These are unprecedented times. It seems like the whole world has been brought to its knees, from the rapid and destructive spread of COVID-19 to the protests in response to police brutality and the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. The food industry isn’t exempt. So as things develop, we’ve asked people working in the food industry coast to coast to share what they’re seeing in their communities, how they’ve been affected, and how they’re responding.

Tuesday, August 25

“Every day we’re trying to figure out what is happening in the world and how we can pivot. I’m so tired of using the word pivot.”

Lindsey Ofcacek, The LEE Initiative, Louisville: We’re a really small nonprofit. Our vision has always been to identify issues in the restaurant industry and find a quick solution. That was very different six months ago. I’m used to working on our leadership development program, where we pair five women early in their cooking careers with five established women running their own restaurants. I’m usually planning that out a year in advance. Now I don’t know what we’ll be doing in a month.

When the pandemic hit, we turned 21 restaurants, mainly run by friends in the industry, into relief kitchens to feed laid-off restaurant workers in 19 cities. As we worked with each chef at their relief kitchen, we asked them how we could help them reopen again as restaurants. A lot of chefs were concerned about being able to support and pay the farms they worked with. So we added that to our restaurant Keto Meal Delivery reopening program; each relief kitchen chef identified three to five farms and we gave the chef a $10,000 credit with each farm. We just started this in Chicago thanks to a $500,000 investment from a generous donor in the region.

But as we started to do this, restaurants began to close again for dining, first in California, then in Kentucky. Here in Kentucky restaurants were ordered to operate at 25 percent dining-in capacity and bars were closed. So we had to switch back to relief kitchen mode in those two regions. We did not expect to have to do this again, but here we are. It’s a vicious cycle, when you’re closed for a few months, then you reopen and hire back everyone, and two weeks later you have to close again.

Now we just listen to the news every day. If restaurants can stay open for dining, we keep funding the farms. If restaurants have to close, we pivot back to operating as a relief kitchen. It’s definitely a moving target. Anytime a new problem comes up, we pivot really quickly to try to help. When floods filled central Virginia with two feet of water, we found out many restaurants don’t have flood insurance. So we did a fundraiser to help them cover the costs. Every day we’re trying to figure out what is happening in the world and how we can pivot. I’m so tired of using the word pivot.

Whenever we pivot, we have to move fast. I typically wake up, then watch the news and press conferences for cities we have relief kitchens in. When Kentucky announced that restaurants could reopen, I called our systems and logistics person, Kaitlyn Soligan, so we could pull back on relief and get back into the farm program. Then I called Sam Fore, our web designer, to edit our website with new information on fundraising. And finally I called Collis Hillebrand, our PR and marketing director, to get that information to the public. I talk to these women 10 times a day.

We’re constantly looking at our budgets and seeing where we are Keto Meal Delivered with funding. We’re always looking for grants and partnerships with corporations to help build a fund, like Maker’s Mark, which has been with us since the beginning. Recently, we started our Regrow program, which gives $10,000 grants to restaurants. Every time we raise enough money, we give it away. Just in Kentucky alone, 17 chefs have applied for the grant; two have received it.

It’s insane to grow so rapidly during such a precarious time. Obviously, it’s been really stressful and some days are gut wrenching. But it’s also been incredible to expand in this way. I haven’t felt helpless at all during this pandemic. We’re extremely grateful that we’re able to help people. —As told to Elyse Inamine

Friday, August 21

“We found a safe way to reopen Gado Gado, and that is the only reason opening a new restaurant feels attainable.”

Tom and Mariah Pisha-Duffly, Gado Gado and Oma’s Takeaway, Portland, OR:

T: Gado Gado wasn’t even a year old when the pandemic forced us to shut down in March. Because we couldn’t do indoor dining due to safety restrictions, we decided to try something different to keep business going and our hands busy. We opened a pop-up inside Gado Gado called Oma’s Takeaway, where we didn’t stick to a menu but made something new every day, from KFC-style bowls with mashed potatoes and fried chicken to noodle dishes with blood sausage gravy. Just whatever we felt like doing. It was really soul-satisfying.

M: Tom’s grandmother—he called her “Oma”—was the inspiration. She continuously reinvented herself throughout her life, working as a cake decorator and a pet shop owner among other things. Unfortunately, a few months after we started the pop-up, she passed away from COVID-19.

T: It was hard; Oma was my connection to my Chinese-Indonesian culture. But opening this pop-up with her spirit, it kept us creative and positive in the middle of the pandemic. So when we were able to open Gado Gado for outdoor dining in July, we realized we wanted to keep the pop-up concept going in a permanent space. The conversation with Mariah went like this: “This is happening. Yes, it is totally insane, but let’s just f*#%ing do it anyway.”

M: In some ways it’s simpler to open a restaurant with COVID safety restrictions in mind. For example, we’re able to offer full-service dining outside with Gado Gado while maintaining social distancing. Each table has its own landing zone where the waitstaff places food so that the guests can pick it up once the waitstaff is six feet away. There is a bussing bin in the landing zone so that guests can clear the table by themselves and at their leisure. We found a safe way to reopen Gado Gado, and that is the only reason opening a new restaurant feels attainable. Once we heard that some restaurant spaces were becoming available, we started looking into them. Eventually, we found a spot on Division for Oma’s, and now we’re a few weeks from opening and deep into recipe testing.

