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 around the world to share what they’re seeing in their communities, how they’ve been affected, and how they’re responding.
Monday, October 19
“We finally opened our own natural wine bottle shop, and it’s become a huge piece of our post-COVID game plan.”
Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski, Apteka, Pittsburgh: We are a Slavic restaurant that is entirely vegan. So much of that is conveyed by being in the space—seeing, smelling, and tasting the food; hearing the music; being a part of the crowd. It is a sensory and physical experience as much as it’s about food. But there’s only so much of that intimacy that you can translate into takeout.
When Pittsburgh got its first COVID-19 cases, we initially tried to stay open for no-contact, takeout-only service for a few days a week. With a skeleton crew, we managed to convert some of our alcohol inventory into cash and sell enough food to pay our bills and land softly. But as more people in the industry were getting sick, we decided to close up shop. We wanted a better sense of how safe it was to be open at all. We stayed closed for three months, until parts of the state began to open around June.
We worked on a plan to reopen in such a way that we wouldn’t have to close down again—some places in Pittsburgh had to close back up after cases spiked—while trying to maintain some of the spirit of the restaurant. So, we expedited some longer term plans. We started to bottle cocktails that are entirely based on cordials and tinctures we’ve been making for years, crafted from fruit we pick and things we forage in the woods of western Pennsylvania. The same goes for all kinds of non-alcoholic concoctions—we started to make and bottle organic bread kvass and sparkling fruit kompot for folks to pick up and take home.
We finally opened our own natural wine bottle shop, and it’s become a huge piece of our post-COVID game plan. We purchased an additional license from the PLCB (Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board), which was a gamble. All wine and spirits that are sold in the state need to go through this board. They issue different types of licenses, depending on the business, but they’re all pretty limited in scope and not cheap. So if you want to be able to sell alcohol on Sundays or to-go, you need to pay for each additional thing on top of your license and also renew that license every year, which costs about $2,000.
It’s already a tough market because wine prices are high in Pennsylvania, due to taxes. And we are way more limited in terms of natural wine distributors—we had to convince some to start selling here. It’s bogus and a lot of work, but we think it will pay off. We might be the only natural wine shop in this half of the state, and we’re definitely Pittsburgh’s first natural wine bottle shop, which is a big deal given how difficult the liquor laws are here.
Now you can walk up to the table shoved in our door and talk to us about our newly expanded carry-out bottle list, which includes many wines from Eastern Europe. When it comes to food, we didn’t want to make compromises. But we were torn: We work closely with several small organic farms and we knew they lost so much of their normal business during their peak season due to restaurant closures. So even more than normal, we decided to be incredibly flexible with the menu and work off of what farms had to sell. Too much chard, too much zucchini, too much tomato—it all turns into our menu for the week. We want to see our staple suppliers, like Who Cooks For You Farm, make it into next year without a lost season.
Currently we’re open for two days of food and drink service and two days of just cocktails, non-alcoholic drinks, and wines to-go. We’re small, but we’re nimble. Because of that, for the first time since we opened four years ago, we actually have flexible days. Now we can find time to pick fruit or forage flowers for projects, take time to experiment, go to the woods, or just sit down. It’s also made us think about the Apteka that people will come back to. Before, we were packed and we were exhausted. The road forward for us is one that really reimagines the balance of time spent maintaining our day to day, the hard work that pushes us forward, and the sustainability of the business. It has been (and still is) a complicated equation. But so much of operating a restaurant is built on creativity and optimism, and I guess this is going to be another test of that. –As told to Allie Wist
Thursday, October 15
“For us, it’s not just about surviving but keeping our heritage alive.”
Alex Park, Cho Dang Gol, New York City: Cho Dang Gol is a 20-year-old tofu house near Manhattan’s Koreatown. It was opened in 1997 by a grandmother who became famous for traditional homemade Korean tofu and stews. She has since passed the restaurant down to her daughter, then she passed it to her son before Hand Hospitality group took over. I manage it now, and Cho Dang Gol has operated every single day for decades, during every holiday, hurricane, and snowstorm—until coronavirus.
