed.
As a Black man I stand with the Black Lives Matter movement. But there was a lot going on, especially with the looting. It had me fearful of even opening a business because I didn’t know if somebody would tear it down. But then I remembered all the requests we got from people during the pandemic asking Happy Ice to please, please come. So we did in early April, with a truck and a very limited staff. It was amazing. We literally became, like, everybody’s happy gateway. So we decided to focus on making people happy when there’s not a lot to be happy about.
We wanted to open on the first day of summer. It was not intentional that we opened on Juneteenth weekend. But as things got closer, I wanted to do something special. So we thought of doing a black ice, which is a combination of our original flavors (Lucky Lemon, Strawberry Lemon Lush, Blueberry Blast, and Mango Madness) turned black. Then I was like, you know what? I don’t even want to make profit off of that. We’re going to donate it. And that’s what we did. We’re donated the $3,000 we made from the black ice to Sisters of Watts, a nonprofit that supports the community in Watts.
At our grand opening during the weekend of Juneteenth, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. I thought I was watching somebody else. It was like my mind didn’t know how to process the situation. The lines were super long. The love was amazing. It was a blessing to see so many people come out and give respect to the brand. It was confirmation that Happy Ice was a good idea, and that Happy Ice is needed. —As told to Brittany Hutson
Wednesday, June 3
“With the death of George Floyd, we knew we had to do something.”
Claire King, Seward Café, Minneapolis: We haven’t been a fully operating restaurant since March 15. We did some delivery in April with beverages, dry goods, and baked goods, but ultimately shut that down. With the death of George Floyd, we knew we had to do something. All of our personal lives were changed. No one could focus on anything else. As a worker-owned café, decisions can be made actionable very quickly. We knew we had space to donate and food still in our freezer, so last Tuesday we made rice, beans, and sandwiches to give to the community.
About 10 of us—worker-owners and friends of the café—started cooking and distributing the food on a volunteer basis, with the café paying for necessary PPE. Soon neighbors started asking if we were also a donation center for packaged goods and supplies for protestors and people in need, so we transitioned to doing that instead. (Editor’s note: On Saturday the Minnesota Department of Transportation announced curfew-related closures for some freeways, limiting people’s access to grocery stores.) We used social media to call on our customers who had the means to donate things, and put flyers up and down Franklin Street, letting people know we were there with resources for them. It was important to us for everyone to be able to access this information easily. The donations started coming in really quickly, and just as quickly, we’ve been giving them away. We’re going to continue to do this for the foreseeable future.
It’s both scary to think that we don’t have a timeline for this and empowering that we’re able to make actionable change in our community. This experience has shown us that when it’s time to reopen our doors after COVID-19, our business plan needs to include a piece that helps fight food insecurity. In the months that we’ve been shut down, I’ve seen people in the food industry speak up about the injustices in restaurants—whether it’s on issues of pay or immigration—and it’s shown all of us that we need to make a change. We plan on taking each day to examine how we can be better the next. —As told to Emily Schultz
Friday, May 29
Pixie Retreat in Portland, Oregon, didn’t need to change its business model like many other restaurants since it was already focused on takeout.
“People are looking at the cost of our food in a totally different way. They’re realizing what we eat does matter.”
Theresa Keane and Willow O’Brien, Pixie Retreat, Portland, OR: We’re a plant-based restaurant, and we’ve been fast-casual and doing take-out vegan food for the last 13 years. February was the biggest month we’ve ever had, and we thought we were going into a killer season. Then this happened. When the governor started shutting down restaurants in mid-March, we had to let go of six people in one day. The first couple weeks were really shitty—no one knew what was going on and everyone was just reacting. So many of our comrades and friends in the industry had to pivot hard and rethink what they were doing within a matter of weeks. But for us, since we’re already fast-casual and takeout-centric, we didn’t have to restructure our business.
Things have been doing okay, surprisingly. I read that up to a third of the population is dabbling in plant-based diets right now because of the meat shortages that are happening due to COVID-19. But we think this new interest might also be because people have the time and flexibility to try a new kind of diet in quarantine. We’re all out of our usual routine, so how do you make yourself feel good now and better than before? For a lot of people that means trying to add in new healthy habits.
We’ve been told in the past that we were elitist because we do everything organic, which is really unfortunate—we all deserve to have food that is good for you. But now everyone is really spending their money on food, as opposed to buying shoes or going out to eat. People are looking at the cost of our food in a totally different way. It doesn’t seem as elitist anymore. This is a pandemic about health, so everyone is concerned with keeping their immune system up, and getting into healthy vegan food makes sense. People are realizing what we eat does matter.
What we’ve learned in this time is that a certain percentage of our customers are buying prepared vegan staples, like homemade macadamia nut cheese, almond butter, caramel, or cashew cream. These are things that they can incorporate into their own cooking. They’re showing up weekly and engaging with us on a regular basis. So we see an opportunity to do Instagram TV and cooking classes online. We want to start sharing ways for people to make plant-based foods at home. That’s where our heads are at: How do we reach more people?
But we still have to ask how we’re going to bring in more revenue. We have to grow to stay alive. Our costs are extremely high for both labor and ingredients. Everything is organic, which is incredibly expensive, and we make everything from scratch, which is a ton of labor. Rent is high. It all makes for a hugely expensive operation.
We never thought to shut our business down during this time—we feel a sense of responsibility. We want people to trust our ingredients and count on us to be there for them. What’s really keeping us going is that we’re able to give back. The last five weeks we’ve been delivering bowls to hospitals, which customers can buy online as a donation. We are now looking to partner with a larger organization to get food to families and kids who need it. We still have financial hardships—our sales are half what they usually are and we had to let go of half of our staff at this point. But we have food on the table, and we aren’t on the streets. So we are doing what we can. The ability to give back to the community has made everything feel worthwhile, and it’s now a part of our business model.
Thursday, May 28
This truck is named Mabel and it brings residents of Boulder, CO, fresh produce, meat, and a little joy.
“We opened up a farm stand, which happened at the same time when all the grocery store shelves were empty.”
Eric Skokan, Black Cat, Boulder, CO: My wife Jill and I started Black Cat 13 years ago. Our restaurant is fully integrated into our 425-acre farm. We are certified organic and we grow the vast majority of what we use in the restaurant, from the wheat for the pasta and the bread (we have a stone mill) to the hogs and sheep we raise. We started to notice sales dropping in March, so we had a lot of meetings with our staff to adjust and adapt to stay open. But we eventually closed on March 16, when the state ordered it.
Having your life’s work close down is like a bomb. It was really sad and depressing. And then a lot of our staff has been with us for a decade or more, so to put this really amazing group of talented and dedicated people out of work was salt in the wound. The night of the 16th, we had to lay everyone off. Jill and I didn’t get much sleep that night, so we started thinking of plans to get everyone employed again and to make the most of these lemons. The next two days we cleaned the restaurant and worked on all the little projects we didn’t have time to do before. Our staff started building an online store and making a web page for takeout and delivery. Within a week we had seven or eight employees back at work.
Since we have a strong, steady supply of really amazing ingredients, we were able to take advantage of that and package them in a different way than we were used to. We opened up a farm stand, which happened at the same time when all the grocery store shelves were empty. Jill and I had an unsettling experience shopping, with too many people and not enough food. We decided that we weren’t really interested in going to the grocery store anymore, and we thought that many people in our community felt the same way.
The farm stand really took off. Our head bartender and head sommelier manage it, and we’re selling produce directly from the farm and prepared foods (fresh bread, lamb tagine, pasta sauces). Those things together—the online store, to-go/delivery, and the farm stand—got us 20 of the 30 people we laid off back at work, which was spectacular.
But we still had a ways to go. We had some employees on the sidelines. So we retrofitted an old farm truck we had, hung ice cream truck bells, installed a freezer and shelves, and named it Mabel. We drove it through the neighborhoods, ringing the bell and selling fresh bread, arugula, pork chops, and even toilet paper, which initially started off as a joke.
Now we have three Mabels. Our truck touched a nerve that I didn’t know existed. It’s completely unexpected. When I drive one of the trucks, people will call their neighbors, telling them that Mabel is here. It’s crazy how excited people get. The community pours out of the houses and people catch up with each other. It’s beautiful to see that Mabel can bring this little bit of joy into the neighborhood.
We’re breaking even right now, treading water but not drowning. Jill and I did the numbers, and we can do this for a really long time. That’s huge because of two things: First, the existential fear of only having cash for 30 days, that’s gone. Second, the whole reason why we’re in restaurants is to make sure people are taken care of. That’s why we grow this food and cook our hearts out. Through all this creativity and hard work, the external stuff is taken care of and so is the internal stuff. We’re still able to take care of people.
“We noticed that websites were announcing which restaurants were doing delivery, but no one was telling operators how to make informed decisions. So we responded.”
Elizabeth Tilton, Oyster Sunday, New Orleans: We’re not a restaurant consulting company that only does HR, employee management, or finance. Instead, we come in with resources for every department. We not only help restaurants with branding, openings, and menu development, but we provide technology, data management, and accounting support. And because we’re an external body, we can give a perspective from a 3,000-foot view that helps independent restaurants respond to COVID-19.
Two days after the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a pandemic, we decided that we were going to provide our services for free to anyone. What we didn’t expect is that people would offer their own services to us. About 15 people have reached out, like Drew Macklin of Kluk Farber with legal guidance and Ashley Campbell, previously the CFO of Union Square Hospitality Group, with financial forecasting and strategy. We were able to expand our services because of them. So we started consolidating our resources from these industry experts along with CDC reports and business-to-business (B2B) publications. But as we did this, we noticed that websites and social media were announcing which restaurants were doing delivery, but no one was telling operators how to make informed decisions. So, we responded.
Jessica Abell, our head of projects and client experience, previously managed new business openings for Union Square Hospitality Group, so she began to work on fleshing out plans for reopening. By the end of March, we started building our Reopening Critical Path, which is a step-by-step playbook on how to to navigate daily operations in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis when “normal” is no longer an option. This outlines all departments of a restaurant, including finance, accounting, operations, HR, marketing, communications, technology, compliance, insurance, and facilities. We made it public, open-source, and free, in the hopes that it would help operators make foundational business decisions during uncertain time.
We have received messages from operators around the world who are using it, and we have seen thousands of people visit and download our resources. But we’re constantly thinking about how we can get this information out to people who need it. Can we partner with the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation? Can we get it into the hands of those working in nightlife and club life in New Orleans? We have to be thinking about different avenues because we can’t build all of this content and have it live in an echo chamber. We want to distribute this information the best we can on a local level and figure out what alliances we need to form with coalitions as well. We want to make sure people know these resources exist. So, we’ve turned to communities that are B2B-focused, from social media accounts for city-specific restaurant coalitions to publications such as Food+Tech Connect. As a result, individuals have forwarded our resources along and other publications have picked them up.
We know knowledge is power. The more you can arm people with information and resources and distribute that information equally, the better off everyone will be. There’s still a lot we don’t know, and we won’t pretend we do, but providing independent operators with their best chance to succeed has always been central to Oyster Sunday.
Wednesday, May 27
“The reality is that the more people want to drink, the less they want to follow the rules.”
Brandon Hays, This and That Hospitality, Dallas: Between me and my business partners, we have nine businesses that all shut down on March 15—that includes three Pilates studios and six bars and restaurants. We were fortunate to get money from the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan. It was a long process, but it was important for us to set ourselves up to be funded because we have eight different landlords, and even if some of them are deferring our rent, no one is giving us free rent. We don’t have true relief.
We kept a few businesses up and running for delivery, but with our bars it was so hard. The whole point is social gathering. You want to meet people, hang out with friends, celebrate, and watch sports. I thought restaurants and bars were going to open back up on June 1, so it was a real shock to me how fast the reopening actually came (Editor’s note: Texas governor Greg Abbott announced on May 18 that Texas bars could reopen on May 22 at 25 percent capacity, while restaurants were allowed to operate dine-in service at 50 percent capacity). In all of our bars, we set the tables so they were taped off to be six feet apart and hired extra people to be monitors. We’re taking the protocols very seriously, but it is like every day you have to watch the news because the rules are constantly changing. There were also added expenses—hand sanitizer prices were at an all-time high, and you have to find enough gloves and masks for employees.
One of our bars, The Whippersnapper, is one of those places where people really pack in. It is hard to create energy and generate revenue when we are telling everyone they can only go to certain spaces and that we can only serve seated guests. You end up pissing off a lot of people because they kind of want to do whatever they want and they look at you when you are following the guidelines being like, “Why are you being a Debbie Downer?”
It is frustrating when you have a line of people waiting to get in, including all the regulars who spend good money and want to come in, and you have to tell them, “We are at capacity.” You can’t operate the business the way you used to, and the burden gets passed to us. We are in a no-win situation.
You’re also fighting public perception, which seems to assume that bars and restaurants are doing the least amount to help the situation and the most to put us back in danger. But when consumers do something wrong—like they go up to the bar because they want shots, even though they aren’t supposed to—the media captures that one moment and paints a picture of us being incompetent.
Parts of this have been positive. It’s nice that people can leave their houses and enjoy a little fellowship with other human beings. We are able to have live music, which is great because it means we can pay artists. But the reality is that the more alcohol gets involved, and the more people want to drink, the less they want to follow the rules.
If anything, where it has been easier to maintain a sense of normality is at Tiny Victories, our cocktail bar in Oak Cliff. It’s a fun environment, but it is not a big party bar where you are dancing and running into people and singing with your friends. With the more casual, laid-back places, you don’t have the same problems getting back to pre-COVID atmospheres. At Tiny Victories we have also been able to extend our patio area and create new seating areas, thanks to the city’s initiative to let businesses set up temporary parklets to increase capacity.
I am in a group chat with 21 different bar owners, and I can say that no one has answers and we are all trying to figure things out at the same time. The real test is going to be when the guests who are most worried about the virus start to come out. Right now the people coming are the ones who are scared of this the least. So I don’t know if we have seen a holistic consumer reaction yet. But we are holding our breath and hoping we can slowly get back to normal. We have missed the guests—that’s why we got into this business.
Nelly and Michael Hand are changing the way they fish due to COVID-19.