T: I have eaten like 10 pounds of pork belly in the past 48 hours because of that. We are basing the menu on nasi lemak and creating platter-style meat and rice dishes with a bunch of accoutrements. The menu is short and will remain consistent because of our limited staff. All the dishes are set up so that they can transport well. The idea is to make Oma’s Takeaway COVID-proof so it can continue to operate if there is another shutdown.

M: No matter what you do, everything feels so very risky. You could take the risk of closing down and not reopening until there is a vaccine. You could take the risk of just being open and rolling the dice. I’m most comfortable gambling on ourselves, our team, and our ingenuity. These are crazy times, and sometimes you have to do crazy things. At least this way we have the opportunity to be creative and to bring some positivity. —As told to Woesha Hampson-Medina

Thursday, August 20

“Right now we’re very pandemic-oriented, but we want to continue to be committed to the city beyond the walls of our restaurant forever.”

Irena Stein, Alma Cocina Latina, Baltimore: We started cooking meals for the community back in March, the very same week our restaurant was ordered to close by the governor. What immediately went through our heads was, “How do we make sure our kitchen staff, who we adore and who have been with us for several years, survive the pandemic?” They’re pretty much all foreigners, including Venezuelans like me, and they’ve come here under different visas and in different ways. They don’t have the same benefits and protections as people born here.

So we joined forces with Mera Kitchen Collective, which is a food-based cooperative in Baltimore that empowers chefs from around the world, many of whom are refugees. They had a GoFundMe page going to support meals for the community, and the need was immediately apparent. They hired our staff, ensuring that our workers could continue to make a living, and then our two teams proceeded to make meals that we would deliver. The requests started at about 250 per day and, some days, soared to 750. Communities in need found out about our program through word of mouth. It started out with people who knew Emily [Lerman, cofounder of Mera Kitchen Collective], and once the community leaders saw the quality of the food we were providing, we got more requests. At this point we’ve delivered over 54,000.

We decided that our community meals would be from-scratch, made every day, and with extremely fresh ingredients, like we serve in the restaurant. We want to ensure that the food is healthy and that, in the long run, it can transform the city of Baltimore, which has huge populations of unsupported communities. We’re distributing meals to populations that have been harmed by systemic racism and who don’t have access to high-quality, nutrient-rich food.

But beyond providing meals that were just delicious, we wanted to take a more sustainable, holistic approach. We asked ourselves, “What does it mean to give food? And what kind of food do we give?” Our meals are based on the planetary health diet, which is good not only for humans but also for the planet, and they incorporate as much produce as possible from local farms.

Right now we’re very pandemic-oriented, but we want to continue to be committed to the city beyond the walls of our restaurant forever. We are working with all kinds of people to help us continue this momentum into the future. Since April, World Central Kitchen has been supporting us, and they’ve been instrumental in providing a model for our organization. We’ve created our own formal organization with Mera Kitchen Collective called Alkimiah that’s formally launching this week. This project is indefinite—we want to continue until we see the food inequities of Baltimore addressed and resolved, and we are working directly with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, policy makers, and the city to make it happen. We’re giving healthful food to communities that don’t have access to it. But success, or at least the next chapter, will be when those communities have sources for food within their own spaces. —As told to Sarah Jampel

Tuesday, August 18

“My dream was to have a permanent space with a small grocery and stands serving food from the diaspora. COVID-19 has unfortunately delayed all that.”

Mary Blackford, Market 7, Washington, D.C.: I’m always fighting for food justice. My fire is always burning. The pandemic has hurt many Black communities across the country, in part due to inequities in healthcare. But I know from my work that this also includes access to healthy food. I live in Ward 7. A few years ago, Wards 7 and 8 only had three grocery stores servicing 150,000 people. Oftentimes the term food desert is used to describe neighborhoods like this, but really “food apartheid” is more accurate. A desert implies something that’s a natural occurrence, while the word apartheid takes into account the intentional discrimination that has left us economically disenfranchised.

Three years ago I launched Market 7, a pop-up community marketplace that features Black-owned businesses. We’ve given 60 amazing businesses, from local hot sauces to urban farms to candlemakers, spaces to sell their products. Recently, we were asked to be the anchor tenant of a new 7,000-square-foot food hall in Ward 7 called Benning Market and I was thrilled. My dream was to have a permanent space with a small grocery and stands serving food from the diaspora—cuisine from the Americas, the Caribbean and Africa.