When the pandemic first hit New York City, our foremost concern was (and still is) cleanliness. We handle everything very carefully and have strict temperature checks, socially distanced tables, and outdoor dining. The heart of our menu depends on tofu that’s made fresh every morning and served in hot stone pots—you’ll see us gingerly carrying the pots to our outside tents and wooden patio. New York City weather was really unpredictable this summer, with all the rainstorms, so it’s been challenging to say the least. We’re excited we can open for indoor dining at 25% capacity now, just to have a sense of normality and to greet customers again. For indoor dining, we take temperatures of everyone entering, ask customers to sanitize hands, and wear masks until seated at their table, which of course has been sanitized thoroughly in between guests.
For us, it’s not just about surviving but keeping our heritage alive. The thing that drives us in the first place is creating these dishes we’ve perfected over the past 20 years. We’ve always had a full house, and it’s certainly frustrating not being able to accommodate all our guests, but we’re also scared for everyone’s safety. Many of our regulars are of the older generation looking to satisfy their cravings, but we haven’t seen them in months. We don’t reach out to invite these regulars out of concern, as much as we miss them.
Reality and passion feels like two opposite views right now in the pandemic. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was helpful for a short while to pay staff, but rent in midtown Manhattan is still sky-high. We’re in rent negotiations but have not heard back yet. We take cues from the mayor, the news, and the city, but everything is so uncertain. We’re hoping for something more durable than PPP and that customers will continue to order more takeout and delivery as we reach capacity.
Our silver lining is that Cho Dang Gol, which prides itself in tradition, finally became more digital. Similar to the rest of Koreatown, we never took reservations until the pandemic. We developed additional delivery services and started using Resy. For the first time, we could see where our guests come from and realized many of our guests come from outside Manhattan, such as New Jersey and the surrounding New York boroughs, which was wonderful.
Another positive was that we created a new combination menu for outdoor dining with elements of our best dishes at an affordable price [given how people are experiencing financial insecurity]. We’re known for dumpling jeongol (spicy hot pot with kimchi), dubu duruchigi (spicy stir-fried pork with homemade tofu), and traditional soybean stew as well as our seafood pancakes. Customers love being able to try a combination of our highlights, and making them happy is a bright spot during these uncertain times.
Winter is certainly daunting, and we’re uncertain what the next few weeks and months will bring us. We’re considering heat lamps for our outdoor tents as the weather gets colder. For now, we’ll continue outdoor dining as long as we can now that it’s permanent in New York City. —As told to Michelle Lee
Monday, October 12
“We had drag queens driving around in cars, with their sneakers on, delivering food. But our club is synonymous with drag. So we thought, Why not have them perform at the houses they were delivering to?”
D’Arcy Drollinger, Oasis, San Francisco: We’re the largest club in the U.S. owned by drag queens. We mean a lot to our community, and I feel lucky in that respect, that I have the community at large really fighting to keep us going. But it also means I have a bigger responsibility to not let it close.
Early this year my partners decided they wanted to retire from the club and theater world, and I considered letting it go as well. But I realized that I was very attached to the audiences and the performers, and I knew what the drag club means to the city. So I decided to keep it and buy out my partners. That was February. Then everything stopped a month later. We went from having 145 people come in for the earlier cabaret shows, followed by 300-plus people for the later night club events, to nothing.
We had to close completely; drag performers were furloughed and staff had to go on unemployment. The hard fact is that no one’s helping us. California has allowed the sale of to-go alcohol, paired with food, since March—but we’ve never served food at the club before and it seemed overwhelming to add such a big element to our business. We did get a little bit of PPP money in May, but we knew we’d need to pivot soon because it was running out fast.