“Running our CSF has kept us afloat during this season. But one of our biggest questions is what that distribution will look like in the fall.”
Nelly and Michael Hand, Drifters Fish, Cordova, AK: It’s part of our career to live in uncertainty, working as commercial fishermen onboard a small boat harvesting wild Alaska salmon. The ocean’s an unpredictable place. We feel lucky to be considered an essential service, but going into this season, which started at the beginning of May, we faced the usual question of how much wild salmon we would catch and also the question of how do we get the fish we catch directly to customers amid restaurant closures and supply chain disruption.
When the pandemic started hitting Washington state, where we spend the winter season, we were already in a period of transition. Every spring we head back to Cordova, Alaska, for the commercial fishing season, so we spent much of April anxiously trying to figure out how to safely return to our isolated community to go to work. We ended up completing the state’s mandatory two-week quarantine on a boat from Washington before reaching our harbor in Cordova. We’re used to working together just the two of us on our boat, but in the harbor we’re all now wearing masks and using hand-washing stations installed between our boats, knowing we have to do everything we can to keep this place safe and operating.
Our biggest concern right away has been about our fresh market opportunities. Throughout a normal summer season, we ship fresh salmon straight off our boat to restaurants across the country. Now, if they’re still operating, restaurants have pivoted to relying on customer pre-orders, which means chefs can’t place the spontaneous orders from us that they used to. The salmon return has been slow-going starting into the season, but everything could also change in a week or two if we have a big day of fishing out on the water. We’re thankful that we’ve been able to sell the few fresh fish we’ve caught to spots in Seattle creating at-home dinner kits. We’re exploring expanding our smoked and tinned fish provisions—which we ship across the country throughout winter—with our surplus of fish from this loss of restaurant accounts.
We’ve also been operating a community supported fishery for the past six years, wherein folks pre-order a share of the catch and then receive a box of flash-frozen Copper River Salmon at the end of our season. The deposits for their boxes directly fund what it takes for us to catch and process the fish, fuel for the boat, packaging, and the logistics to bring it to Washington for disbursement. Running our CSF this season has been a huge part of keeping us afloat during this, providing us with some stability and income. But one of our biggest questions—which we’re honestly kind of putting off––is what that distribution will look like in the fall. One of the most special parts of our business is a dinner series where we gather to celebrate the end of our season and hand out the CSF boxes. It looks like that won’t be happening this year.
Tuesday, May 26
“The time, effort, rain, and manpower all goes to the production of corn, which the community lives off of. But all their farms are closed.”
Jesús Salas Tornés, Expendio de Maíz Sin Nombre and Mercado 100, Mexico City: It’s hard to talk about what’s happening in my home region of Guerrero, where I get produce for my farmers market stand at Mercado 100, since it’s totally different from the city, where I have my restaurant Expendio de Maíz Sin Nombre. The people from my home, la Costa Chica, think and behave very differently than urban residents. For the moment their communities are completely closed off as a matter of self-defense, due to the pandemic. They are not letting people pass to go in or to go out and come back in. There is a lot of paranoia about the situation and with outsiders in particular. They are wary and scared. I haven’t received any produce from them for the past six weeks.
The most important thing in these communities is the corn harvest every January and February. It happens once a year and everything depends on that harvest. Life centers around it, so it wouldn’t matter if COVID-19 hit five times over—the principal threat and the principal focus for them is the corn harvest. The time, effort, rain, and manpower all goes into its production which the community lives off of by eating and selling. If the communities do not sell enough in one year, for example, they can and know how to survive on what they produce (and they are accustomed to very lean years!). They grow corn, they nixtamalize that corn, and they eat tortillas made from that corn, maybe with a little chile, with some wild greens. That is sustenance. They are subsistence farmers. The great thing about corn is multifaceted—that is its beauty—and it can be made into many different dishes with distinct flavors, textures, and forms. So the people there will keep on eating what they grow and make.
All the farms are closed at the moment, so I haven’t received anything. A lot of what I sell—the organic, heirloom, and wild-harvested products that reflect the identity of the people growing and producing them—are just not leaving the communities. That is what we rely on to use in the restaurant and sell at the market in Mexico City. The pineapples and papayas that they would sell to me will go to their pigs.
Obviously, this is a challenging situation. From these moments come opportunities, not in the monetary sense, but in the realization that we need to connect more with what the actual cost and demand is, waste, wages, etc. We need to be more careful about food waste and turn scraps and offcuts into caldos, for example. This is a chance for a restructuring, a refreshing of a lot of things. I’ve been realizing that many of my cooks do not have sufficient savings for this crisis and yet they spend money on expensive cell phones and going out to eat. I feel like a father figure now, trying to give them gentle advice but also provide from them. The system of gastronomy has a lot of bad habits and this is an opportunity to think about different and more creative ways of doing things.
Friday, May 22
“I’ve come to the sense that we’re going to end up paying off our PPP loan since I don’t think we’re going to be able to hire back all of our employees.”
Brandon Jew, Mister Jiu’s, San Francisco: This past Wednesday restaurants opened in Napa. They’ve had a low amount of infections since it’s really spread out and people have a lot of property and neighbors aren’t jammed up on top of each other. But I don’t think they’ve had a lot of testing done. What I heard is that a lot of people weren’t going to open. Our coalition is going to talk to Chris Kostow [chef-owner of The Restaurant at Meadowood and The Charter Oak] this week. He didn’t open his restaurants, but we want to hear what his game plan is. He has fine-dining and more casual concepts, so it’s helpful to know what he’s doing with both.
We started using PPP this week. (Editor’s note: Many businesses have recently received funding through PPP, the Paycheck Protection Program, which is a forgivable loan that pays for two month’s of payroll, rent, and utilities under specific conditions, like hiring back all employees. If those conditions aren’t met, then the loan needs to be paid back in two years.) A couple people I know are using their PPP, so we’re all in touch with each other and bouncing off ideas. There is this real fear with people feeling anxious and nervous since they don’t know if it will actually be forgiven. We all have that fear since we never get money for free.
We got guidelines from the SBA [Small Business Association] on how to fill out the application to get forgiveness for the loan, but I’ve come to the sense that we’re going to end up paying off the loan since I don’t think we’re going to be able to hire back all of our employees. With the PPP, they gave me the money to pay for 60 people for eight weeks, but after the eight weeks, we likely won’t have enough business to sustain 60 people. And I don’t want to hire back people to only send them back on unemployment.
So what I’m doing right now is looking at my labor costs alongside my current sales and future sales projections. This week, we brought in three cooks and one front-of-house person and then next week we want to bring another three people. We’re trying to grow incrementally. My intention is to keep everyone who I hire beyond the eight weeks. We’re going to get as many people back here as possible, so whatever part of the loan we can get forgiven, that’s great.
Did you see the roundtable meeting with Trump? This one guy, Sean Feeney [chef Missy Robbins’ business partner] is getting a little bit blasted. When you are there representing a lot of restaurateurs, you are speaking for women, people of color, and immigrants who own their own business. For him to say to Trump that we view him as one of us, I was like, hell no, I don’t and I would never. Sure, you could say that he meant to say Trump knows our business because he has owned hotels with restaurants. But Trump has never worked in a restaurant and he’s not thinking about how to support us right now. He’s thinking about his own agenda. I get that there is a certain level of brown-nosing to get help, but I’m not willing to do that. The one thing that I came away with from that roundtable was they put out this idea to extend PPP from eight weeks to 24 weeks. That one detail would significantly change how I view the PPP. If I had more time to grow the team incrementally, I think I would actually be able to hire all 60 people back. Trying to do that in eight weeks is basically impossible. But I haven’t heard anything about that after that meeting.
We’ve also seen that these last two weeks were slower than before, business-wise. That might be because more places are opening up, which is great. So it’s just something for us to realize that the numbers are fluctuating still, so it’s hard to know what to be reliant on. Additionally, a lot of these programs that run on philanthropy, like SF New Deal, are running into fundraising hurdles. So those of us that have been cooking for them have been on alert, knowing that that program could be expiring sooner than we hope.
That’s essentially why I’ve been pushing to grow our groceries and hot food program. That’s probably going to be the most stable revenue stream that we have until we decide to reopen.
It’s so hard for me to think about what the restaurant is going to be. The idea of alfresco dining is on a lot of people’s minds as a first step. I do know this is a consideration the city is making. We’re waiting to hear back from [mayor] London Breed; she’s not answering a lot until she gets word from the health department. Initially, there was a thought that the Bay Area would reopen at the same time, but San Francisco has been more conservative about reopening. Napa is reopening, and it sounds like San Mateo and San Jose are going to reopen before us. Which I don’t mind. I want to get a sense of a protocol to follow and how the general public responds. That’s the most important thing to me, to understand how the general public is acting.
Thursday, May 21
“We’re looking ahead to what we see as the next phase of this emergency: food insecurity.”
Luca and Isabella Pietro, Tarallucci e Vino and Feed the Frontlines NYC, New York City: On March 15, we were mandated to close our restaurants and open for takeout and delivery. So we decided to shut down four out of our five locations. We had to lay off 95 people. We worked with a skeleton crew at our Upper West Side location when we started doing some takeout and delivery. Then our friends began sending us donations so we could make and deliver meals to hospital staff. They’ve been stretched so thin and were having a hard time finding food. After doing that a couple times, we launched Feed the Frontlines NYC on March 21 and within the first nine hours of it being live, we got $12,000 in donations. Since then we’ve donated over 50,000 meals and expanded to serve hospitals in the outer boroughs by partnering with other restaurants in those communities.
As the death rates in the city are dropping off, we’re starting to see that the crisis in the hospitals is starting to wane. So we’re looking ahead to what we see as the next phase of this emergency: food insecurity. Before COVID-19, there were an estimated 1.2 million New Yorkers experiencing food insecurity. We imagine that number is going to skyrocket, especially for folks who were working at restaurants and living paycheck to paycheck. Now they’ve been laid off and are stressed about putting food on the table.
This also affects supply chains. Fishmongers and produce vendors are not getting paid because restaurants are out of business. Same with farmers—they’re not able to count on requests from restaurants. That’s why we are seeing farmers dumping out gallons and gallons milk and leaving their vegetables to rot in the field. A lot of vendors that primarily supply restaurants are in dire straights.
The other day we got a call from our ciabatta baker. He told us he couldn’t deliver anymore because they were closing down due to lack of business. We have a baker in-house so he’s stepping up his production, but our flour vendor is struggling to get flour. You know, with everyone baking at home, the supermarket demand has taken precedence over the food service side. We’ve had to make runs to Jetro [a restaurant supply company] in the Bronx to get flour.
Our new idea is this: We have restaurants make food to keep the supply chain alive and serve food-insecure populations. So in addition to feeding first responders, we are starting to send meals to folks in supportive housing. Tomorrow we’re delivering 50 lunches to a residence in the Bronx. It houses 56 veterans, some of whom are immobile, and 38 young people who are at risk, some of them are LGBTQ and were kicked out of their homes.
This is our first delivery, but we want to activate as many restaurants as possible. We hope to connect more donors to restaurants. But mainly, we want to connect the dots for politicians and sponsors for future funding—restaurants already have a great capacity for making food, doing this can keep the supply chain going, and people who are food insecure can get meals.
At Hugo’s in Houston, the staff is preparing for a 50 percent dining-in capacity, which starts tomorrow.
Photo Courtesy of Hugo’s
“Running a restaurant was difficult before. It’s impossible now.”
Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught, H-Town Restaurant Group, Houston: We have 400 employees in our company. When the pandemic hit, we didn’t know what was going to happen with this small company that we started 37 years ago.
So on March 17, we closed and then we waited on pins and needles for the governor to name us an essential business so we could sell food. As soon as we got the go ahead, we put our restaurants on to-go platforms and we set up a little farmers market inside each restaurant where we sold goods from our local business partners. We created to-go meals to sell in H-E-B grocery stores. Hugo and our daughter went around different neighborhoods with printed to-go menus, and we went house to house putting menus in mailboxes.
We didn’t open on May 1 when restaurants in Texas were allowed to open at 25 percent capacity. Instead, we opened on May 14. We still felt nervous to open that fast—we didn’t feel like our customers and employees were ready. But we thought, “Let’s go in at 25 percent, get our feet wet, ease into protocols, understand what we are doing, and then move into 50 percent.” (Ed’s Note: This week, Texas governor Greg Abbott announced that restaurants would be permitted to increase dining-in capacity to 50 percent, starting tomorrow.) We separated the tables by six feet, we got masks and gloves for the employees, and all the employees got tested for COVID-19. We retrained everyone and started taking their temperatures whenever they came to work. We didn’t feel like it would be safe to do valet parking, but valets have been part of our group for a long time. We decided the valets would become parking attendants and guide people to open parking spots.
So far, we have only opened Hugo’s dining room because we want to do this one restaurant at a time. We went through all these emotions—disbelief, feeling frozen, and not knowing what to do. And then you realize that you better get to work. We feel a sense of gratitude for the employees who have worked so hard during this two-month period: the managers washing dishes and servers mopping floors. Everyone in the restaurant feels this uneasiness, like you can’t let your guard down. But I think the reason people are coming to our restaurant is because they trust us. Before this, some of our menus were quite ambitious in terms of the labor—this situation has freed us up in some ways. Things we never thought we could take off the menu, like crab cakes, we took them off and no one cared because they were just happy we were open.
Tomorrow the only thing that will probably change with the 50 percent capacity increase is that we can seat a four-top at a table where we would seat a two-top. We are limited because we have to keep tables six feet apart, so it’s not going to change too much. But I don’t know when we are going to be able to do our Sunday buffet, which is very popular and easily brings in 500 people.
At this point, we don’t know if we can still make a profit. We have a smaller menu and we are open less hours, and that means we are making so much less money than we were a year ago. But we don’t want to get too busy because we don’t want to lose our protocols. Running a restaurant was difficult before. It’s impossible now. It is unclear to us how many restaurateurs will be able to continue after this.
Wednesday, May 20
“Artists have this freedom with food. There’s always an element that’s outside of the box.”