COVID-19 has unfortunately delayed all that. We usually have our pop-ups throughout the summer and fall, but by May I knew I had to call off the season. I thought, “This is just not going to happen.” Besides our markets, my vendors usually work other events, which are now mostly cancelled, so they’re feeling a financial strain. I’ve been trying to get them as many resources as possible, connecting them with community groups, texting and emailing them about grant opportunities, and designing digital versions of the business workshops we normally hold in person. A lot of these businesses are renting out commercial kitchens and co-working spaces. They have bills to pay. A lot of them have had to let employees go. I’m doing everything I can to help keep them afloat. I’m continuing to work with Whole Foods to get more Black businesses into their mid-Atlantic-region stores: Four of my Black-owned brands are in the newest D.C. location. I never want to see a small business fold, especially east of the river. It would be a real loss.

The food hall opening has been pushed too, to 2021, and we’re having to reconsider a lot of things. To me, markets are about fellowship and getting together, but now we’re having to rethink it. How will people engage with the counter space? How will we structure the lines? But I try not to get down about things. I see it as, “Okay, this is the new normal.” We’ll deal with it how we need to deal with it and keep it moving. We find solutions and we keep going.

I’m working nonstop on getting the food hall opened to address this issue of food apartheid in this community. I’m collaborating with the development company on designs and plans for Benning Market and staying up into the wee hours to apply for grants. But this is just the beginning. Eventually, I would love to see Market 7 expand to or serve as a blueprint for other communities. And I want to see our businesses grow tremendously outside the market, too. I want Black businesses to be part of every drawer or cabinet you have in your home. Supporting Black businesses needs to be a conscious part of everyday purchasing decisions. To me, having Black businesses represented on food shelves and in stores is part of achieving justice within the larger food system. —As told to Sophia F. Gottfried

Tuesday, August 11

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The pay-what-you-want vegan curry plate at Short Stories in New York City

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Photo by Ashwin Deshmukh” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/YBRSW.sy5TGR.7Zf0.OExg–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTk2MA–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/bon_appetit_189/a250d0c85a00717b1d922175127972b7″ class=”caas-img”/>

The pay-what-you-want vegan curry plate at Short Stories in New York City

Photo by Ashwin Deshmukh

“With the $600 supplemental unemployment check being cut, I knew people were going to be worried about their next meal. We realized we could do our part.”

Jeanne Jordan and Ashwin Deshmukh, Short Stories, New York City:
JJ: I felt like my family was getting to a good place financially, then the pandemic happened. I’m fortunate to have work, but I know a lot of people are unemployed right now and we wanted to help out as much as possible. With the $600 supplemental unemployment check being cut, I knew people were going to be worried about their next meal.

AD: So we started a pay-what-you-want vegan curry plate on Wednesday nights. We wanted to call it “pay-what-you-want” versus “pay-what-you-can” because we really don’t want any negative stigma attached to it. We were inspired by other New York City restaurants donating resources, food, and time throughout the pandemic. We realized we could do our part this way. Curry is sustainable. It’s meant to feed a lot of people, and it’s something Jeanne and I both grew up eating. Jeanne’s mother would make a chicken curry with fish sauce, ginger, carrots, and potatoes, and I had avial, a Keralan curry. Jeanne’s curry for Short Stories reminds me of the one I grew up with.

JJ: I watched a lot of Padma Lakshmi’s Instagram Lives and one time she made a dish with lemon rice and lots of curry leaves and spices. So I sort of mashed up my mom’s curry with what I learned from Padma. This curry is nutritious and will hopefully make people feel a little bit better. It has a stick-to-your-bones feel with a very spicy and unctuous broth and veggies I’ll swap out weekly based on seasonality.

AD: Last Wednesday was our first day with the pay-what-you-want program. We sold about 120 plates of curry. We posted on Instagram a few days before and that post went viral. We were really surprised that happened. We’re just a small 20-seat restaurant, so doing this felt really great. Our suggested price was $16 because we figured if some people wanted to pay that amount, it would supplement those who paid less. We knew the costs would balance out. Even if no one could pay us anything, we could keep this Wednesday curry night happening for a decent amount of time since all of the money we collect from the meals goes right back into the curry pot. Our hope is to feed 500 people each week with our curry plates.

Before the pandemic, Short Stories was a place for cocktails, dancing, and big parties. We were always tied to the creative community of the city and now we’re connected to the community around us in need. —As told to Emily Schultz

Monday, August 10

“Because Korean people could not travel to other countries, something really intriguing happened: Koreans started coming out to eat at fine-dining restaurants.”

Sung Anh, Mosu, Seoul: When the pandemic started, it wasn’t chaos, even though it hit this part of the world first. The restaurant was pretty calm. People didn’t stop coming out. Then there was one incident at a church in February where a lot of people gathered and it really spread—only then did people realize it was serious and not like prior viruses.

Suddenly, everyone stopped coming out, locals and foreigners. Forty percent of our guests are foreigners, and they all just stopped coming. I was thinking, “Should I send my family to L.A.?” I was obviously concerned about the business, but watching the news about how quickly and easily the virus can spread, I thought sending my family to Los Angeles would be a good option since my parents live there. At the time U.S. and European countries were not threatened by the virus, at least not on the surface. I decided not to, and we all stayed here.