I had ordered from Martha Avenue, a friend’s meal delivery service company, a couple times and was really blown away. The food was so good. Pre-pandemic, my friend was an actress and events coordinator and her boyfriend was a chef. They were both out of work, so they started this service. It occurred to me that my friend and I had complementary businesses: She had food but no drinks, and I had drinks but no food. Plus, Oasis already had a built-in customer base. By merging Oasis with Martha Avenue, we could expand both of our businesses and get some drag performers back to work making the deliveries.
At first, we just had the drag queens driving around in cars, with their sneakers on or whatnot, delivering the food. But Oasis is synonymous with drag, and it felt wrong to have someone dressed down show up at the door. So we thought, Why not have them perform at the houses they were delivering to? It can be social distanced, curbside, but it seemed like people wanted that drag element, that connection to another human being. And so the streets of San Francisco became our stage.
We call it our Meals on Heels delivery food service, and we officially launched in June. We’re using car stereos for music, headlights for spotlights—there’s a MacGyver-ish gotta-make-it-work-no-matter-what sort of element to it. It went so well and got so popular that we decided to make it a weekly thing. Now we’ve added a second day, so we’re doing Meals on Heels drag queen deliveries twice a week.
It has really resonated with people, especially in this time when everything is so intense with the fires, COVID-19, politics. There’s a lot of heaviness. To have a glimmer of rhinestones and feathers and makeup lifts people up, even for five minutes. We’re hungry for an experience, and we’re starved for connection. To see someone performing at your house, in the street, there’s a sparkle in that. Drag queens are the jesters of our time, really, and doing it outside is just so edgy and fabulous. For them, every house is a new adventure, filled with new terrain, challenges, and opportunities. There’s a USO aspect to what we’re doing, like we’re entertaining the troops during a crisis. Kids and grandparents are watching at the front door; neighbors are coming out for the show.
Financially, our business has been devastated. We’re paying half rent, barely, and there’s no money in the bank. But Oasis is still a success because I’m able to keep the lights on and pay our staff to make these deliveries and make people happy. COVID opened my eyes to new possibilities, and I’ll probably keep the drag deliveries going, even after the pandemic is over. We mean so much to our community, and I’m committed to seeing it through. –As told to Allyson Reedy
Friday, October 9
“We tried to start outdoor dining, but no one came because Gallup turned into a COVID hot spot.”
Shadi Sara, Oasis Mediterranean, Gallup, NM: I am originally from Palestine and moved to Gallup because my wife, who is also Palestinian, grew up here. It’s a nice small town on the I-40 corridor and a major station for the Burlington North Santa Fe train. There are a lot of different kinds of people here: The majority of residents are Native American, mostly Navajo because the Navajo Nation is around Gallup, but there are also Hispanic and Jewish populations and a small Middle Eastern community.
After moving to Gallup, I missed eating Mediterranean food. That is what I grew up on. We had to drive two hours away to Albuquerque or four and a half hours to Phoenix just to get falafel and hummus. So in 2018, I opened Oasis because I like cooking and I couldn’t find this kind of food. It ended up becoming pretty popular. Word of mouth helped. Local doctors would recommend Oasis to patients with diabetes—Gallup has a high rate—since our food is healthy, mostly salads and grilled items. Everything is homemade. We get a lot of tourists with people driving from New York or Florida to California or Arizona, specifically to see the Grand Canyon or the national forests.
That all changed once COVID-19 hit. Many of my customers were scared to come out, and it took a long time for them to get used to taking things to-go. They’re used to eating inside the restaurant and taking their time to chat with friends. In June, we tried to start outdoor dining, but no one came because Gallup turned into a COVID hot spot (Editor’s note: In McKinley County, which includes Gallup, one out of every 283 people has died from COVID-19). Navajo Nation was hit especially hard, and since Gallup is so close to the reservation, our town was also affected. Because of that, my customers did not feel comfortable eating around others, even outside.