Mina Stone, Mina’s inside MoMA PS1, New York City: We shut down Mina’s on March 17. We already knew March would be a hard month: PS1 had a planned deinstall that month, so it was closed with basically no exhibitions to see. Nobody was there besides the art handlers and permanent staff. We planned to try out a dinner series, but 75 percent of the people that were supposed to come cancelled a few days out, so we cancelled the dinner. The next day, the museum shut down due to COVID-19.
I was talking to the museum about the situation and they asked me if I was interested in making some kind of content with big MoMA. I didn’t have the heart to do a cooking show or something that felt non-addressive of what’s happening right now. I wanted to be a part of something, but I didn’t want to be the sole focus, so I thought about interviewing artists about cooking. I want to know about their family, what they cooked growing up, the thing they reach into their fridge for when they’re feeling bummed out or scared. We’re all home cooks now.
There have been two installments out so far—artists Dara Friedman and Anicka Yi—and I’ve signed up to do five, although we might do more. Each one has a video interview with the artist that gives context to the recipe they shared with the museum. It’s hard to find all the ingredients you need these days, so I test the recipe when I’m able to amass all the ingredients and tweak it just a bit to make it more streamlined.
Artists have this freedom with food. There’s always an element that’s outside of the box. Dara’s chicken soup says to put in as many carrots as you can, and it makes a soup that’s so different and delicious because the carrots add such an immense sweetness. When Anika sent me her pasta recipe I was like…whoa, six lemons?! I thought I was a lemon queen—I like things really tangy—but that’s way above what I would normally do. But I tried it, and it was so delicious and tangy.
I always took it for granted, how intertwined art and food is, because I was thrown into the gallery space as an in-studio cook. For a lot of artists, their practice is so reflective of how they approach cooking. Dara said she views the artist as a person who holds this key to making something, a magical being with something inside that lets you create and transform. And for her, cooking and making art is the same process. I’m not sure if we’ll be able to get our operations going again at Mina’s, so I’m just trying to stay the course and focus on what feels meaningful.
“We’re focused on really small restaurants in Chinatown that are being forgotten.”
Justin Mckibben, Send Chinatown Love, New York City: So I’m a software engineer at Square, which makes point of sales (POS) for restaurants and other businesses, and I work on the restaurants team. Around late February, Jack Dorsey, the CEO, held a big meeting because of the impact he was seeing on merchants using Square. We were trying to figure out how we could help small- to medium-size merchants, mainly by creating a donation system and gift cards. Our entire organization moved to doing that. I live in Chinatown and, at the same time, I started noticing the effects of COVID-19 on the neighborhood. A lot of restaurants were closing down, which you wouldn’t notice until you tried to go in. The thing that got me was trying to pick up dumplings from 88 Lan Zhou. They posted a sign saying they lost a lot of business, so they were temporarily closing down.
I realized that what Square was doing wouldn’t translate to Chinatown because Chinatown businesses don’t have POS and are cash-only businesses. I remember talking to my uncle, who’s also a software engineer and volunteers often with Habitat for Humanity, about what was happening in New York. I joked that, back during World War II, you’d be considered a hero if you went to war, but now you’re a hero if you stay at home, eat Hot Cheetos, and watch anime all day. He didn’t find it very funny, and instead gave me a really long lecture. He told me there are two types of people: lifters and leaners. Lifters are the ones who go and try to help people however they can in a crisis. Leaners are the people who sit back and wait for everything to subside. He was like, I’ve seen you as a lifter, not a leaner. So we started brainstorming the idea for ways to support mom-and-pop spots in Chinatown, and I posted our conversation on my Instagram stories. A lot of people DM’d me, friends of mine who were engineers, designers, or personally affected by COVID-19 and friends of friends who were like, “Hey, I’m down to help and I speak Chinese.” So we all got on a call and started Send Chinatown Love.
We have a four-part process, and it starts with our seller empathy team. They’re fluent Chinese speakers, so they reach out to mom-and-pop restaurants and shops, who are usually off the grid without phone numbers or websites. We figure out what they need help with. A lot of merchants don’t feel comfortable with donations but are okay with gift cards. So we build out a gift card system for them, knowing that they don’t have POS, and create a website for them where anyone can buy a gift card and be sent a five-digit code. We email the merchants all the gift card codes and amounts attached to them. They print this out, so anyone can walk into the restaurant with their gift card code and the merchant can match it up with what they have. It’s a completely analog system they trust. Once we do this, we can convince merchants to accept donations, since they’re comfortable with our process. Our design team also helps them with social media and marketing. And finally, we hand-deliver the checks from the gift cards and donations. We’re willing to do things that big companies can’t do, and we want to be present with our merchants through each step of the process.
So far, we’ve reached out to over 60 restaurants and onboarded about eight of them. We’re not in this for the numbers; otherwise, we would reach out to restaurants with phone numbers. We’re focused on really small restaurants in Chinatown that are being forgotten. Now we’re getting DMs on Instagram from people who are reaching out on their own to tell a merchant they know about us. We’re also starting to build new things, like a resource center in both English and Chinese that hand-holds a merchant on how to reopen and restructure their business model post-COVID-19. We’re encouraging merchants to pivot to delivery since they can’t rely on walk-in customers and need to diversify their revenue streams. We’re also making merch for every merchant, using the logo and assets we created for social media. We’re telling our merchants, if people love your dumplings, they might like a tote bag or t-shirt. And then we’re also working on a gift-a-meal plan, so people can buy a meal for someone else. For these meals, we want to target the elderly community in Chinatown, since they can’t go out and buy groceries like they normally do, and families who have lost work due to COVID-19.
Our team is about 30 people strong, and we all work on this after our normal jobs. It’s the small things that keep us going. When we launched Shun Fa Bakery, they wrote us a cute note, thanking us for helping them through the hardest of times. If through this effort, we help one or two mom-and-pop restaurants survive COVID-19, then it’s all worth it.
Monday, May 18
“Last week after work I looked at the bank account and there was a lot of money, like more than I’ve ever had in the bank.”
Brandon Jew, Mister Jiu’s, San Francisco: Governor Newsom shared health guidelines for restaurants to reopen in California, and I think the general feeling among chefs and operators in San Francisco is that it was very general. It’s basically up to the local counties and mayors to decide what to do. But our main concern is a second wave of the virus. You’re already seeing it in South Korea, Singapore, and China. Last night, I was listening to a health official talk about how it could be worse in the fall, with the flu. So I have that same feeling about reopening our restaurant, that it’s not worth it for the health of my staff. I’d rather wait it out for a bit.
In the meantime our PPP came through. Last week after work I looked at the bank account and there was a lot of money, like more than I’ve ever had in the bank. The loan is 2.5 times payroll, so it’s a lot. Technically, it can qualify as a grant if you meet a number of qualifications, but I’ve been feeling uneasy about that. (Editor’s note: PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) is a forgivable loan that pays for two months worth of payroll, rent, and utilities, without any penalties as long as specific requirements are met. If they aren’t, the loan will need to be paid back in two years.) Right now, I have 60 employees and one of the qualifications is that I’d have to bring everyone back and they couldn’t make 25 percent less than what they made before. But for servers, who get tips on top, they’re making more money than I am, like $100,000. So it’s hard to figure out a job that gives them 75 percent of their usual paycheck and can keep them going for eight weeks, since the loan covers eight weeks of payroll. It’s just not realistic.
So I’ve come to the decision to treat PPP as a loan and use it to train a certain amount of staff for a new business model that can last more than eight weeks. I’m thinking about what week 9, 10, 11, 12 are going to be. I’m thinking about what we’re doing and trying to scale up so we can hire as many people as possible. I feel responsible to give people a job beyond what PPP is allotting. And I feel thankful that I got mine so late since I know people who have been holding onto it for a while and are waiting for changes to the guidelines. I sent an email to my staff last week since they had been asking; they’re hearing about reopening on the horizon. We hope to start actually using our loan maybe as early as two weeks from now.
I was on a panel last week for MOFAD [Museum of Food and Drink], and it was really interesting. We were talking about the complications that Chinatown as a neighborhood has. We had a lot of New York people on the panel, so like Wilson Tang from Nom Wah, and it sounded like things were more positive there compared to here, just hearing how the banks are nearby and there is a lot of potential for business. But here, all the tech companies like Twitch and Twitter have offices near us downtown. They are allowing their employees to work from home the rest of the year. So that is going to affect downtown businesses, specifically Chinatown lunch hours. I was talking to Ben Leventhal at Resy about something new he just launched. They created a virtual waiting list, which is helpful for restaurants without reservations. That way, people can sign up and know exactly when their table is ready. I asked him if there is any way to give that to Chinatown restaurants. He was totally on board; he wants to make it available to any restaurant during this time. Now I’m telling community leaders in Chinatown that this would be available and asking them if they think any restaurants would find it useful.
Before we even shut down, some Chinese restaurants were already closing because of the steep decline in business. That makes me so sad. So many of these restaurants are built around community. Like for us, we have three tables with large Lazy Susans in the dining room, so you can put a lot of food between people and pass it around. Restaurants like this are going to be affected. And a lot of that experience might be completely gone and never come back. That hurts a little deeper. I have these mourning periods every so often throughout the day. But in the end, I know there are people who want to support Chinatown. So I’m trying to find ways to show them how to do that, but a lot of it comes down to this: It’s going to be by getting food from these restaurants.
Friday, May 15
“People were saying, ‘Buying your food is like buying tickets to a Beyoncé concert.’”
Parnass Savang, Talat Market, Atlanta: When the pandemic happened, we were so close to getting all our permits—gas, electrical, HVAC. We were SO CLOSE. And then the city shut down and we couldn’t get anything. I was ready to just devolve into a sloth and be very comfortable on the couch for a long time. I bought a PlayStation 4! Then out of the blue, our contractor managed to get everything. I honestly don’t even know how. He knows people. That changed the whole game.
We already had the core team: our beverage director, our general manager, one line cook, me, and my sous-chef and co-owner Rod [Lassiter]. So there was no choice—we had to open. Technically, because we’re in Georgia, we could open our dining room now, but I’m not going to do that. Until there’s a vaccine, I don’t feel comfortable. But our family’s lives are on the line. My parents helped invest; Rod put up his house. If we postponed it, it would hurt more and more every day. So we opened: take-out only.
I contacted all my farmer friends I hadn’t talked to in a year, and even though they don’t always have what they used to, we’ve been flexible—focusing on big batch stuff: curries, stir-fries, salads—and we’ve been selling out since day one. We make 52 set dinners daily and people pick them up in three different time blocks, with about 17 orders per block. On weekends, especially at the beginning, we were selling out in, like, 5 to 7 MINUTES. People were saying, “Buying your food is like buying tickets to a Beyoncé concert.” Someone also said Hamilton! I was like, that’s so weird. We’re just making curry.
People want to support us, but they also want to enjoy our food because it’s hard to find in this neighborhood. We’ve been doing very well, but I don’t take it for granted because I don’t know if this is going to sustain itself. I don’t know if we’ll be selling out next week. I always have in my head: What can I control to make this the best experience for our guests? When we put the right mentality, the right energy, the right people in place, for some reason, it emanates. There’s no science to it. It’s just gut feelings.
In some ways, this has helped us ease our way into being a restaurant. Working with a skeleton crew and with a limited take-out menu, we’re figuring out what systems we need in place. It’s a bridge to the next level. I’m learning how to be a leader. Rod and I are learning how to be owners.
I’ve been dreaming about this restaurant for so long. When we finally opened, even though it’s take-out only, I came to the conclusion that we just made a huge step toward that goal, to that dream of serving people in a restaurant. This is just another obstacle, just like all the ones we experienced throughout our pop-ups, for years. This is going to make us stronger.
Thursday, May 14th
Abe Conlon and Adrienne Lo pivoted their restaurant, Fat Rice in Chicago, into a market and relief kitchen.
“When it comes to delivery, we don’t want customers to associate us with flaccid dumplings.”
Adrienne Lo and Abe Conlon, Fat Rice, Chicago: When the governor’s orders to shut down restaurants came in March, we immediately got into planning mode. We knew cashflow would come to halt, so it became a question of how long did we have with the restaurant, bakery, bar, and our offshoot in the Time Out Market [a food hall] until we were bankrupt? Before we closed, we were running on the higher end of regular restaurant margins—between bills, payroll, and credit, we were at like 3 to 5 percent (Editor’s Note: 5 percent profit is typical for most restaurants). We had to be real. So, we thought about redefining the idea of a restaurant, while figuring out how to save our business.
Our original plan was to implement take-out in the restaurant and a market inside the bakery. The food hall location was already a “market”—we were selling Portuguese imports, mustards, sardines, vinegars. We had this huge inventory of specialty items, so the weekend of the shutdown orders, we cleared out all our stock. We put together relief kits for our staff and other laid-off hospitality industry workers. We realized weren’t equipped to handle take-out—it’s a whole different set of safety protocols, and delivery apps and services would cut into whatever we were selling. Our team has always maintained quality control of the lines of the food chain that we’re responsible for, but our number one goal was also to make sure no one here is sick or gets sick. How do you pivot safely, and for it to make business sense?
So we came up with Super Fat Rice Mart, which is a different experience but the same Fat Rice spirit. It’s got a lot of firepower, with the same flavors and the high-quality ingredients, but approached in a new way. When you get down to the basics, a restaurant creates and distributes food. When it comes to delivery, we hate the idea of sending someone food that deteriorates before it gets to their house. We don’t want customers to associate flaccid dumplings with Fat Rice. But if we can create frozen dumplings, and show you how to prep it at home—simply steamed, and with our favorite condiments—you can enjoy the experience as we intend it. So our pivot is recreating the dishes people have come to know and love in their own home.
Another example: People love our pork chop sandwich, but we could only stock and sell up to five a day. As a market, we can now designate which days we offer up top favorites, like egg tarts on Sundays and pork chop sandwiches on Wednesdays. We can make 100 at one time, getting these things into the hands of more people.
We’ve also transformed into a kind of pop-up relief and mission kitchen, essentially giving out food to industry workers out of a job with payment on a sliding scale. We donated 450 meals that first couple of days after closing. We want to be part of the solution, so people can still donate $130, which feeds up to 10 people and gives us an opportunity for our staff to work.