Restaurants were never mandatorily closed by the government. None of the safety precautions were mandatory, not even wearing masks. Yet these became unwritten law—that if there is a virus, you should be wearing a mask and doing social distancing. Wearing masks is just so normal here. That helped a lot.

Early on a community of chefs gathered to talk about how we can get through this. There was no way we could do takeout and delivery because we already have amazing takeout in this neighborhood, Itaewon, and the laws are very strict around taking food off premises. We all decided, “No one is coming in, so let’s use this time to benefit our employees.” We all started trading employees among our restaurants to serve what few guests we had. The idea was that they could experience a different restaurant and different way of thinking. This is the least that we could do. But that wasn’t going to help us as a business.

Thankfully, people started coming back to the restaurant in March. They felt comfortable coming into fine-dining restaurants, whereas those mid-level, family-style restaurants where people gather and sit close to each other at communal tables—those are still empty. We were one of the first fine-dining restaurants to have all of our employees wear masks. We had sanitizer at every station in the kitchen. Still, sales were 50 to 60 percent of what they were because, again, we depend on foreigners. And as countries were banning travel to Korea, Korea was banning travel to countries that banned us.

We were doing everything we possibly could and sales were still down. What could we do? But then, because Korean people could not travel to other countries, something really intriguing happened: Koreans started coming out to eat at fine-dining restaurants. Korean diners never embraced fine dining before. They go out to get kimchi jjigae and galbi, but that is everyday food. The idea of paying a high price for eating experience was never sought-after by Korean people. It was always about value, quantity, and occasionally the atmosphere of the restaurant. I think it’s a cultural thing. Not even a hundred years ago, Korea was invaded by Japan and, after independence, civil war broke out and divided the already tiny country in half, which led to much hunger and suffering. [Korea] was one of the poorest countries in the world. Pre-corona, people who spend money on food were already traveling all over the world to dine at the finest establishments and never really cared for Korean fine dining, thinking it was immature compared to other cities. But now they have no choice. All the people that used to travel to eat outside of Korea, they started staying in Korea and experiencing Korea through food.

Right now we are doing more sales than ever before—with zero foreigners. That’s pretty amazing. Our sales this month have been higher than last year’s holiday season. Conversations with first-time guests are always interesting. I ask them what brings them to a fine-dining restaurant for the first time and their responses are similar: that they wanted to leave the house, do something, experience new things. Since they cannot go far or get on the plane, they came to take a culinary trip.

But the virus has been spiking in Korea. The second wave might be hitting, and I am scared because my kids are in kindergarten and there are people getting sick in school. But as a chef I want to be a part of the solution. I know business is good, but I still need to do my part in stopping the spread of the virus, even if it’s just in my restaurant. Chefs make tough decisions everyday and it’s more difficult than ever before. For a while I’ll have to shift my mindset to focus our business toward safety rather than cuisine and revenue. —As told to Priya Krishna

Friday, August 7

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A beer sample from Fresh Fest, the first Black beer festival in America

Photo Courtesy Fresh Fest” src=”” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/Yhxrird9Ukof5muS9WESgg–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTk2MA–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/bon_appetit_189/743a8db0446ccc8c877b33eafb105a8e”/>

Photo Courtesy Fresh Fest” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/Yhxrird9Ukof5muS9WESgg–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTk2MA–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/bon_appetit_189/743a8db0446ccc8c877b33eafb105a8e” class=”caas-img”/>

A beer sample from Fresh Fest, the first Black beer festival in America

Photo Courtesy Fresh Fest

“We began preparing to postpone the festival to next year, and word got out. People kept hitting us up on social media, saying, ‘We need something to look forward to.’”

Day Bracey, Fresh Fest Digi Fest, Pittsburgh: We started Fresh Fest back in 2018. It was America’s first Black beer festival. We don’t want to just build a bigger craft beer community—we want to build a more equitable society through craft beer. This is a $119 billion industry with less than 1 percent Black representation. It’s difficult to try craft beers when you’re Black because typically you have to go into majority white spaces, majority white neighborhoods, and if you watch the news, this can often lead to aggression from either locals or police in those areas. We wanted to create a festival that provides a safe space and representation. It’s important to see people who look like you that are doing well in the industry and see that you can too.

We had our last in-person meeting for Fresh Fest back in March and right after that we found out that Tom Hanks had the ’rona and that the NBA had cancelled its season. That was the point when we started to be like, “Well, this is pretty serious and we may not be having this festival.” I would like to say that it was the CDC or WHO that changed our minds, but it was Tom Hanks and the NBA.

Around the end of April we began preparing to postpone the festival to next year and word got out. People kept tweeting at us and hitting us up on social media. Our in-boxes were full of people saying, “You know sh*t is really bad right now. The news is nothing but terrible news. It’s pandemic or racism, pandemic or racism. We need something to look forward to, so if you guys could keep the festival going, that would be dope, even if it’s in a digital capacity.”

Initially, I was reluctant to go digital. There is a level of quality that is expected of us and if we weren’t able to attain that, then we weren’t gonna put on a festival. Luckily, when we approached Work Hard Digital, one of our main sponsors, and talked to them about the possibility of a digital festival and what it meant to do it right, they were able to work out the numbers and felt that it was doable. By mid-May, we decided to go ahead and move forward with Fresh Fest Digi Fest.