Now we can have indoor dining at 25% capacity, and people feel more comfortable coming out. But my restaurant is small so I can only have 12 people at a time. Some days we fill that capacity and other days we don’t. So even with indoor dining, 90% of our sales are still to-go.
We’re running at cost now. There have been shortages of chicken, beef, cleaning supplies, to-go containers, and plastic silverware for months. And whenever I can get my hands on them, the prices are inflated. I’ve started selling groceries in the restaurant, things like olives and pickles that I usually give out to my customers for free with their meal, to help to keep us afloat. I’m hopeful that the governor’s orders will lift soon and I can have more customers back in the restaurant like they were before all of this started. —As told to Karen Fischer
Monday, October 5
“People didn’t go to bars for the food. They went for the drinks. But now that folks have to order food, we’ve moved from the background to the foreground.”
Mario Camargo and Chris Parks, Blake’s Grillery, Oakland, CA:
MC: I started Blake’s Grillery five years ago as a barbecue taco pop-up. Being a biracial cook—I’m Mexican and African American—I’ve never understood the obsession with being “authentic” to one cuisine or another. I’m half and half, and I just want to make what tastes good to me. That meant street tacos and barbecue. Over the years, I would go to friends’ bars and offer taco Tuesday deals or some such, and people really liked the food. I eventually became the mainstay food offering at one dive bar, and that’s how I met Chris. He owned Bar 41 at the time and was looking for a pop-up. It was a match made in heaven.
CP: Mario and Blake’s Grillery were at Bar 41 for about a year before the bar closed. At that point we went our separate ways but stayed really close. Mario left the food industry, but even after Bar 41 shut its doors, I stayed in it. I’m a trained sommelier, so I was able to pick up a variety of jobs.
But the pandemic changed everything. When Alameda County finally allowed bars to start opening again in June, they mandated that all bars serve a bona fide meal. Turns out a single street taco qualifies as a bonafide meal. I had this crazy idea: I wanted to provide a bona fide meal to all the great neighborhood bars, with big patios and plenty of outdoor space, that didn’t have a real food offering. I shared this idea on a Facebook group full of bar owners, and almost immediately I got several responses asking when I could start cooking. At that point, I called Mario.
MC: It’s been about two months since Chris called me. At the time, I was convinced my culinary career was over. Blake’s Grillery had always been fine as a business; I could cover costs, but it was never really a rousing success. In a good week, I’d be able to do the pop-up for three days out of the week. Now, we’re making three or four times the amount we used to, and we’re selling out every night. We keep trying to make more food and we keep selling out.
The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way that Blake’s works for the better. Before we were always an ancillary product. People didn’t go to bars for the food; they went for the drinks and the tacos were an afterthought. But now that folks have to order food, we’ve moved from the background to the foreground. Sometimes we joke that we’re the new cover charge for these bars.
CP: We’ve been able to develop really fantastic relationships with bar owners throughout the Bay Area, particularly in Oakland. Ultimately, we need each other to survive. We’re trying to help keep them open and bring them customers and they’re giving us space to bring this crazy idea to life.
Our only fear now is the winter. That’s bad for bars, bad for us, bad for everyone. We’re trying to guard against that by starting a catering company that will allow us to expand our menu. We have to keep pivoting, which is a key skill that everyone in the industry has to learn to survive. You can’t let anything knock you back or take you out of the game.
MC: We couldn’t have done this without each other. When I was the only person behind Blake’s Grillery, I was the cook, cashier, busser, ticket taker—you name it. But with Chris facing customers and me making the tacos to order, we’re so much more efficient. We do all our cooking in a commercial kitchen in the morning, then load up Chris’ SUV with our homemade tortillas, toppings, and fillings, and once we’re on-site, we fire up a flat-top to make sure all our offerings are fresh. We’re continuing to learn and adapt as we go. We just feel so fortunate that we have customers who will literally follow us from bar to bar.
CP: We’re thankful that we were foolish enough to take a chance during the pandemic. Mario and I both had goals of getting to this point, but it’s always seemed like a dream.