But the reality is bills keep coming in. If restaurants reopen and “go back to normal,” they’re going to operate with skeleton crews and take in significantly lower income. “Normal” will mean less people in dining rooms and doing business at a depressed level, likely at a 25 percent dining-in capacity. Guests aren’t going to feel comfortable, and staff won’t feel safe. After all of this is over, the “normal” model won’t cover rent. So right now, we just want to keep the energy of Fat Rice alive. We hope customers appreciate that and continue to support us.
Wednesday, May 13th
“We’re not feeling very good about being the guinea pigs.”
Deborah VanTrece, Twisted Soul, Atlanta: The governor has reopened Georgia, but the majority of restaurants have not reopened their dining rooms. There were a couple who originally said they were—they backtracked real quick. It seems to be the general consensus of the public that if you do open your restaurant, you are on the damn list, okay? And that’s not a good thing.
We decided not to reopen. It’s not safe yet. We’ll keep doing takeaway meals, like we have been. Most of the public is behind us for making that decision, for not putting money first. Those that have opened, the only one that I actually ride by is Waffle House and it doesn’t even seem like it’s worth them being open. I see only one or two people inside. And really, how many people are actually out there who are going out every day and making it worth your while, financially, to be open right now? How many people are there, really, that can sustain a whole city full of restaurants during a pandemic?
With the takeaway meals, we are all instituting curbside pickup, so we’re dropping stuff in your trunk or we’re delivering it to your door. You don’t want contact with us. And even with the restaurant being empty, people don’t want to walk in. They just don’t. So, if you open up but are still depending on the carry-out business, I think people would think twice before walking into a full restaurant to pick up food. If they won’t come into an empty one, why would they come into a full one? They’re like, “No, we’re good.”
Since Georgia has reopened, the governor has released some guidelines. What we thought would be on there is on there—but we’re still asking, what are best practices other than the obvious: sanitizer, gloves, masks (how does anybody eat with a mask on?), tables six feet apart? It’s an experiment. That’s what it sounds like. An experiment. “We’re going to open the doors and let you all figure out how to make this work, and then maybe from what you do, we can come up with some guidelines to put in place.” But we’re not feeling very good about being the guinea pigs. So we’re going to just keep doing carry-out until experts tell us there’s a way to do this that minimizes risk to ourselves and the public. I do not want to be part of the problem.
Even though most restaurants haven’t reopened, I was shocked to see how many people immediately were out and about. The parks, a lot of them were immediately bumper-to-bumper full. People on top of each other, no masks, like nothing’s ever happened. My fear is that people will start letting their guards down, because you’re seeing everyone around you move around as if nothing is wrong, and you want to believe that so much yourself.
I think the governor’s decision was motivated by money. Straight money. I think that the state was in reserves, probably going broke. All of the numerous unemployment claims that came at one time—no one was ready for that and I’m sure the state wasn’t ready for it either. The loss of the sales tax—when it was due on the 20th of March, we all had to try to come up with that on top of everything else with our restaurants being closed. And that’s a lot of money—a lot of money not coming in and a lot of money going out. There is no other answer. There’s no other motivation for rushing to open except for money.
Our infection numbers were still climbing when Kemp decided to open. We don’t have a lot of testing that’s been done here. They’re trying to ramp it up now, but again, it’s like, why didn’t we do that first, before we made a decision to reopen? This is a disease that is not forgiving. We can’t take it back, and the decisions that we made yesterday are going to affect us in the future. Check back in about three or four weeks and then let’s see what’s going on. I pray that, hey, he was right. I pray he was. But if he was right and we reopen in a month or so and I lost some money, that’s okay. I would rather lose money than lose lives.
Tuesday, May 12th
“Some of the panic had died down. Maybe it wasn’t the right time to reopen. But, honestly, there is no right time.”
Marco Juarez, Wokker inside Underground Hall, Houston: We’re in a food hall, so we were closed by the second week of March. My business partner, Man Dao, has family in Vietnam, Taiwan, and China, and he was pretty spooked—for good reason. We did take-out for a week, but the numbers weren’t really there. And exposing our employees wasn’t worth it.
A group chat among all the other vendors in the food hall and the food hall manager started about two weeks before Texas opened up. (Ed’s Note: Governor Abbott allowed Texas restaurants to resume operations at 25 percent of the dining room capacity, starting May 1st.) Everyone was kind of ready to come back; we obviously hadn’t been making a lot of money. It was a pretty tough decision, but ultimately we all agreed to come back in limited force. The food hall had only been set up a few weeks before all this happened, and it seemed like the manager really wanted to open since other businesses in the area were reopening. Some of the panic had died down. Maybe it wasn’t the right time to reopen. But, honestly, there is no right time.
We opened May 1st. We have someone at the main door making sure everyone has a mask on. We have X’ed out every other table so that seating can be six feet apart. The manager has brought in extra bussers to sanitize the tables after everyone gets up. We sanitize the pagers and the point-of-sale tablets after the customer signs the bill. I had my staff take the drive-thru antibody test. In the kitchen, we work in close quarters, and I don’t want to put anybody in the kitchen who tested positive and could be carrying the disease. I know the tests are not 100 percent accurate, but the alternative is just rolling the dice.
It was a busier start than I expected, as downtown has become more residential and not just filled with businesses. I guess people were going stir-crazy. We had a decent day that first day. We did a couple hundred dollars in sales. The next day was a bit heavier—we did 50 covers and $650 in sales. I expected it to be, like, 10 orders all day for the first couple of weeks. It still hasn’t been amazing sales, but we have seen more and more people come out. I think that social media and people posting on their stories is going to give others FOMO and they will want to come out. If we hit our 25 percent capacity, which is 60, we are going to have to hire a door person.
We don’t see a lot of big groups, which is good. Tables will have, at most, four people. Sometimes groups get really close when they chat, but there is nothing we can do about how they interact if they came in together. As far as mingling with other groups, that’s not so much an issue. Only about 20 percent of people who come in to grab food sit down to eat it.
Here in Texas, we have these two opposite sides: One side sees this as, just open; it doesn’t matter, and the other side is saying, keep it closed, let’s be safe about this and let’s not expose customers or employees or ourselves to harm to make a buck. They both have valid points, but I think we need to slow down a bit. The law and finance offices around us are still not back. We are very dependent on whether the workforce comes back, and so many companies are still telling their employees to stay at home. If we had to shut down because there is another spike, we would do so without hesitation.
Right now, we are doing as much as we can. I don’t think asking your average Texan to take more tests or wear more protective gear is going to be positive because they have been so resistant. Personally, I would be comfortable if we waited a little longer to let everyone go out. I think we could have waited another three weeks, or another month to open—maybe that could have helped us get a little more data. But I know that would have meant more money the government has to find to give financial help to businesses. Other than that, we are taking all the precautions that we can take with this reopening. I don’t think there’s anything else we could have implemented.
“Filling out the PPP is definitely harder for immigrants. But this restaurant has been in my family for three generations, and we can’t just let it die.”
Frank Chung, Henry’s Hunan Restaurant, San Francisco: I heard about the PPP loan on social media in late March or early April. A friend mentioned it on WeChat. He said that the loans would be forgiven, and that sounded crazy to me. You hear all kinds of things on WeChat that you shouldn’t trust. So I called my uncle, who is a lawyer, and he told me that it was true. That same day, I went to my bank and started applying for a loan.
Filling out the application is definitely harder for immigrants, especially for those who don’t understand English that well. The application form isn’t available in Chinese, and the questions are really technical. I had to read each one through several times to make sure I was answering them correctly. My parents, who ran the restaurant before me, wouldn’t have been able to complete it on their own. I imagine that, for a lot of Chinese restaurants, it’s going to be really hard for them.
After that, I waited and waited, but I didn’t get any response. Then a month later, my cousin told me she got approved through a small bank. She was born in America and owns a successful jewelry store, and she knew so much more about navigating the process than I did. She told me I shouldn’t wait around for my bank to get back to me—that the big banks are helping their big clients first—and that I should try applying again through smaller banks. So I applied to the bank that approved her. Last Friday, I heard that my loan was conditionally approved, and I have until May 13th to upload the additional documents that they need.
At first, I was relieved, but now, if I get it, I’m not sure what to do. A lot of small restaurant owners like me, we have concerns about the conditions we need to meet in order to have the loan forgiven. I would have to call my staff back to work next week, but I think only a few of them will want to come back. One reason is that I’ll only be able to open a few hours every day for take-out because I think business will be really slow. Our main clientele are office workers and no one is coming into work. So I’ll probably only be able to pay my workers for three hours a day. But the bigger problem is that they don’t want to catch the virus. The cooks are in their 50s, and they all take Muni to work. They don’t want to risk exposure.
Besides my cousin, I don’t know anyone who has gotten a PPP loan. Big companies, like those chain restaurants that got the loans, they have specialized personnel who handle their finances. It’s someone’s job to know how to get help like this. They have the knowledge and they have the speed. Small businesses like mine, especially those run by immigrants—we’re not fast enough, and maybe we don’t fully understand how it works. I didn’t know about the PPP loans until I heard about it on social media, and by then I’m sure Ruth’s Chris Steak House had already applied. I started a step behind.
I don’t know what we’re going to do yet. Business was already really bad before the shelter-in-place order. Weekday lunches are our busiest time, but the week before we closed we were only seeing one tenth of our usual business. People had stopped coming into work—but even before then, Chinese restaurants started seeing a slowdown in business because of coronavirus-related fears. If I decide not to use the PPP loan, we’ll start back up doing to-go orders with just family members working. This restaurant has been in my family for three generations, and we can’t just let it die
Monday, May 11th
“Spending more time than ever in our homes, our thoughts keep drifting to our favorite places in Atlanta and beyond. So we came up with an idea.”
Lizzy Johnston, Linda McNeil, and Austin L. Ray, Eating Our Feelings, Atlanta: It’s stressful out there on a whole bunch of levels. But something we’ve been thinking about every day is how much we miss going to restaurants, bars, breweries, farmers’ markets, and other places that serve food and drink. Spending more time than ever in our homes, on our porches, and in our yards, our thoughts keep drifting to our favorite places in Atlanta and beyond.
So, tired of feeling frustrated and helpless, we came up with an idea. Lizzy is a photographer by trade and Linda is a designer and animator, and they wanted to make a charitable zine. So they brought on me—Austin, a writer—to help with the words. Since we all work together at a marketing company by day, we knew our personalities and complementary talents would gel for this moonlighting project.
We’d make a zine about food and drink in the time of COVID-19. We’d reach out to a few talented people we know, asking for stories, illustrations, and photos about food and drink and how it’s changed for them during the pandemic. Maybe it’s a meal they miss from their favorite restaurant. Or the bartender who used to make them the world’s best negroni on the regular. Maybe they’ve simply been cooking a lot and would want to share a recipe.
When we sent the initial email to a group of about 20 people in early April, our inboxes were quickly filled with delightful, creative, hilarious ideas. A comic strip about frozen pizza. A haiku about butter, cast iron, and aging. Recipes! Booze! An ode to the honey bee. The story of a farmer finding his path through the crisis. Essays about cookies, soup, grocery shopping, and John Prine. So much more. It was an awe-inspiring mix of stuff, and everyone was just so excited to be a part of it.
We decided to call it Eating Our Feelings, and it’s available for pre-order now. Best of all? We’re giving every single dollar we bring in with this thing to the Giving Kitchen here in Atlanta, a non-profit organization that provides emergency assistance to food service workers. We know they’ll use the money to take care of the people and the businesses we miss the most right now. It’s a small way we can do something helpful in these exceedingly stupid times.
Friday, May 8th
“This is our seventh week of feeding people who should be covered by some sort of program, but they’re not. We are doing it with private dollars.”
Lenore Estrada, SF New Deal and Three Babes Bakeshop: The same day San Francisco got the shelter-in-place order, Emmett Shear, my friend from college, reached out. He’s the founder of Twitch [a live-streaming online platform]. He told me, “I want to help small businesses. If I commit a large amount of money, would you be able to run it?”
Before this, I was the baker behind Three Babes. We had 26 employees and most of our sales were catering breakfast and lunch to offices. When this crisis hit, we had to lay off 20 people and reduce the remaining employees’ hours by 50 percent. It was heartbreaking. I was crying every day. This is not just business—you have close relationships with people and they’re depending on you. But my business is in pies, which is seasonal. People just want it on Pi Day and Thanksgiving, so I’m used to scaling up and down, hiring staff and renting space for a short time to stockpile for the future. I have an understanding of how supply and demand come together. So when I got this call, I thought, sure, I could keep working on selling pies and helping my remaining staff, but I can make a bigger impact doing this. Emmett was donating a million dollars. So now my director of ops is running Three Babes Bakeshop while I’m running SF New Deal full-time as a volunteer.
We launched on March 23rd and our goal is to keep small businesses open. Our first program was giving restaurants a significant order volume so they can hire back employees, then giving out those meals to people in need. We pay $10 for each meal and, on average, pay restaurants about $32,000 a month. Most restaurants in our program have been able to keep half of their staff, compared to other restaurants in the city who’ve had to lay off 90 percent. We basically started calling around to see who could help in the community. This was important since there are people who have been helping to provide for the vulnerable for decades, and those are the people you need to center this around.
The first day, we made 100 sandwiches and dropped them off at a clinic downtown, Citywide Case Management. They provide food and medication for people who have severe mental illness and are living on the streets. Initially, the clinic was getting food from San Francisco General Hospital and Meals on Wheels, but now the hospital is closed and Meals on Wheels has been inundated.
The first several weeks were crazy, but since we’re small, we’re nimble. The first week, we distributed 1,000 meals. The second week, 18,000 meals with 20-something restaurants. The third week, 24,000 meals with 30-plus restaurants. We now have a waitlist of over 100 restaurants that want to join us. We had to cut it off at a certain point. We’ve been trying to feed people who are high-risk, but there is no funding for people like that. FEMA’s funding is through the city, so it takes a few weeks to apply, then wait while they deliberate and maybe, much later, send money. This is our seventh week of feeding people who should be covered by some sort of program, but they’re not. We are doing it with private dollars. Based on my interaction with people at various levels of government, relief isn’t happening fast enough, so we have to act immediately.