A lot of inspiration came from watching deejays on Instagram, D-Nice, Jazzy Jeff, Mannie Fresh. It’s gotten me through this pandemic. It’s quality entertainment and pretty easy to set up your stream. I have no problem hangin’ at home, shakin’ my ass, drinkin’ with a fridge full of beer. It was then that I was like, “Huh, I would pay for this.”

Work Hard Digital was able to put together the Fresh Fest app, which provides users with a festival schedule, a marketplace for both tickets and swag, instructions for getting Black-owned beer shipped to your door through Tavour, workshops, and so many other cool resources. Once someone buys a ticket, which is just $10, they will get a private link to six streaming channels on YouTube, which we recorded ahead of time and goes live the first day of the fest.

Fresh Fest Digi Fest kicks off on tomorrow and tickets are available to purchase up until September 8. There’s 54 hours of entertainment on the six YouTube channels that can’t all be absorbed within 24 hours, which is why we extended the fest from one day to a whole month. We’re also working with breweries to release beer all across the country throughout the month, so you’re able to enjoy the festival whenever you get your beer.

Drinking from afar isn’t nearly as fun as in person, but this opens the door to a wider array of speakers. It also means that anybody on the planet can experience talks from the likes of Dr. J. Jackson-Beckham and Garrett Oliver, and learn about opportunities within the beer industry, and taste all these beer collaborations without having to fly all the way into Pittsburgh.

Moving forward the digital aspect isn’t going anywhere. The Fresh Fest app has a Black-owned breweries directory, a list of sponsors, speakers, artists, and how you can support and follow them. You’ll be able find business workshop opportunities, and giveaways. There are a bunch of things in that app to keep the community connected virtually throughout the year. This is not just a one-day thing. It extends our ability to reach more people, so I think that’s the biggest advantage of it all, but what’s missing is a hug. You can’’t get a hug virtually, and I’m a hugger so this pandemic is rough, man. It’s gonna be rough for a while. —As told to David Neimanis

Thursday, August 6

“The minute cold and flu season comes back, I’m ready to close down indoor dining again if I have to.”

Laurel Beth Kratochvila, Fine Bagels, Berlin: My bakery and cafe is in Berlin and I feel pretty lucky about that. At the height of COVID-19, there was no indoor dining for almost two months. Still, the city allowed takeaway windows and delivery services to operate, so we did both to keep some money coming in. Even if I hadn’t been able to do that, I would have been fine—between the city and the federal government, businesses like mine were given €14,000 for rent and fixed costs and wages for my staff were paid, so no firing was necessary. U.S.A., take note. This is how you get your gastro industry through a pandemic.

Once we resumed indoor dining, it came with some workable, government-mandated capacity limits and restrictions. Enforcing this is the Ordnungsamt, a very German branch of public servants whose job is to maintain order. In ordinary times, that means parking tickets and noise complaints. Now it’s COVID-19 regulations. This is possibly the first time they’ve ever been really useful! The most basic of the new rules is that you can have only one diner per 10 square meters and tables need to be a meter-and-a-half apart. My shop is 140 square meters, so I can have 14 customers total in my space. It’s a big drop from the usual 50, but it’s the summer, so I can have about 25 people outside, which will keep things relatively normal until October and November. Also, people from no more than two households can be seated together, which is basically impossible to enforce and we don’t do it. It’s only clear when a group of ten 25-year-olds crowd in on each other. Otherwise, who am I to say what a family or household looks like?

I’m happy about the regulations. They’re keeping us all safe. The one thing I’m frustrated with is the lack of client participation or outright flouting of the rules. In our shop, we’ve got signs everywhere, asking people to wear masks, to not move the furniture. Most of our customers are great people doing their parts, but there’s a significant minority who just don’t care. They don’t wear their masks when they’re waiting in line and they move the furniture so they can put big groups together. The majority of folks who do this are almost 100 percent men in their early twenties, followed by women in their early twenties. In non-pandemic times, this is the primary demographic who left big messes and disrespected cafe etiquette in general, so I think it’s just a continuation of that. I think it comes down to entitlement and not thinking about one’s impact on others. But when customers do that, people will denounce your shop on Google Reviews since they think you’re not complying.

Another German guideline is that businesses are responsible for taking down the name, phone number, and address of every customer who dines in. That’s for traceability. The law is that, after four weeks, the contact data is destroyed and we respect that. The situation calls for mutual trust. In Germany, people are protective of their data. So a lot of people see this as a violation and we have a lot of customers who will just openly say, “Well, I’m not putting my real details here.” There’s nothing I can really do about it.

Two weeks ago, there was an outbreak at a local bar and at least 18 people tested positive. But they couldn’t trace everybody because people left fake phone numbers and fake addresses. So they don’t actually know how far that spread. I’m struggling with that very delicate balance of customer compliance and customer service; I’m still trying to sell things and make people happy, but nobody likes being told what to do.