MC: I think it’s a testament to the quality of our food and Chris’ stubbornness in pushing through. And without each other, we definitely wouldn’t have been able to go through with this at all. It’s wild that a tragedy has brought about our success. —As told to Lulu Chang
Friday, October 2
“Overall, we've seen growth, just not at all in the ways I had anticipated at the beginning of the year.”
Julia Irish, Pitchfork Pickle, Burlington, VT: We have a thriving tourist and food service industry in Burlington, and it completely powered down in April. We’re lucky as a state to have really low COVID numbers, and many restaurants have been operating with limited capacities and finding workarounds—takeout windows, selling groceries and prepared meals. It's definitely been a struggle and incredibly stressful. Pitchfork Farm works closely with local restaurants, so we've definitely felt the impact. The pickle arm of our business has also been affected, but luckily we've seen growth in the retail purchasing side of things—people are buying jars of pickles to eat at home more than they had in the past.
I started working at the farm in 2017, and I'm in my fourth season here. It’s owned by founders Eric Seitz and Rob Rock and it's been around since 2006. Pitchfork Pickle started in January 2019; the guys were looking for a creative outlet for farm produce and my vision of farming has always included preservation and a value-added component, so we partnered up. Now I am an owner, along with Eric and Rob. During the summer the guys are pretty exclusively focused on the farm; Eric comes back online at The Pickle during the winter to help out with the day-to-day and special projects we don't have time to get to during the farm season.
For the pickle side of Pitchfork, we operate a retail shop at the entrance of our production space. In our first year, and up until COVID, we saw a little less than 35 percent of our overall sales come directly through the shop. The other 65 percent was wholesale product—bulk for restaurants and delis, and retail units for local grocery stores. Overnight we saw that split shift to 15 percent from the online shop and 85 percent from wholesale. With restaurants closed, our wholesale clients moved towards local retail co-ops, groceries, and farm stands.
Previously, we had been taking slow steps to build an online store, and we prioritized finishing it the first week businesses were closed in Burlington so that we could offer curbside pick-up and mail ordering. For the first time during the pandemic, we began selling our pickled goods online, and complemented those sales with quiet-but-consistent curbside pickups. It's been amazing to see our local farmstand economy thriving—we have made new partnerships with farms that have stores onsite or are offering add-ons to their CSA programs. It's been a huge boost for us: Retail unit sales more than replaced the lost revenue when restaurants had to close. I love networking with other farmers, and it makes me proud to see local food producers supported by our community in the way that they have been. The shift has meant increased labor and materials costs for us, and supply chain issues with certain materials have been a huge headache. For example, the bottles we buy for our hot sauces have been sold out for months because they make great hand sanitizer bottles.
Overall, we've seen growth, just not at all in the ways I had anticipated at the beginning of the year. We had hired more part-time help the week before Vermont shut down, and we've been more or less able to keep working a regular schedule throughout the worst of the shutdown. I know how lucky I am to be able to say that, and I'm relieved to be able to work with our restaurant customers again as they've reopened. Our tourist season this year has continued to feel very muted compared to previous years. I haven't heard how restaurants are planning to modify their offerings as the seasons shift and outdoor dining isn't an option, but I expect another change soon.
Many restaurants are working with smaller crews upon reopening, and they're looking at where they can outsource laborious tasks, like what we make. We work with one restaurant that makes a lot of their own pickles and ferments but have made plans to collaborate more as it makes more sense for them to source from us. We appreciate their trust and support of our product, and hope to do more restaurant collaborations moving forward. —As told to Emma Orlow
Monday, September 28
“We knew takeout and delivery was going to be part of our business. But we didn’t think that it would become the biggest portion of it.”