Now things are much smoother, but we realize we need to raise more money. We got a million dollars and we’re sending $200,000 a week to restaurants. We’re all restaurant people, so we need marketing people. But even if we run out of money, we will have fed people for seven weeks, and that’s a win.
“We thought, ‘Well, this is it. We’re done.’ We might have had the shortest restaurant opening in history. Four days, and that was it.”
Juliana Graf, Heartbreakers Pizza, Ottawa: The day we opened Heartbreakers, on March 11th, was the first reported COVID-19 case in Ottawa. At the time, we didn’t think about it in a “this is going to completely change our lives” kind of way, but of course it did, and now we’re left trying to both drive revenue like every other restaurant and also awareness of our less-than-two-month-old spot.
There was no way we could have not opened when we did, despite what was going on in the world. I had $27 left in my bank account after we completed our renovations earlier this year. We couldn’t even throw a friends-and-family party before we officially opened with complimentary food and drink; we charged everyone. Financially, we had to do it.
But after service on our first night, we started to see what was happening and we made the decision to close. The government shut down dine-in restaurants the following day. We thought, “Well, this is it. We’re done.” We might have had the shortest restaurant opening in history. Four days, and that was it.
We did not have the financial ability to be closed for any significant length of time—two weeks? A month? We just didn’t know, so we began offering take-out and delivery a few days later. We weren’t ready. Of course, we eventually wanted to do takeaway and delivery—we romanticized hiring teenagers on bicycles in the summer—but we put together a strategy very quickly. It was the only way our business would be able to stay alive.
Since we’re brand new, we didn’t qualify for any government assistance programs for small businesses, including a subsidy to help pay 75 percent of the staff’s salary. You have to make a certain amount, be around for a certain amount of time, and be a certain size (but not too big). You have to fit into a little bracket. I’m not going to stand here and say, “Nothing is being done,” but a lot of people are really scared and just like us—they’re not able to access these programs.
There are seven of us who work at the restaurant, including me, my partner, our third co-founder, and her partner. Restaurants Canada reported in April that 800,000 food service jobs were lost in the country, but we have been immune to that so far. But we go home, we go back to the restaurant, and there’s nothing else in our lives. We are open from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. and cap at 100 pizzas a night. Sales are getting better and better now that people know we’re around, but it’s been gradual. On March 26th, the government of Ontario amended a regulation that allowed bars and restaurants to sell alcohol as part of a food order for take-out and delivery and… hallelujah. We’re not making a lot of money off it, but it’s something.
Our province has just begun talking about opening up certain businesses, but no word about restaurants. But what does that really mean? If it’s a scenario where we can only open at half capacity, we can’t do that. Financially, the numbers don’t work.
Even with the uncertainty, there are no regrets for opening when we did. Had we not or if the government said restaurants couldn’t do take-out, we would have lost everything. We didn’t know it when we had the idea for Heartbreakers, but we are so lucky to have chosen pizza.
Thursday, May 7th
“The worst scenario is that someone is exposed to COVID-19 while we’re reopening the restaurant and they end up passing away. I don’t know if I could deal with that.”
Brandon Jew, Mister Jiu’s, San Francisco: A lot of the talk this past week has been about reopening. I say that knowing we’re not going to reopen anytime soon. Until there is clarity about what would happen if one of our employees got sick or if a guest comes in and tells us 24 hours later they’re positive, until that’s answered by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), the CDC, our mayor, or our governor, I think it’s too risky to open.
If someone has COVID-19 one night at the restaurant, there is a liability in not telling guests the next day that someone tested positive the day before. Even if we said we disinfected everything, until we could test all of our employees and had time to tell all of our guests that they could have been potentially exposed and to go get tested, all of those scenarios require testing. If widespread testing isn’t in place, I don’t feel good about reopening. And even with tests, I don’t know the turnaround for the test. Is it 24 hours? Or is it in that very moment? If it takes a day to schedule the test and it takes a day for the results to come back, then there should be parameters for how long the restaurant should be closed.
I’d also need to know about insurance. Say there is a protocol that a restaurant has to close for 72 hours if a guest or employee comes in and tests positive. Will insurance cover the three days that the restaurant could have been open? Is that a stoppage of business that they will cover? Without having that security, I don’t think a lot of restaurants would close. And that goes back to the psyche of the diner, making sure everyone feels comfortable dining out.
We don’t have any of that answered for us. I think it’s really dangerous for a restaurant to open without having those things in place. Even now, it’s still a risk for us to operate take-out and delivery. But say we open up the doors and we schedule our restaurant to take in 100 people in a day, that’s a risk I’m not willing to take. So I feel okay about what we’re doing right now. I’m running scenarios in the meantime, so I can have a game plan for when we do get answers. It’ll be some kind of prix-fixe menu, so everything can be ordered ahead of time from beverages to the food.
And then we’re trying to get clarity around what all the distancing is going to be. There are a lot of percentages being thrown around: 25 or 50 percent capacity of the dining room. But what hasn’t been clarified is: Is this percentage based on occupancy number or actual tables? When I ask around, it seems like it’s going to be a combination—no higher than 50 percent occupancy and with distancing of six feet. Knowing that, it’ll be at most 50 percent for us, likely less with the distancing, so we’re trying to build a labor model for that to see how many people we can hire back and what price point makes the most sense. We’re thinking we want to be under $100 a person. So if we did $75 a person and we did a turn of 45 to 50 people, two times, what does that look like? Is that sustainable?
The crappy part of this is that there are still 55 employees furloughed right now who are waiting for their jobs. We can’t ensure when that will happen. We have two people on J-1 visas [which allows people to come to the U.S. for cultural and educational opportunities] and they both went back. The one in Singapore is going to stay, but the one in Korea wants to come back and I can’t give him any clarity on when we’re going reopen. Right now is so hard because you can’t really commit to anything.
Deciding at what point to reopen and at what level to open may depend on the lease to your restaurant space. Some restaurant operators may choose to close if the lease is coming to an end, attempt to open because there are a couple more years on the lease, or feel obligated to open since they signed a long lease. I have four years on my lease; I just signed a five-year extension a couple months ago. In some ways, I feel obligated to make an attempt to reopen since I am responsible for paying for this lease at the end of the day—this is one of those costs for restaurants that’s making this mountain to reopen steeper and steeper. My relationship with my landlord is good, but we haven’t worked out what will happen. Initially, I asked her to spread one month of rent, when we were closed, over the next year or two. She agreed to that, which was awesome, but now I’m realizing if we reopen and it’s back to normal, that will trickle back to us, especially if mortgages aren’t taken care of and rent is pressing on landlords. They would just pass that financial responsibility to us.
As I’m watching Oklahoma and Atlanta reopen and just talking to our local coalition members, it’s comforting and enlightening to talk to a group of operators who are really smart and cautious. We’re all in agreement that, until there is a vaccine, there is always going to be a risk of having another outbreak. It’s hard to compare reopening plans to Hong Kong since their society already set up infrastructure to address questions I’ve been raising. We need to have stricter guidelines on how restaurants comply and how our public complies. I don’t want to be a guinea pig for this. The worst case scenario is that someone is exposed to COVID-19 while we’re reopening the restaurant and they end up passing away. I don’t know if I could deal with that. I know I sound like a broken record, but we’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing until there is testing.
“I didn’t reopen at 25 percent capacity. But our revenue has gone up tremendously—business has at minimum doubled.”
Armando Vera, Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que, Brownsville, TX: People here didn’t take the virus seriously at first. Things only really changed at the end of March, when the county started putting restrictions in place and making social distancing mandatory. They also imposed a curfew.
My business was already doing really well before the virus hit. We had just gotten a bunch of great press, and we had won a James Beard award. (Ed’s Note: Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que was named one of “America’s Classics” by the James Beard Foundation earlier this year). We closed our dine-in service in March—our restaurant is pretty small, and it is hard to respect social distance in there—and kept the focus on our drive-thru, which we already had in place.
Still, we had to change some things. Only 10 people at a time can come up and order at the counter, though 70 to 80 percent of our customers go through the drive-thru anyway. Instead of having people give us their credit or debit cards to pay, we let them do the whole transaction themselves on the credit card machine, and we don’t ask them to sign a receipt. That way, they don’t have to touch us at all. Some customers want to pay over the phone. One woman who came on Sunday just told us her card information. I have noticed people are very sensitive about that. I never thought things would get to that point. Of course, I miss the old culture of the restaurant. There’s this old couple that was here almost every Sunday—I miss seeing them. I miss sitting down with the customers and talking to them. Otherwise, my routine of making the food is the same. I just do everything with a mask and gloves.
I am not going to reopen at 25 percent capacity. (Ed’s note: Texas governor Greg Abbott announced on April 27th that restaurants could reopen dine-in service at 25 percent capacity starting May 1st.) There are still a lot of people who are very concerned. I want to respect that. I would rather keep things the way they are. We will play it by ear. Opening up will depend on if people get more comfortable, or if they come up with some kind of shot that will control the virus. But I don’t think coronavirus is going away anytime soon. Last week, the county stopped enforcing its social distancing guidelines, and opened up the beaches. I think that the number of cases are going to go up.
But our revenue has gone up tremendously—business has at minimum doubled. Last Sunday, I worked for seven hours nonstop. That’s not true for a lot of other places. There used to be a lot of restaurants on this street, but I heard many closed down because most people are just eating at home. I think the reason we have done well is that we have always been open only on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and I think that on the weekends people will go out because they want to treat themselves to something different. But a lot of other businesses, even beyond the taquerias, are closing. Even the large corporations are going through hard times. We have never seen anything like this.
I have been blessed. I haven’t gone through the suffering that those other people who have had to shut down have gone through. It’s hard for people to feel at ease right now, but eventually, the markets are going to come back up and business is going to come back and people are going to feel confident again.
Wednesday, May 6th
“The application process for PPP was such a mess. It became increasingly clear that you needed a banker on your side.”
Caitlin Meade, Native Co., San Francisco: Two weeks ago, my co-founder and friend, Nicole Fish, and I found out that we weren’t receiving any funds from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). We started Native, our fresh-forward restaurant specializing in health-driven breakfast, lunch, and beverages, seven years ago. We built a loyal, word-of-mouth following in San Francisco’s Financial District and were able to open a second location in SoMa three years ago. When we got the news, we only had enough money to sustain us for a few more weeks.
We were counting on those loans. They were marketed to small businesses—we have less than 500 employees (22) and have been severely impacted by COVID-19—but much of the aid that was allotted to restaurants went to massive, publicly-traded restaurant groups with way more than 500 employees. Ruth Chris’s Steak House got $20 million. Shake Shack got $10 million. I don’t deny that these companies are also in a bad spot and need financial assistance, but there are other funds available. (Ed’s Note: Both companies have since announced that they are returning their loans.) The PPP loans were meant for small businesses who were facing an immediate reckoning. Three months without revenue incurs the kind of debt that we can’t climb out of.
The application process for PPP was such a mess and so stressful. Most banks were only accepting applications from current clients, so we submitted an inquiry with our bank, Chase, the first day we could. We were supposed to receive a call or email from someone to complete the application. A week passed and no one ever got in touch with us. When Chase finally opened up their online application on April 8th, I was lucky to have been checking their website regularly, so I submitted ours that day. Chase was explicit that no one from the support center or at our branch would answer questions about the status of our application. But it became increasingly clear that you needed a banker on your side during this process.
I’ve been talking regularly to my cousin who now heads up the 801 Restaurant Group, my uncle’s company. They have seven locations across the Midwest, over 400 employees, and have received many Small Business Association loans in the past. Even though their company dwarfs ours, we could commiserate about the same issues: When will the banks receive final guidelines about eligibility and be able to begin processing loans? When will the percent forgiveness calculation be made clear? We don’t expect that in just a few months we will return to revenues anywhere near what they were pre-pandemic, but how long could the recovery take—or will we recover at all? Even if the loan provides enough capital to rehire our staff, how can we expect to keep them for the long term? We compared information from different sources in search of clarity, but didn’t get much of it. All we could really agree on definitively was the uncertainty.
There are so many differences between large and small restaurants: For example, my cousin’s company has a CFO. When I find the time, which isn’t much, I act as our financial advisor. They have a long lending history with their bank and an account manager who is looking out for them. We don’t. I get it: Banks are minimizing risk by protecting clients they have already invested in. They are looking out for those clients’ interests because it best serves theirs. But this process has only amplified what we’ve experienced the last seven years as actual small business owners: Local, state, and federal policies that are marketed to be in favor of small business rarely are.
As it stands today, one of our locations is completely closed. The other is open for take-out and delivery, which we have never done before, mostly because delivery platforms charge anywhere between 20 to 40 percent commission. That’s higher than a restaurant’s profit margin—successful restaurants make a 10 percent profit. We’re fighting for any revenue possible.
We are currently operating at 5 percent of normal revenue. That’s not enough to cover our very limited payroll, let alone other expenses. As business owners, we don’t qualify for unemployment. Every day we are climbing deeper into debt.
While we were waiting to find out if more funds would be added to the PPP program, we applied with our Square, our POS, and also with Emigrant Bank in Marin, but I wasn’t at all confident that we would get funding in the second round. There were so many applicants from the first round of funding, that the funding in the second round will go even faster.
Yesterday, we got approved for a loan with Emigrant Bank. We’re happy we got the loan, but it doesn’t get us out of the weeds yet. Now we are onto the more pressing issues of negotiating with our landlords and understanding the guidelines of the PPP loan. We don’t have those guidelines yet. We’re supposed to hire back our staff in a few days. Without knowing exactly how forgiveness is calculated, we’re working blindly. If we don’t follow them correctly or misunderstand something, we would have a big loan that we would have to repay within two years. What happens if after eight weeks we’re unable to keep all of the employees we hired back? It buys us more time, but it doesn’t guarantee that our business will succeed.
“There was a time in Korea when it felt like we would never go back to the way it was before. Slowly but surely, we are recovering.”
Matty Kim, Shinsegae Chosun Hotel Group, Seoul: In Korea, the first noticeable change in the hospitality industry was that everyone started to wear masks the moment it was announced that the virus is transmitted through droplets, around late January. (Ed’s Note: Korea kept most of its factories, shopping malls, and restaurants open as it was handling the virus.)