But the minute cold and flu season comes back, I’m ready to close down indoor dining again, if I have to. We have a good plan in place because we’ve already had to do this. When we switched to delivery and takeaway, we managed to pay the bills and keep our salaries. It wouldn’t have been possible without the safety net the government put in place though. That’s part of why I’m ready but not super worried about another shutdown. If we need to, we can transition overnight back to a delivery model with online ordering and a takeaway window. It seems pessimistic, but I have to think this way. —As told to Joe Baur

Monday, August 3

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Goodrich-Removable-Glass-Screens-for-Banquettes

Goodrich is designing with COVID-19 in mind and making removable glass screens in between banquettes

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Goodrich is designing with COVID-19 in mind and making removable glass screens in between banquettes

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Goodrich is designing with COVID-19 in mind and making removable glass screens in between banquettes

Rendering Courtesy Goodrich

“Some of the biggest trends and evolutions in hospitality design suddenly feel dangerous.”

Matthew Goodrich, Goodrich, NYC: Our work is almost entirely restaurant and hotel design. So when most of our clients had to close in mid-March, we were left asking ourselves: What are we going to do? Our first instinct was to create new design solutions for our clients in response to COVID-19, many of them pro bono. We looked at previous designs for all the restaurants we’ve worked with and tried to space out their furniture. We created an outdoor portion for one restaurant by painting over its parking lot and filling it with furniture repainted to match. It was an investment in our shared future.

But the reality is that this situation is still evolving, so it’s hard to know exactly what to do in order to design restaurants with health and safety at the forefront. There is a lack of reliable information about health and safety protocols, and there are no clear recommendations that are uniformly agreed upon or enforced. That is maddening for a designer. Design is based on data and using that data to solve problems. We pride ourselves on understanding best health and safety practices when designing areas like open kitchens and service stations for hotels and restaurants. But we just don’t have enough solid information about how this virus will change regulations and safety practices. So we’re responding to whatever data we can get. For example, we developed hands-free hardware for bathroom doors after researching surface transmission of the virus. Even if this ends up being unnecessary, guests may prefer this post-COVID.

We don’t know how this will impact the hospitality industry in the long term. Will guest behavior change permanently? Will health and safety codes look totally different? So far it seems like there will be a complete 180. What started with the Ace Hotel lobby effect—hundreds of people hanging out in a hotel lobby, eating, drinking, and working—has now become problematic. Just the thought of walking into a lobby with hundreds of people packed in there will make some people avoid going to a hotel at all. Some of the biggest trends and evolutions in hospitality design suddenly feel dangerous.

We’re still working on projects that began before COVID and now have to keep all this in mind. For a restaurant with Danny Meyer, we’re making removable screens out of beveled glass and brass to keep people distanced at banquettes. We’re also working with Marriott to integrate safety practices into the arrival and lobby experience that reassure guests without making them uncomfortable. I’m trying to address immediate concerns with design, but even when there is a vaccine and the hyper-vigilance around COVID lessens, I feel like my own habits and preferences will be forever changed. —As told to Allie Wist

Tuesday, July 28

“Every week a lot of restaurants throw in the towel. It makes me wonder: Is it inevitable? Is this worth fighting for?”

Brandon Jew, Mister Jiu’s, San Francisco: We’re trying to stay afloat, but things seem to be getting worse. Everything that was working before is no longer working. After everyone was tapped out from cooking at home around mid-May, we got a boost in takeout and delivery. But when outdoor dining happened in San Francisco a month ago, delivery dipped a bit. Grocery pick-up has slowed too. We set up some outdoor tables, but we haven’t had one person sit down. Chinatown is empty compared to other neighborhoods like Mission or Divisadero with blocks shut down and outdoor seating that feels kind of European. They’ve become a scene. The largest lines here are for free food being passed out.

Then there’s PPP [Paycheck Protection Program]. With PPP we’re profitable since it covers labor and utilities. But if we didn’t have PPP, we’d be 80 percent over budget. Seeing that on the last P&L, it was like a gut punch. Basically, once our PPP runs out, I have to do at least 90 percent better than what I’m doing now to make some sort of profit. It’s hard to figure out how to make that work. When I talk to the managers and the team we hired back, we realize we still have some time to get business back—especially since we got PPP later on, so we have 24 weeks to spend it instead of just eight weeks, which is how long people who got the first round of PPP had. I’m trying to think of creative ways to get new business, like doing more collaborations. I’m talking to Del Popolo about doing some kind of flatbread with Xinjiang-spiced lamb, something that we’d never do on our own but is just a way to help each other out. But the reality is that, if we didn’t have PPP, we’d survive for only a couple more days. Which is why all the restaurants are hopeful for the Restaurants Act [a $120 billion fund that gives small restaurants grants to pay for payroll, benefits, mortgage, rent, protective equipment, food, and other costs] to get passed. I read that the Senate is trying to pass something by August 7, which is my birthday. So I’ll be drinking to something that day.