Ria Dolly Barbosa, Robert Villanueva, Tiffany Tanaka, Petite Peso, Los Angeles:
RV: When we decided to open Petite Peso, we had big plans. We were going to have a grand-opening party with a DJ and drinks and invite family, friends, and industry folks. But all those things went out the window once we weren’t allowed to have anyone inside the restaurant. The day we opened, April 17, it was different than we imagined—crazy and hectic—but we were all there, supporting each other.
Due to the format of our space—it’s just 500 square feet in total—we knew takeout and delivery was going to be part of our business. But we didn’t think that it would become the biggest portion of it. We thought we’d get on delivery services one month after we opened; we ended up starting delivery on day one. Thankfully in L.A. county, third-party delivery services are capped at charging a 15% fee due to the pandemic. That is huge. Some apps were charging upward of 33% before this emergency ordinance from the Los Angeles City Council. On any given day delivery business can be anywhere from 70 to 80% of our business. Because of that we want to keep our menu consistent so that anyone can order from any of our delivery platforms and get what they want most of the time.
RDB: That was hard at first, from the kitchen standpoint. Coordinating with vendors and farmers was a challenge. Farmers markets weren’t open and so many delivery workers were laid off. All this changed delivery dates, delaying them, or we weren’t able to find certain things, like a specific type of lumpia wrapper that is vegan, and had to look elsewhere.
RV: Financially we are doing much less than we projected. But we are surviving. We do enough business to pay rent, payroll, utilities and for food and supplies. We have to do most of the work ourselves and work longer hours. We are always looking for ways to generate more revenue, and Peso Goods, our online shop, is one way we feel we can do that.
TT: We’re launching Peso Goods no later than October 15. Initially we had always planned to sell swag and T-shirts, but then we realized that we could also offer pantry goods.
RV: The pantry goods will consist of our sauces and vinaigrettes—our bagoong vinaigrette, yuzu vinaigrette, and toyomansi aioli—and our house-made tocino and longanisa. But Ria also makes amazing pan de sal, ensaymada, mamon, and money rolls, and recently we’ve had a lot of guests come in and tell us, “I shipped your pastry box to my mom!” We are like, “You’re doing that? Is it still good when they get it?” and they are like, “They loved it!” It was kind of like a light-bulb moment—like, why aren’t we doing that? So now we are researching how to do it.
RDB: Opening a restaurant is challenging enough as it is. But COVID-19, the closures, and protests on top of it has made us stronger and forced us to think outside the box. Honestly, we are better for it. —As told to Sarah Mosqueda
Thursday, September 24
“If someone told me that I would spend most of my time, not in restaurants, but at home on the phone with people in Congress, I would have told them they’re crazy.”
Chris Shepherd, Underbelly Hospitality, Houston: When March came through, we were told to close [for indoor dining by Texas governor Greg Abbott], which I agreed with so much. The fear was there, and everything was starting to shut down. At one point I went to Saigon Pagolac, my friend Jacklyn Pham’s restaurant and she said to me, “This might be my last service.” I was like, “Wait, what?” This is a Vietnamese restaurant that’s been in Bellaire for 30 years—it’s essential to the vibrant and historic Vietnamese community there and it’s where so many Houstonians come to enjoy good food.
Independently owned restaurants and shops like these are so integral to our city. They represent the diverse communities that make Houston what it is. But they’re struggling. I realized if I could say something that moves the needle to point in Jacklyn’s direction, then I’m going to do it. Not too long after, the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) (Ed’s Note: IRC is a group of chefs fighting for local restaurants impacted by COVID-19 and pushing Congress to provide substantial financial support) asked me if I’d join and help them make calls. I was like, “I don’t know anything about senators and Congress.” But I knew that I had a voice, and I wanted to use it. I wanted to make sure that Cali Sandwich is still here. That Saigon Pagolac doesn’t have to worry so much. I wanted to make sure that they can get the financial aid they need from the government.