We provided face masks for employees and disinfected the hotel properties regularly. We set up checkpoints at entrances to our hotels with a thermometer. At our boutique hotel brand, L’Escape Hotel in Seoul, we switched the breakfast services from a semi-buffet to room service. Hotel buffets in Korea are considered a luxury and they’re a huge market. Some of our hotel restaurants extended their take-out services. We even implemented a drive-thru system at our Chinese restaurant, Palais de Chine at L’Escape, where a customer can order the menu online, and our servers, with masks on, will bring the food to the hotel’s driveway at the set pick-up time.
As the food and beverage curator for a hotel group, all parts of my job were affected. At L’Amant Secret, the fine-dining restaurant at L’Escape, we had planned a collaborative dinner series with our chef Jongwon Son and aspiring young chefs in Korea. We had about four to five chefs lined up for the series, but all of that is postponed indefinitely. We are also expanding, creating new hotel brands ranging from lifestyle hotels to luxury hotels. Our team is in charge of creating food and beverage programs for these new hotel brands. All those related trips have been canceled.
Our doors were open even while the pandemic was getting worse, but the traffic has noticeably decreased. During this time, nothing is predictable. We tried to make every day count by trying out new things—things that we were too busy to try before, like different styles of wine pairings at the restaurants or changing up menu designs.
The government has held briefings every morning to provide updates on COVID-19. There is an emergency disaster fund program and support if you had to leave work to take care of your children or if you are a freelancer who is out of work due to COVID-19.
On April 30th, there were zero domestic confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Korea. April 30th through May 5th was a holiday weekend in Korea—the news says people are back outside shopping and traveling domestically. Many areas seem to be almost back to normal, though schools remain closed. I haven’t been back to the office for a week, but I imagine our sales have increased. Some people worry that people have loosened up too soon.
I expect things will be very different after the virus. We have made and continue to make changes in response to the virus, and some of them are probably here to stay. Will restaurant workers be required to wear face masks even after COVID-19 is over? I personally hope not, but it may well be the new normal.
If you ever had a feast with friends at a Korean barbecue restaurant or somewhere in K-Town in the U.S., you probably understand that large gatherings and family-style shared plates are significant parts of Korean food culture. The two happen to be frowned upon in the time of COVID-19. People have started using individual plates to divide their food. Companies have banned after-work team gatherings. I am very curious to see what other changes will happen to Korean food culture.
I see posts from my industry friends’ social media every day to get a sense of what life in the U.S. is like right now. We were never forced to close our doors, so I can only imagine what it is like. It’s frustrating that there isn’t much I can do to help them from here.
There was a time in Korea when it felt like we would never go back to the way it was before. Slowly but surely, we are recovering. It is inspiring to see how the restaurant industry in the U.S. strives to find a way to support one another. I believe we can get through this together.
Tuesday, May 5th
“We took 25 semi truckloads of food—one million pounds of food for 6,000 people. But we weren’t prepared fully for the extra 4,000 who showed up.”
Eric Cooper, San Antonio Food Bank, San Antonio, TX: We usually serve about 58,000 individuals each week in southwest Texas, but in the COVID-19 environment, that went to 120,000 people a week. That reconciles with most food banks across America; they’re reporting about a 98% increase in demand.
San Antonio had a lot of struggles before COVID-19, but this pushed families over the edge. Fifty percent of those coming are new families to the food bank; they’d never asked for help before.
Normally, the San Antonio Food Bank receives surplus from the food industry and we’re able to keep food from being wasted and get it to those in need. But COVID-19 has created a lot of weirdness. Some sectors where we get food, like retail from grocery stores, are selling out, so there’s less food for us to pick up. Food service, like restaurants and caterers, they’re now closed, so we’re not getting food there. There’s a shrinking of supply while demand is increasing, which has created a lot of crazy stress.
We typically feed families through our pantries and pop-up distribution centers that allow people to drive through. Many people’s last paychecks were spent [in mid-April], and we saw a huge spike. Families in need can either call our hotline or go on our website and register, but we knew we weren’t getting to everybody because our systems were freezing up. We documented 6,000 registered for that distribution [on April 9th]. We took 25 semi truckloads of food—one million pounds of food. But we weren’t prepared fully for the extra 4,000 who showed up.
We got there at 3 a.m. and there were already cars waiting.
I went to deliver some boxes [of food to homebound people in need] and when I got on the freeway, I kept driving for miles, opposite of the line, and the line was still going. That’s when I panicked. We brought more truckloads of product from our warehouse, got more volunteers. It was hot, it was crazy, we kept going and going, until a little after 5 p.m., when the last little bit of product was loaded on the last cars.
Since then, we’ve added more distribution sites; we try to keep it between 2,000 and 2,500 people coming through. The total demand is staying the same, but we’re streamlining the process so that people don’t have to wait in their cars for three hours.
The food box is 40 percent fresh produce with a good mix of proteins, like chicken, beef, or pork roast, and bread, tortillas, cereal, and oats. But a lot of times, we might have pasta but no marinara. Jelly but no peanut butter. It’s an array of grocery items that help to augment household budgets, but families typically need to be applying for SNAP or unemployment to have the dollars to round out the meals. [Food banks] are not funded adequately enough to be able to provide 100 percent of someone’s dietetic needs, though we’d love to be able to do that.
Now we just ration, and instead of giving two weeks’ worth of food, we might give one week or three days. The longer this crisis goes, it could take you back to those soup lines where you just give one meal. That’s the worst thing that could happen.
So I hope public sources come to our rescue. The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program [a USDA emergency food aid program] will help procure some of that surplus agriculture and help us get it to people in need. Due to the scale of this crisis and what it’s doing to the supply chain, we can’t trust philanthropy to make up the difference. It has to be a public endeavor and the government has to play a huge role in it.
“The reality is that 75 to 95 percent of kitchen staff in L.A. is undocumented. We knew it was going to get ugly for a huge part of our industry that was being forgotten.”
Othón Nolasco, Va’la Hospitality and No Us Without You, Los Angeles: I run a consulting company called Va’la Hospitality with my partners Damian Diaz and Aaron Melendrez. We’re longtime bartenders and have been consulting together on beverage programs at bars and restaurants in Los Angeles for three years.
We noticed all these bars and restaurants posting GoFundMes for front-of-house staff, like bartenders and servers, but it was frustrating that our industry wasn’t mentioning the back-of-house staff—the prep cooks, line cooks, dishwashers, and porters. It seemed like nobody gave a fuck about them.
The reality is that 75 to 95 percent of kitchen staff in L.A. is undocumented. They don’t have savings, they work two or three jobs to survive, and what little extra money they have gets sent back home to extended family in Central America and Mexico. We knew it was going to get ugly for a huge part of our industry that was being forgotten.
We took money out of our own pockets and bought $500 worth of food, then we came back to the office and started brainstorming. Initially we thought about making food kits for individuals, but my partners pointed out that we needed to feed their families, too. We broke down our costs and figured out that it would cost $32 to feed a family of four for a week. We started with giving away food kits to people we knew, and we hit up some of our friends who are floor managers or sous-chefs to check on their staff. We started with maybe 10 or 12 families six weeks ago, and now we’re feeding over 300. We’re not just feeding people one time and saying best of luck—we’re accountable for feeding them every week.
On March 23th, I filed to make us a 501(c)(3). We decided to call ourselves “No Us Without You” because undocumented back-of-house workers are the heart and soul of restaurants. They are the unsung heroes who get truckloads of deliveries, prep them into manageable units that can be cooked, and clean everything up before the chef or the owner even comes in. They do work that is really hard—my first job was a dishwasher and I wouldn’t wish that job on my worst enemy—and they don’t complain. There is no restaurant or bar industry without undocumented back-of-house workers.
Our kits weigh about 75 pounds and it’s filled with high-quality food that’s worth probably $150. It has everything from rice, beans, and Kernel of Truth Organics tortillas to squash, asparagus, and many different types of organic produce. Our good friends at Elias Produce send us bananas, greens, and avocados. Chefs to End Hunger donates things like Greek yogurt and cold-pressed orange juice. Chefs are baking beautiful loaves of bread for us. We’re dependent on donations and the generosity of everyone who helps us.
We’ve expanded through word of mouth and press, and people in our program are reaching out to their friends who might be scared that we’re not for real. We used to have families come pick up food at our office, but a friend pointed out that we were putting people at the risk of getting picked up [by immigration]. We now have to treat it like a drug deal: We pick a predetermined spot, do a food drop off in 30 to 40 minutes, then take off. We constantly rotate the spot to make sure we’re safe, but our lives would be so much easier if people could just come to our office.
The $500 [stimulus checks for undocumented workers] definitely helped. A lot of states aren’t doing that, and Governor Newsom and Mayor Garcetti have great programs that we’ve helped our families connect with. It’s easy to say that $500 is not enough, but to people who are working two or three jobs to survive, $500 is a lot. My partner Damian speaks to each family every week on the phone or over text, and he’s had to switch to WhatsApp because their phones are being disconnected. They can’t pay the phone bill. Think about being isolated from everyone you know and love because you’re in another country with no phone.
We tell every family that we’re not going anywhere. We’re going to keep feeding them as long as they need us. There is no way everyone goes back to work as soon as the mayor or governor says everyone can reopen. Every day, we read about amazing restaurants in L.A. closing permanently. There aren’t going to be two or three jobs for everyone working back of house; there might not even be one job. At least we can provide food security. These people fed us for years when we were bartending, so it’s a source of pride for us to feed them now.
Monday, May 4th
Abra Berens, Granor Farm, Three Oaks, MI: Granor Farm dinners are really intimate affairs. The whole point is to get different groups of people together around a long table, passing platters. We went through a few different scenarios, but we decided to hold back. Yes, it was emotionally hard. I love doing these dinners so much. At the same time, it was easy to make the decision because these dinners are not necessary to anyone. There are bigger needs in the world right now. My sadness in not being able to host big dinner parties seems to pale in comparison to the concerns of a lot of other people in the world right now.
We have the benefit of having a diversified business. Granor has four to five different businesses running simultaneously [this includes a CSA program, farmstand, and grain production]. I’m looking into doing some small-scale milling to make organic, whole-grain flour available for people in the area, and see if that can help alleviate some pressures on grocery stores to a small degree.
The farmstand now certainly isn’t our normal 9-5 Friday market. It’s sold out pretty quickly after we open. The demand is much higher. No one’s buying and hoarding eight dozen eggs, but people are interested to get fresh greens and fresh farm eggs, so they are queuing up for it in a way we haven’t really seen before. People line up in advance, but nothing feels insane. We don’t have the staffing right now to man the farmstand, so we’re relying on peoples’ good natures to see it through. They’re lining up, social distancing is in place, they have masks on—there haven’t been any problems.
But soon, the farmstand is going to become an online store, where orders will be placed and we’ll harvest for those orders. We’re going to pre-pack them and do curbside pickup. And we’re expanding the market to have local meat, dairy, and things people need to make their meals. It feels like our responsibility to help move any existing food in the system, and be there to help meet people’s demands. Every farm has some overages, so if we can pool that, that consolidates the need for people to drive across the county trying to find eggs. [The news about farmers dumping products] exposes some of the hurdles in an efficient but not necessarily flexible or sustainable food system. That’s the push and pull the agricultural system is always dealing with, but it’s much more visible now.
We’ve kept our CSA at 100 shares. The interest in local food supply right now is incredible. I’ve seen, over the years, local, “farm-to-table” food sidelined as elitist, hoity-toity, Portlandia-sort of thing, and certainly that’s there in the culture, but now we’re seeing the resiliency of a local food system, and the ability to keep money in a regional economy, and the speed with which a local food economy can pivot. It feels really amazing. There’s an interesting connection between missing some social connectivity and wanting to feel like you’re a part of a farm by buying in the CSA share.
Josh Ku and Trigg Brown, Win Son and Win Son Bakery, New York City: The first three weeks of this quarantine, we decided to close fully. When the governor mandated that we shut down and go to take-out and delivery, our staff was feeling uncomfortable. Plus, we both personally weren’t feeling great, healthwise. So we shut down to make sure everyone was safe. For the next three weeks, we were strategizing, finding out information, and relaying that to our staff so we could launch take-out and delivery.
During that time, there have been a ton of challenges. When we were looking at how we could budget everything out, we realized some of the people who would be affected the most, in terms of access to any relief or help, were our immigrant workers who had documentation challenges. We don’t hire anyone who is undocumented, but working intimately with people, you figure out people have things like citizenship status in litigation. So we knew those people would be screwed and we wouldn’t be able to take care of them. At the same time, we got DMs, phone calls, and an outpouring of support to buy gift cards and merch. We’d love to sell those things, but as a means of income, it doesn’t really cut it. So we made an on-our-feet decision to fundraise for undocumented workers. We put out a PSA, an Instagram flyer, saying we were raising funds for workers in the industry and worded it in a way to indicate that after a certain point of money raised, we’d benefit our regular hourly employees.
We set it up on Trigg’s Venmo, which is connected to the restaurant, and we’ve gotten $34,000 for the first distribution, with additions still trickling in. We distributed the funds to all of our staff, but did so in a way that made it more balanced for people who aren’t able to get unemployment or any stimulus checks. We employ a little over 50 people, so that really impacted our little ecosystem.
We’re now in this weird period where we’ve been operating for take-out and delivery for three weeks. It’s just us, two amazing managers, and a couple other guys. Most of the people who have come back to work are the folks who have documentation issues. It’s crazy how they’re coming through for us in this difficult time. They’re in the same situation as us. Before PPP rolled out, there weren’t any prospects of getting assistance. We weren’t getting any help, and neither were they. Americans who don’t understand what role immigrants with document issues play regard them as invisible. And it seems like nothing about that’s going to change even though they’re preventing the restaurant, farming, and construction industries from halting completely.
Our PPP went through today, finally, though we’re not even sure how to handle it right now, so we’re not so much in the same situation anymore. But we still matched those stimulus checks and employed these folks. Small business owners and immigrants with document problems are in a situation where, if willing, we can take care of each other.