July was supposed to be the start of indoor dining, but a couple days before it was supposed to start we got news that it wasn’t happening. We weren’t planning on opening, but I had some friends who were and they had to cancel all their reservations. People keep saying that I shouldn’t expect to reopen until next year. This first wave hasn’t gone away and we’re rolling into fall and flu season. It’s sad because every week a lot of restaurants throw in the towel. It makes me wonder: Is it inevitable? Is this worth fighting for?

I kind of have plan B and C already in place. Anna Lee, my wife, has gone back to school for interior design. I’m considering taking some classes because if this doesn’t work out I need to know what to do next. I’ve always been interested in architecture, but that would be a long road. With Anna Lee, I was thinking we could do something together and that I could learn some new skills in designing restaurant kitchens. We enjoyed designing and building out our restaurants, so perhaps down the road we could help design a restaurant or kitchen for someone else.

But I’m trying to not get too far ahead of myself. I want to stay in the moment. I’m always looking for new things each week to keep us going. For our outdoor dining we decided to offer reservations and now we’re fully booked for next week! I mean, we only have three tables, all two tops. That’s still a solution for us and makes us feel a little more optimistic. —As told to Elyse Inamine

Wednesday, July 22

“As a restaurant owner, you lose in any direction you take. You lose if you stay closed, you lose if you stay open.”

Nina Compton, Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro, New Orleans: They closed the bars again here last week. Restaurants can still operate at 50 percent capacity—right now Compère Lapin is closed and Bywater American Bistro is operating at 50 percent—but we’re living week to week. You just don’t know what the governor’s going to say tomorrow. Everybody I’ve been talking to, they’re just like, “We’re just waiting for them to say we’re going to close up.” A friend of mine told me she’s going back to to-go because the number of cases here are going up and the staff is scared. But it’s so risky no matter what you do.

Last week I was on a call with Senator Kennedy’s office trying to get him to sign off on the Restaurant Act [a $120 billion fund that gives small restaurants grants to pay for payroll, benefits, mortgage, rent, protective equipment, food, and other costs]. I told him, “We’re not opening our restaurants to make a profit. We’re just trying to get by.” You know? I’m not doing it because I’m bored. I need to survive. We need some kind of help, and it should not come in the form of a loan because how the hell am I going to pay it back? I physically cannot.

When you read these reports about how the spike is because of restaurants—people being out and people being careless—I get it. But what do we do? There’s no rent abatement. Most of us still have to pay $35,000, $50,000, even $100,000 a month. If you have enough money in your bank account, you can close for a year. But most of us cannot afford that. Here in New Orleans, Paul Prudhomme’s restaurant K-Paul closed for good after 40 years. I think that is on everybody’s mind: How long can you keep going? And what do we fall back on if we close? No industries are hiring.

The biggest problem for everybody has been the lack of leadership from day one. COVID has been downplayed the entire time, like “Oh, no, no, no, we have a couple of cases.” And if the president initially says, “It’s okay, you don’t have to wear a mask,” then people are not going to wear a mask.

Also, the government has been very slow in expressing their plans. I understand we’ve never seen anything like this, but what they’re doing now is not giving enough people enough information, which is dangerous. Take, for example, the fact that unemployment’s supposed to run out at the end of this month. When this was announced months ago, we thought we would be in a better place by now. We thought the economy would have stabilized, business would be coming back, not at 100 percent but at least by 75 percent. That was the vision. And now we’re basically worse off than March 15. So as the government, why wouldn’t you say something like, “Okay, we have to extend unemployment.” It may be a lower rate, but at least give people something. At least allow people to prepare. Don’t pull the rug out from under their feet because that’s when people will riot—crime will go up because people are getting desperate.

As a restaurant owner you lose in any direction you take. You lose if you stay closed, you lose if you stay open, and then the biggest fear for every owner right now is if somebody in your staff gets sick. Then what do you do? You close, you lose money. You stay open, you’re the bad guy. It’s another lose-lose situation. —As told to Hilary Cadigan

Tuesday, July 21

“We’re trying to have these conversations often so people understand that diversity and inclusion isn’t just donating to the NAACP or hiring people of color, but making them feel seen.”

Deepti Sharma, Food to Eat, New York City: Food to Eat started in 2011 as an online ordering platform for food trucks since no one was doing this. But in the end, this business model didn’t work out because food trucks had to constantly adapt. Mayor Bloomberg at the time was changing the laws and trucks were getting kicked out by police or given tickets.

So we pivoted Food to Eat to partner with women-, immigrant-, and minority-owned restaurants to book catering. A lot of times their sole focus was on the restaurant and they didn’t have time to think about catering, which can be the most profitable part of a business. We consolidate food orders for big companies like Warby Parker, The Skimm, and others. We encourage these clients to use their purchasing power to invest in local businesses—their responsibility isn’t just the community inside their building but outside. As a woman of color I’ve always felt like diversity and inclusion was important, and through Food to Eat we’re creating inclusivity through food and beverage.