If someone told me that I would spend most of my time, not in restaurants, but at home on the phone with people in Congress, I would have told them they're crazy. These days, I’m making dozens of calls and talking to five to ten people a day. During these calls, I’m asking for solutions, like the Restaurants Act (Ed’s Note: This is an act the IRC developed, which calls for a $120 billion grant program that provides structured relief for restaurants). But to be honest, I’m not a good person to talk about policy with. I’m a good person to tell you how it is for restaurants right now and speak from the heart. So I’ll get on these calls, some folks like Kevin Fink [chef-owner of Emmer & Rye in Austin] will ramble numbers off, like how much money restaurants need to cover overhead costs, how many restaurant workers are affected in Texas, things like that. And then I’ll tell a story. I’ll share what I see: I see my staff wondering about what another shutdown might mean. I see how difficult it is to work with constantly changing capacity guidelines in Texas. I see an industry that’s in pain, because it’s not sure what’s next. Then I tell the story of what I see if restaurants don’t get help: the people working in kitchens not being able to provide for their families, the culture that disappears when cities lose these small restaurants. Some politicians say they will act. Others, I just get their voicemail.
I had to furlough all 170 of my employees at my restaurants, which was so hard. I remember going to each restaurant, walking from front of house to back of house, to let everyone know. I felt like I was getting punched in the nose over and over again. So I’m doing this for my employees because I want to make sure they’re doing well and because, of course, I want to see their faces. Every day I’m fighting for the Restaurants Act, and I’m not sure when that will go through. But this is about so much more than my restaurants. It’s really all about the mom-and-pop spots, the little pho places, the places you go on Sundays that know your order. A lot of those places don’t really have a voice. So I need to stand up and make their voices heard. Or we’ll lose them, and that’s a terrifying thing to think about. —As told to Kayla Stewart
Monday, September 21
“I already had concerns with building a business from scratch during a pandemic. That’s now coupled with the monsoon season.”
Rahul Reddy, Subko, Mumbai: Jugaad is broadly defined as making ends meet somehow. Figuring out a solution where there doesn’t seem to be one. Basically, hustling. People from the Indian subcontinent are masters of this craft, and I’d define Subko’s existence as a classic case of jugaad.
We soft-launched our bakery and coffee roastery in March. We were open for three days. Lockdown was imminent due to coronavirus, and we decided not to open the following day. I thought, “Maybe this virus is just a couple-week thing, and we’ll come back and hit the restart button.” But lo and behold, here we are six months later.
As we planned to reopen in mid-April, we realized the first challenge was just getting staff into Subko. Half got out of the city and state, and all state lines were closed, which meant no one could come back. We were left with three people, including myself. Our operations manager, Neha, worked remotely from Goa to help figure out logistics. I pulled as many strings as I could to convince the municipality to give me two essential services passes, which allowed people to move around the city if they were involved in a trade deemed essential. In our case, coffee fell under essential food items for takeaway and delivery. It took two weeks and four attempts to get approved. Not a single Mumbai local train has moved since March, and until June there wasn’t a single auto rickshaw allowed on the roads. One employee, Shubham, had to go through five nakabandis, or checkpoints, on his way to work on his motorbike. I relocated Regina, our other employee, closer to the roastery, so she could walk to work.
We officially reopened Subko the last week of April, and the three of us did everything, from roasting to packaging to baking. We literally got on Zoom calls with my bakehouse partner, Daniel Trulson, who was in lockdown in Tamil Nadu, to learn how to use the equipment. He taught us how to use the 50-liter planetary mixer to make our Kashmiri walnut sea salt chocolate chip cookie dough, and helped us navigate the intimidating three-deck Sinmag gas oven. We ran out of stickers, so we had to handwrite the details on the bakery delivery boxes. Neha did whatever she could remotely to organize a delivery program. Things were starting to look up—people felt more confident with the idea of doing takeaway and deliveries.