We’re lucky that we’re busy with take-out and delivery; the bakery is open for breakfast and lunch and the restaurant at night. That is keeping us from flat-lining. We’re actually rebranding the bakery as a burger concept at night, starting this week. We’re thinking it can be like an indie Shake Shack—we have a really good burger and we make the buns, grind the meat, everything. These are things we’ve trained our dishwashers at the bakery to do. They can now cover the bakery as well as do the burger concept. They’re two people we couldn’t initially employ, since we don’t have a lot of dishes these days, that we can now employ. We’re not trying to convince you that we’re doing this selfless thing; we want the restaurant to do well. But this burger concept is para la banda. It’s for people who need the work.
Chris Pugliese, Tompkins Square Bagels, New York City: We got hit in three phases. First was the work-at-home order, which was not the complete shutdown. We used to bring food to the offices of AOL, Spotify, and Oscar every week. Once those employees started working from home, we immediately lost all of our catering business, which we had spent years and years bringing up. And immediately, we had to do pay cuts.
The second phase was students going home. In the East Village, the local economy is 75 percent college students. They take up the dorms and a lot of the apartments. Price-wise, we were right in their wheelhouse, so when you pull them out, that’s big. I was really worried about what was coming. The first weekend they were gone, at some point in March, we saw a dramatic drop—50 percent less sales than the Saturday and Sunday before. It was also hard because I see these kids year after year. You get to know them. You watch them come in as freshmen, you see them graduate, and a lot of them come back.
The third phase was when the stay-at-home order was issued. We were biting our nails, wondering if we were considered essential. When we found out we were, I sat everyone on my staff down. I had to let go of people; we had 45 and we had to go down to 12. I had single dads working for me, a lot of kids from the Bronx and Queens, first-generation immigrants—people who constantly floored me with their determination and their desire to make sure their families have a better life. I’m Italian-American, third generation, so I get that.
I started Tompkins Square Bagels right after the recession. My other restaurant closed, also in the East Village, so I knew this area and I knew it needed a bagel shop. I took a chance and negotiated our lease in 2009 and we opened in 2011. Year one, we made $1.7 million and created 15 jobs. I was really proud of that. I made money out of thin air, money that wasn’t there before. Then it was $1.8 million, $2.3 million, and along the way I’m making more jobs and everything I order is supplied by five borough vendors. Unlike Starbucks that’s ordering from a central location in Kansas, everything I get is coming from New York City. We’re feeding the local economy. Last year, was our best year ever—$5 million in sales. By New York standards, that’s big.
Now, financially, we’re down 75 percent. Everyone is now working minimum wage—$15 an hour—including management. We went from 15 bagel types to five on the menu. We stopped our garbage pick-up, which was $900 a month, so now I have this big wagon that I cart all the garbage to Avenue A in. I come from a working class family, so I’m used to doing things like this to save money.
We’ve paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes, year after year after year. We’ve done our part. Now we’re asking for help, and we shouldn’t have to ask. I tried to apply for PPP during the second round and the site crashed. It’s maddening. I’m also angry with what happens to New York state. You see Governor Cuomo begging for money. We have a $6 billion dollar deficit, and politicians are telling us to file for bankruptcy, which means go rot. I was telling someone the other day, if New York is okay, I won’t need anything. I’m scrappy. I got to where I am from nothing. If New York doesn’t get help, I’m going to die with it. If we don’t get federal aid, we’ll have massive layoffs in the police force, transit problems, crimes, schools closing. I need a safe, well-funded New York City. If I can get that, I can figure it out.
I tell my guys at the store that everything is related to the first Rocky movie. We don’t have to win. We just have to get through this fight. We’re going to get up, get bloodied. We just need to be standing when it’s over.
Gabe Erales and Philip Speer, Comedor, Austin: We shut down service on Monday, March 13th, a day before the stay-at-home order. At the time, no one knew the severity of how it was going to affect the local economy. There were so many unknowns, and there still are.
Since then, we have essentially created a whole new web-based platform called Assembly Kitchen. We had this idea to build a delivery platform that incorporated multiple local businesses, from our own (Comedor) to other restaurants like Holy Roller, and created an in-home dining experience. For example, you can get a marinated chicken that’s ready to roast, plus fresh masa tortillas, black beans, and rice, with videos made by us, explaining how to assemble everything at home. Business for Comedor via Assembly Kitchen has been extremely good for us. We are probably selling 20 orders on a slow day and 60 to 70 orders on a busy day—and one order could contain as many as five meal kits. This doesn’t include the alcohol program we also recently launched.
When Governor Abbott said that restaurants could open on May 1st, people started calling us to make reservations literally minutes after the announcement. (Ed’s Note: The governor issued this executive order with some stipulations, like limiting the dining room to 25 percent capacity and seating tables six feet apart.) We’re grateful for that—but nothing has really changed in the last six weeks. You can say, let’s open up the restaurants, but so many employees have kids enrolled in school districts that are still shut down—what do you do with that? What do you do with invoices sitting from the last six weeks that haven’t been paid? (Ed’s Note: Many restaurants haven’t been able to pay outstanding invoices from before they closed due to the pause in revenue.) Do you expect purveyors to make deliveries in good faith? Most restaurants aren’t designed to break even at 25 percent capacity—how do you prepare for that?
We were brainstorming the other day, after the Governor Abbott announcement, about how the 25 percent capacity model would even work. The only way to approach it would be a ticketed system with a tasting menu where guests pre-pay and you know exactly what you are feeding them up front. Still, from a general feel of the community and social media, it doesn’t seem like people are ready to venture out into restaurant dining rooms knowing that there isn’t adequate traceability or testing.
We are going to monitor the situation and see how things evolve. We have invested so much time and effort into what we have created through Assembly Kitchen. We have some momentum and we are going to continue with what we are doing until we think we are ready. We do not feel like we have enough information provided by the state and federal governments to reopen our doors at this time. We will not reopen until we are confident we have the ability to ensure our staff and guests’ safety, first and foremost, while conducting daily operations—this may include accessibility to virus testing and traceability, robust service standard operating procedures, and dining room design that further prevents vulnerability and spread. Assembly Kitchen has grown, but Comedor remains the future. We want to go back to the vision that we began with. We just don’t know when that is going to be.
Omar Anani, Saffron De Twah, Detroit: Ramadan started last week. We had been hemming and hawing over what we wanted to do. Last year, we were only open during the daytime. This year, we wanted to stay open all night and give people a place to break their fast. In major metropolitan cities in the U.S., my understanding is that people aren’t typically out all night during Ramadan, eating and praying and congregating. But in Dearborn and Detroit, that’s what people do. It’s very much like the Middle East outside of the Middle East. We wanted to make a nice, fancy thing where people could have a drink without alcohol, hang out, and be a part of that community. All that obviously got derailed by the COVID-19 stuff.
If you look at the Arabic etymology of Ramadan, it references “extreme heat.” During this time, you purify yourself and burn away sin through fasting and good deeds. We decided to shut the restaurant down in mid-March due to COVID-19, which allowed us to focus on doing more for the community. I was wondering if I should reopen for take-out for Ramadan. But after reflecting, I realized that reopening for a few meals here and there was not the right decision to make. I realized I could do more for my community, more for my people. I could feed people who were in need.
We’ve delivered over 2,500 meals to fire departments, police departments, nursing homes, and 17 hospitals. Most of the money for the meals has come from donations from the Detroit Free Press and our Square page. When you’re Muslim frontline worker and a secular company brings in food, you usually go straight to vegetarian options because you can’t eat the meat since it’s not halal. And if there isn’t a vegetarian option, a lot of people fast all day but don’t break fast. My brother is one of them; he’s a doctor. For us, it was important to provide a full meal that has a starch, a vegetable, and a halal protein, as well as gluten-free and vegetarian options. But it’s not just about Muslims. We want to take care of our community.
Every day, I wake up at the same time I usually do, eat suhoor, and pray fajr. For suhoor, I can’t eat a full meal, so I have fruits, yogurt, and some bread. Then I come down to the restaurant to prepare meals. We do everything from scratch, so it takes a lot longer. We make couscous and braise the meat in a tagine—all that stuff takes time. By 2 p.m., we usually get everything together and the restaurant is dead, drastically different than it was to pre-COVID-19. In previous years, it was difficult to make food because we couldn’t taste anything. Luckily, one of my employees is Christian, so I’m blessed with someone to see if everything is seasoned right.
I take the evening deliveries, around 8 p.m., so first responders who observe Ramadan can break their fast with halal meat. After that, I break mine at home. It’s been really cool this year since I just got married and my wife is Bangladeshi, so I’m eating a lot of new foods. Today, I’m making a Palestinian dish called musakhan—it’s chicken that’s confited with caramelized onions and sumac and served over taboun, a big bread cooked on a stone. Because I’m fasting, I’ve developed a very acute sense of taste. I think the best flavors I’ve ever created during my culinary career have been during the month of Ramadan.
Syed Asim Hussain, Black Sheep Restaurants, Hong Kong: We have been operating our restaurants during the pandemic. My restaurant group, I consider us to be leaders of the industry. We were getting a lot of questions from other restaurants about the things we were doing, so we decided to make everything we were doing internally public through our COVID-19 Playbook. It details our hygienic practices in the restaurants, interactions with guests, team organization, readjustment of strategy and costs, and internal and external communications. We were just doing it for our friends in the industry, but it has snowballed since then. It’s being translated into five languages, with people from Brazil to Japan using it. I think thousands of people have read our guide, and not just restaurant folks. We’ve gotten emails from universities, hospitals, fashion brands, airlines. It really is remarkable.
For us, there’s always been an emphasis on internal communications. As we’ve become a large-ish team of 25 restaurants, we still run things like a one-restaurant team. What we made public was the third version of the playbook. When things started happening in mainland China in December, we felt like this was going to come to Hong Kong. With my leadership team, we started putting pen to paper. We’re not healthcare experts—this guide is based on all the things we’ve seen or read, and you know how Hong Kong had to deal with the SARS epidemic. This is our PTSD. This is just what we know we can do to keep our people safe. Initially, when we implemented our guide at our restaurants, we got a lot of backlash. We were turning away dozens of guests because they weren’t comfortable with us taking their temperatures or signing health declaration forms. We started doing this four to five weeks before the government did. Hospitality is at the heart of what we are and what we do. But that went out the window to keep our people on the front lines safe.
Now we’re seeing our business come back and our restaurants getting busier and I think it’s because we have these stringent protocols in place with the guide. No one in our ecosystem contracted COVID-19; part of the reason is because of how maniacal we’ve been with these protocols. Recently, in the last few weeks, we’ve been advising the government in Hong Kong. I believe we were invited because of the work we were doing.
I think the playbook has resonated because it’s sincere and it’s practical. It’s not a PR stunt. It’s very organic. In fact, we’re going back and updating the guide again. There are lots of new things that we’ve discovered. One thing is that supply chains have been disrupted and we’re needing to reorganize our menus in the restaurant. Because of how many people have been impacted by COVID-19, it’s our responsibility to keep the playbook updated. This is what good restaurants do. They do more than just provide good food and drink; they are cornerstones of a city. And this is a testament to that.
Julia Momose, Kumiko and Cocktails for Hope, Chicago: Even though Illinois eased restrictions for delivery of packaged goods like alcohol, these new allowances don’t go far enough. Basically, licensed restaurants and bars can sell unopened bottles of spirits, wine, and beer—even cocktail kits which include everything customers need to make their own cocktails, but everything has to be in their original containers. This puts a big burden on bars because we’d have to source a bunch of other materials to build these kits in the first place. The sale of pre-mixed drinks is illegal in Chicago, but for a lot of independent restaurants and bars, that’s the only way we can survive the pandemic. By easing restrictions on cocktails to-go, we can hire back some employees to work and to keep the lights on. It’s become a bit of a cliché, but there’s an adage in the industry that “vodka pays the bills.” That’s just not true. It’s the vodka sodas, the martinis, that are bringing the margins. Us bartenders create the value in the vodka, by mixing drinks.
Stores including liquor stores are deemed essential right now, so retail sales for them are through the roof. The way the laws are currently structured, allowing the sales of packaged liquor, is creating hundreds of liquor stores. Binny’s will be fine, while breweries are able to sell growlers. What are growlers, anyway? They’re one liquid that has been inserted into another vessel—exactly what we hope to accomplish with cocktails to-go. Luckily, there are other states that see the value in letting bars and restaurants sell cocktails, like New York and California. That’s why I started Cocktails for Hope with bartenders, attorneys, and some of our bar regulars with connections to city government. We are trying to have conversations with Illinois’s and Chicago’s leaders to help them see this is a sustainable way to keep businesses afloat. Bars that don’t serve food or aren’t equipped with kitchens won’t survive the current moment. Waiting for government financial relief just won’t fly anymore.
The existing verbiage prohibiting cocktails to-go is mostly worried about transporting so-called open containers in vehicles, but the same argument could be made against growlers. And then, of course, there’s sanitation, but us professionals in the food industry are already aware of these laws. We have to deal with them daily. There’s also a lot of confusion about who can and can’t serve cocktails to-go. I’ve heard from some colleagues in other Illinois cities that they are able to while other bars have received cease-and-desists. Through Cocktails with Hope, we want to work with policy-makers to create and establish strong, informed verbiage that will help roll out safe, temporary—and I want to underline temporary—measures so that bars can hire back staff while the shelter-in-place orders are in effect and still do business.
Our next steps are organizing in a smart way—the likes on social media don’t do anything unless the governor sees it. Please, if you love bars and restaurants, pick up the phone and call your representatives. An inclusive cocktail to-go program needed to happen a month ago, but the next best time to start something is now. Bar owners and bartenders, we’re ready: The moment Governor Pritzker says, “Cool, how do we do this safely,” our volunteer attorneys have suggested guidelines ready to roll out and totally doable for any bar (dive bars, restaurant bars, cocktails bars). These guidelines shouldn’t cut anyone out—all businesses serving alcohol to consumers should be included. We need to save our communities.
Pete Messmer, Lively Run Dairy, Interlaken, NY: Farmers are being told that they have more milk than the market needs, more milk than they can get paid for right now. Sadly, that means a lot of it is being dumped.