When we delivered the food pre-COVID-19, we started photographing the people who made it. We called it our “I Made Your Food” series. Having the photograph of the chef and owner in front of the food they made for the client allowed them to acknowledge that person for two minutes. Soon we started interviewing the chefs and owners and sending those videos to the client before the catering drop. Then we started a dinner series, where chefs weren’t just serving food but telling their stories and eating with diners. We could humanize the people behind the food through storytelling.

But now, due to COVID-19, we’re in a funky place. No one is in the office, and we can’t host private dinners. In March we started a fundraiser to purchase meals from our restaurant partners and donate them to frontline hospital workers and violence survivors living in shelters. We raised over $60,000. Now we’re handing meals to protestors for Black Lives Matter. We’ve donated 200 meals so far. We’re also thinking about what the long-term goal is and what we can do to keep helping these causes.

We’re starting to host internal panels and fireside-style chats with the companies we work on Google Hangouts and Zoom. Our thought is that we live in a society where systems are not in place to help women, minorities, and immigrants. No one is going to force people to have these conversations. So we’re trying to do two things: talk about diversity and inclusion in arts and culture and food and beverage. We just did one with Warby Parker, where we had a person from a nonprofit and a well-known jazz musician talk about Black Lives Matter, COVID, and capital. We’ll do another one with one of our chefs so he can talk about his food, his story. We’re trying to have these conversations often so people understand that diversity and inclusion isn’t just donating to the NAACP or hiring people of color, but making them feel seen.

We’re seeing these events as case studies, and we’ll start to pitch it to other clients and companies soon. The idea is not to do this work for free (Warby is paying us). It’s not sustainable. So we’re setting a budget with Warby Parker. The dream is to partner with bigger companies, like Discover or MasterCard. —As told to Elyse Inamine

Wednesday, July 15

“We use food production as a platform to teach leadership skills and encourage young people to practice sustainable agriculture and advocate for food justice.”

Devon Turner, Grow Dat Youth Farm, New Orleans: We were categorized as an essential operation early on when COVID-19 hit because we’re food producers. We’re growing at a capacity of 35,000 pounds of produce a year. The majority of that food goes into our CSA boxes, which has a membership of 130 people, and the remaining produce is donated through our shared harvest program, which serves hundreds of people who live communities where access to fresh food is limited or nonexistent. We usually welcome hundreds of volunteers onto our farm annually, but without those volunteers and the young people in our farm-based programs, we’ve had to rely on a 10-person staff to produce the food that people in the city rely upon.

Grow Dat is a youth leadership development organization. We use food production as a platform to teach leadership skills and encourage young people to practice sustainable agriculture, learn about local food systems, and advocate for food justice. Our core leadership program is our main offering, running from January to June. It relies heavily on experiential learning—getting your hands in the soil, examining ecosystems on the farm, harvesting and distributing fresh produce through donations or sales, learning new perspectives through team building. We had 45 young people hired as crew members, eight assistant crew leaders, and four crew leaders who supported the assistant crew leaders. We had to figure out to have this programming in a remote way that still supported young people who relied upon our programs as a source of employment and a way to meaningfully connect with their peers.

We distributed assignments and small projects on a weekly basis and offered spaces for crew members to connect through email, phone calls, and Zoom. They were asked to complete readings about food systems and folks doing the work of food justice, do research on community projects engaged in food-related work. A lot depended on them being able to grow in their own homes: a mix of salad greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers. We offered starter plants when we could.

Shortly after the murder of George Floyd and the spring wave of civil unrest, a citywide fundraising day happened to be scheduled: Give NOLA Day. It was also Black Out Tuesday, which was a national day of action whereby people were called to support businesses and organizations led by and serving Black and brown people. We received an outpouring of support because Grow Dat is now a Black-led organization primarily working with young people of color to mitigate food insecurity in the city.

Crescent City Farmers’ Market, one of our partner organizations, posted on their social media that instead of people supporting their organization, they should support Black-led organizations in the city like Grow Dat and Liberty’s Kitchen. There were other organizations in the city who asked potential donors to do the same. We benefited from the love we saw through those calls to action: We brought in almost $23,000, and that was one day. Before that moment and certainly after that moment, donations were pouring in. People donated $3 and people donated hundreds, and we’re appreciative of them all. Our earned revenue streams had taken a major hit this spring; farm dinners, field trips, community workshops were all cancelled. We couldn’t host the Hootenanny, our annual fundraiser and concert, so the additional money helped to balance out the loss.

Within the past month and half, we were approached by the ACLU of Louisiana to partner on the Children’s March for Racial Justice. I’m the mother of two Black sons, and we were looking for a space for young people to learn about racial injustice in a protected way, talk about civil unrest, and, if they so choose, act on it. I believe we do have a responsibility to do that kind of work because young people in our programs are being impacted by what these movements are fighting for.

One of our organizational values is solidarity. We’re continuously thinking about what it means to stand in solidarity with other organizations who may or may not be doing food-related work but are fighting to improve the quality of life of young people in our programs and working to create an antiracist world. It really is a defining moment for us. —As told to Aliza Abarbanel

Tuesday, July 14

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Two prep cooks working at Union Square Hospitality Group, which was a client of ESL Works

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