Restaurants and institutional buyers like schools bought 50 percent of the total dairy products that were consumed in this country. And a lot of it was packaged in bulk—50 pound sacks of shredded cheese, vats of sour cream. The plants that process the milk into dairy products can’t or haven’t switched their packaging lines to retail packages quickly enough as demand has increased. This is how we get crazy scenarios where farmers are dumping milk, but grocery stores in major urban centers are limiting the amount of dairy people can buy.
We make cheese at Lively Run and my farmer friends told me about the milk dumping. We also saw the increased need at food banks because disruption to the economy has caused a lot of food insecurity. We’ve always donated to food banks and some of our employees volunteer there. Then it dawned on us: We can make cheese and send it to food banks.
One of the things about a small business like us is that we’re really nimble and can shift gears quickly. We’re set up to do retail packaging anyways, so all we needed was the funds to kickstart the process of getting excess milk, making cheese, and getting it to foodbanks. We set up a GoFundMe with a goal of $20,000 and we hit that in a day. We decided to double our goal and see what happens and we hit that in a week. It’s fueling my ambitions because I think people see it’s a valuable project that can be immediately helpful to those in need. It’s good for small dairy farms, it’s good for the food banks, and it could help keep our friends in the cheesemaking community busy. We’re not making a profit, but we’re at least doing something.
We knew a goat farm that was dumping milk, so we started by making chèvre. We wanted to make cheese that didn’t need to age for a long time, so we could get it out the door as quickly as possible. We made our first donation to six food banks last Friday: close to 150 pounds. Not a huge amount, but this week will be considerably larger than that. In addition to the chèvre, we’re scheduled to make cow cheese curds this Wednesday to get out for delivery on Friday.
Like everyone else, our business has been affected by COVID-19. About half of our sales were restaurant sales, so that’s gone, and the retail packaging requires more work. The business itself is in no danger, but everyone has been working really hard. I worked about 80 hours last week and that’s true for basically everyone who works here. We’re using the money from our GoFundMe to buy directly from the dairy farms and cover our cost of production, but we’re not making a profit from it. That’s not the point—the point is to get food to food banks.
I’ve spoken to experts and it seems that there will be surplus milk on the market for the rest of the year and maybe longer, because this problem will compound. Lively Run is working with the Center for Transformative Action to start a non-profit organization to do this on a larger scale. There are dairy farms all over New York state, and every cheesemaker has extra plant capacity. There’s no reason why we can’t all be doing this.
The governor’s office just announced that they’re going to fund dairy producers to take milk, make it into cheese, and donate to food banks, which is exactly what we’re doing. They’ve appropriated a budget towards it, so I would love to apply for that and be part of this project on a state level because that’s been our vision from the beginning. My fear is that the money will go to huge processing plants like Byrne Dairy and Polly-O and not the small dairy producers who are really hurting right now and could use some help.
Kenshiro Uki, Sun Noodle, Carlstadt, NJ: 80 percent of our business is food service. In February, our business in Europe started to get hit hard and then the same thing happened in the U.S. in March. Right away, we started calling our customers, trying to be proactive and to see what their intentions were—do take-out or shut down completely. So many ramen shops we talked to were like, “There is no way you can do ramen take-out.” That is just not accepted. But some of them have figured out their own process; if you cook the noodles a certain way and rinse and shock them, then take-out is okay. Today, across the board, 70 percent of our food service channel is completely closed.
We are fortunate that we sell ramen kits in grocery stores, either the noodles by themselves or noodles plus concentrated soup bases. It was actually an easier pivot for us to focus on retail. All the ingredients we use for food service, we use for the noodles anyways. We started calling our distribution channels and increasing production at our factories to focus on retail.
We had expected a two-fold increase in retail sales, but it has been three-fold since March 15th. We saw an increase not just in orders from grocery stores but from meal kit companies like Blue Apron and Purple Carrot. We also had a partnership with Costco in the works already to supply our noodles for meal kits sold in their stores. We have added more regions to our Costco network faster than we expected. Pre-pandemic, we were in 88 Costco stores. Now we are in over 200.
Our business has flipped completely. Our Instagram is now about home cooking. Our tagged photos are people making ramen at home. Thanks to the dedication and commitment of ramen chefs and shops all over the country, ramen has enjoyed much broader popularity in recent years. It has opened people’s eyes to the possibility of pairing it with their favorite ingredients, similar to what they might do with pasta. This has dovetailed with the general trend toward being at home and cooking as a relaxing weekend activity. It’s been a perfect storm of ramen.
This situation has made us more aware that we need to balance our mix of where our revenue comes from. We take pride in supplying the best ramen shops, and we have been speaking to those restaurant owners about how they are going to change after this. We are talking about collaborating on do-it-yourself ramen kits in partnership with restaurants. That way, they can have revenue coming in even if their places aren’t open. Restaurants are our core market—we want to support them through this.
Brandon Jew, Mister Jiu’s, San Francisco: Last week, I got really excited because I got a DocuSign for paperwork for PPP. I thought this meant I was approved. I signed them really quickly and have been waiting since then. I’ve been asking around and only one place I knew had gotten the loan, but they probably won’t even use it. The PPP is really flawed for restaurants, especially for restaurants that aren’t operating right now. With it, you can get your employees off unemployment and pay them for eight weeks, but after that you can’t use the money anymore. The problem is, do we think we’re actually going to be running restaurants the same way? Are we going to have that many cooks and front-of-house staff? Are we going to be operating at 100 percent again? No, we’re not. It’s guaranteed that we’re going to get restrictions on how to reopen and operate from the state or even the Feds. All of us are waiting to find out what those are going to be. We have our best guesses, after seeing what is happening in Hong Kong and Copenhagen. Restaurant operators in both places have been concentrating on getting customers back into dining rooms with new cleaning protocols, signing health declarations, and thinking through steps of service that will be contactless.
We’re also trying to get a sense of the psyche of the diner. There will be a hesitation to go out and into restaurants. How do you as an operator alleviate some of that concern? I attended a webinar that the James Beard Foundation was hosting and it was really informative. What I’ve come to realize is that we will probably not open if we don’t have widespread testing available. If we opened early and didn’t have that testing and another infection started, we would have to shut down again. Doing that whole thing again would just be really hard on everyone.
I’m trying to be patient. As an operator, I want to make sure that the environment that we rehire our staff and invite people into is safe. We have to think about spacing. We did a floor plan to see what that would look like at Mister Jiu’s, putting tables six feet away from each other. It’s less than half of what we’d normally do: 40 seats vs. the usual 100 seats. And then I’m not sure if bar seating would be gone since I’m not sure if bartenders can be that close to customers. Some people think we’ll need sneeze guards, which is so crazy. I think every operator is trying to balance providing a service to the general public and protecting staff. Mayor Breed announced that any essential worker, which includes restaurants, who doesn’t have symptoms can get tested. That’s a good next step for every city. This is all going to be very planned and it’s going to require rehiring furloughed employees and trying to onboard them in rounds, which is why the PPP doesn’t work. It almost incentivizes you to reopen, but I don’t think it outweighs the risk of the general health. If I got PPP at this point, I don’t think we’d use it.
This morning, I got an email that I got a James Beard Foundation grant. Basically, they created this fund a few weeks ago for restaurants that were looking for financial assistance. $15,000 on a first come, first serve basis. When I got the email, I was like…what? I don’t know what happens next. It’s weird because I got so excited about PPP and then was like, nope that’s not gonna happen. I’m positive this is going to be a different experience, but I don’t want to get too excited. But what’s awesome about this fund is that it’s actually going to restaurants. With PPP, these ginormous restaurant chains that are publicly traded got them. When you hear that Ruth’s Chris is giving it back, it’s nice, but who is it going to next? We’re not sure if the administration is changing guidelines for this or accounting for small businesses.
All the coalitions have been talking about what we really need. We had a Zoom the other day with Thomas Keller. We wanted him to be an ally for our coalition. We want to make sure he hears from us since we don’t have representation on that weird board [the Great American Economic Revival Industry Group]. It was an interesting call. He seemed responsive to the points we were trying to make, but he couldn’t guarantee a lot of things since he doesn’t know when he’ll talk to the president. The only meeting he had with him so far was a Zoom call with 200 people. He’s unsure what kind of influence he’ll actually have on Trump. My politics, they don’t need to be talked about, but I have no interest in spending time and energy to get Trump on my side.
We launched our store online, which has random stuff like lap cheong and some dishes that can be reheated. It’ll be another revenue source for when we do open and people are still skeptical about going out to dinner. One interesting development has been with a company called RideOS. They contacted me about their pilot program. They have a fleet of self-driving cars that could deliver groceries and pre-made meals; we’d be told the car’s delivery route and just load the car up. They’re figuring out a system of how to drop off and confirm pick-up. But it’s interesting. With both of these things, we can bring back more employees.
At least once a day, I get this doomsday feeling. Like, what kind of world is this? Is it ever going to feel like it did before? It’s kind of dreamy in a weird way. Like “The Twilight Zone.”
Jake Adams and Eden Rehmet, Hollow, Delhi, NY: We were open for a busy dinner rush on Thursday, March 12th, with people elbow to elbow at the bar, including a large contingent of people fleeing the city for their weekend houses. It felt a little like we were going to unwittingly become a vector for COVID-19 transmission in Delaware County, and the next day we felt that to be responsible we didn’t have any choice but to close immediately. We put up a notice on our front door and our website, had a drink or two (maybe a wee cry), and went home to start figuring out what to do next.
In hindsight, it was obviously the right decision, but at the time, it felt insane. We’re a tiny space, about 1,000 square feet with a max occupancy of 39. Our menu is communal and encourages sharing. Since we’re small, the energy moves around the room and everyone ends up talking to each other.
We started all over. We spent that weekend trying to mitigate food waste and sanitize EVERYTHING before coming up with a new plan/menu/concept. We went from operating as a bar izakaya, with just 2 percent of business being pick-up, to a bodega slash prepared foods and takeaway spot slash wine shop. We reached out to our farms and purveyors to ensure they would still be able to supply us, reconfigured our kitchen, set up a little photo studio in the dining room, built a standalone to-go website, and bought a pile of to-go wares.
We had to adjust our menu, thinking about what would travel well and could be reheated easily. It’s been well received. Many people in our community want to support local businesses, so they’re ordering from us. We’ve kept the Japanese pork curry on the menu. That sells out within an hour and a half. People are fighting over it in a funny way. A lot of people are trying to have dinner dates over Zoom and want to eat the same thing. Eden’s cell is the contact for pick-up and she’ll get texts from people, saying how it was such a beautiful meal.
We’ve sold between 1,400 and 1,600 meals at this point. We’re making slightly less than we’d normally pull in (the to-go containers are eating into our costs). But we’re lucky because it’s always been just the two of us, so we didn’t need to factor in payroll. We can pay for rent, utilities, and maybe a touch of our original build-out costs. It helps when you don’t have to pay yourself. We applied for an economic injury loan, but we weren’t able to apply for PPP since we didn’t have any records of paying ourselves. We’ve run things as lean as possible, getting second-hand equipment and repairing things ourselves, and living up here, our overhead cost is much lower than when we lived in Brooklyn. We can pivot really quickly, which is crazy and kind of terrifying.
We’re only three weeks into this new model and are constantly honing our systems, but things are going well so far. We sell out of most items within the first few hours of them being posted and we’re stretched to capacity given our limited refrigerator space. It’s been so nice to reconnect with our regulars, albeit from a distance and behind masks.
We’re working about a little less than we were before, except now we can take off Sunday afternoons, which we couldn’t do before. There’s this undercurrent of always thinking about things though. You can’t switch it on and off. We’re scared this will go through the summer, which is our busy season. We usually make double what we make in the winter. But as long as we’re able to survive, pay the rent and utilities, keep supporting our purveyors, and continue to provide some form of community for our area, we’ll keep at it. We think it’s important for everyone to have some normalcy to enjoy during this time.
Taylor Lanzet, Dig Food Group, New York City: In New York, grocery deliveries are coveted. To actually get a time slot is the best part of your day. Since we have relationships with independent farmers and an exceptional supply of ingredients, it seemed like we could help with that need. So we launched the Dig Acres Farm Box on March 28th, which allows us to bring in produce from our suppliers and directly distribute to customers. We’re trying to fill in that spot when you’re running low on groceries. We saw how people were stocked up on pantry items but were trying to figure out how to get fresh vegetables.
We designed the farm box to change every week, so our team chats with our farmers to get the best mix. We’re curating based on what’s coming in and what farmers need help moving. We’re a bunch of yes people. When a farmer comes to us, saying, “I have 1,000 pounds of daikon I thought I’d sell to restaurants,” we fill in that gap. (And that’s a true story!)
We’ve sent thousands of boxes at this point, and today we’re launching it in Boston and Philly. The demand was so high.
Last summer, at Dig Acres Farm, we piloted the farm box with FoodKick. I used to run a CSA, so I had personal experience in building these things. We could not keep up with demand. It was amazing. The box, in some ways, was us figuring out what Dig Food Group could be. We were thinking about how to really extend the brand beyond the restaurants [Dig Inn, 232 Bleecker], and that is getting vegetables to people. As soon as this crisis hit, it was like, well, we were planning on doing it again this summer, so why don’t we start earlier. We had the infrastructure already set. Now, we’re getting so many requests from farmers and farmers’ market delivery companies to collaborate. In some ways, it feels like we launched a new business in the past month.
We also created Dig Feeds. You can text DIGFEEDS to 80519 to gift a meal to someone or request a meal if you need it. It’s our way to get food to anyone in need. The other day, an emergency room resident at Kings County Hospital texted, we got dietary restrictions and allergies, and we coordinated 40 meals for her team. I just packed them in my car. We started this about a month ago and we’re a couple days away from 100,000 meals donated. It’s amazing because it has created a lot of purpose for the team. When we started, we had no idea what it would become. For our chefs, feeding people isn’t just about cooking for guests but giving back.
We’ve started to think about the future of Dig when this is all over. We’re asking ourselves how we can support small and diverse farmers, how can we help people cook food that makes them feel good. It’s not about going back to what we were before, but building a better food system moving forward.