Then, in July, came the monsoon. Monsoons in Mumbai are legendary—it’s pretty spectacular if you’re just chilling in your house and looking at it. But if you have to run a business, it’s a nightmare. The monsoons completely destroy the rhythm of normal life in the city. There were several days of very severe rains and flooding, even a typhoon warning. We’re already running on such tight margins and every hour counts for us. For our staff to navigate motorbikes through monsoon weather—wearing head-to-toe ponchos, riding an hour and a half to work—it’s just insane.
Subko is in a 1925 Portuguese-Goan-style bungalow that we’ve restored and converted. Even the architects and designers didn’t know the exact nature of how moisture would affect such an old structure. About two or three weeks into the monsoon, I walked in and our roastery was half flooded. Lockdown stranded many laborers outside of the city, so jugaad to the rescue again: We took coffee bean bags and stuffed them underneath floor panels and in gaps beneath the doors to absorb the water. I brought bed sheets and threw a mattress cover on the back of our three-deck oven. We put giant blue tarps on the roof, and I said a prayer that the roof wouldn't cave in.
I already had concerns with building a business from scratch during a pandemic. That's now coupled with the monsoon season. Staff can't come easily, their morale is low, their families are worried about them going home through floods, they’re stopped along the way at checkpoints. There’s declined demand for our products. People are less likely to wait the two to three hours it takes for delivery services, and the walk-in rate was already small since no one wants to step out in heavy rains.
The monsoons tend to wind down by late September, and we’ve had a bit of a dry spell recently. I really hope the worst is behind us. But the reality is the monsoons have made an already incredibly challenging situation quadruply difficult. Hopefully, with folks' support, Subko survives this whole fiasco. Of course, we'll have another monsoon to battle against next year, but I’m hoping we won’t need to rely on jugaad as much. —As told to Sarah Khan
Thursday, September 17
“My friends in the U.S. can’t believe all the government aid businesses here are getting. We have been very lucky in Canada.”
Samira Mohyeddin, Banu, Toronto: We completely shut down our restaurant on March 13 as mandated by the province of Ontario and the city of Toronto. We noticed that the only places with lines out the door were grocery stores. So we bought a fridge with the money we raised from our GoFundMe and stocked it with zereshk (barberries), mast-o musir (strained yogurt with garlic), and other Persian staples, which you can’t find anywhere in downtown Toronto. A week and a half after we closed, we reopened and became the first (and only) Persian grocery in the area. We completely shifted our space from a restaurant to a market and began offering takeout and pick up. We signed up with delivery apps — Uber Eats and DoorDash — and I even started delivering food to areas where the apps didn’t go to. It was a serious hustle. If we hadn’t done this, we would have been closed for good within the first month.
This summer the city launched CaféTO, which creates more outdoor dining space to help restaurants and bars with physical distancing and revenue. The program is free; all you have to do is register. Everyone who applies is given a hideous two-by-two-foot concrete block and pylons to place outside your restaurant. This setup made us rethink our menu, so we put a charcoal grill on the concrete block and started cooking koobideh and lemon-and-saffron chicken wings like you’d find on the streets of Tehran. People loved it. And it has been a huge help; we are able to seat 20 people on our “pandemic patio.” I’ve spoken to other restaurants, and we have started to petition the city to make CaféTO happen every year. It’s animated our streets. It’s made Toronto come alive.
I’ve enjoyed watching everyone dress up their outdoor spots, from adding makeshift fencing to streamers to potted plants. We hooked up with the two restaurants beside us and put up some extra fencing, but we don’t really have the funds to put much effort into something that’s going to be taken away in a couple months.
The money we’re making is nowhere near what we would normally be doing at this time. We are making about 60 to 65 percent less. This is scary, but at least we were able to apply for a government loan pretty easily and got approved right away. We received a $40,000 loan, with $10,000 of it being forgivable, and we have till December 2022 to pay it back. So we’re putting that money back toward paying our suppliers and staff. My friends in the U.S. can’t believe all the government aid businesses here are getting. We have been very lucky in Canada.
But with winter around the corner—and talks about a second wave and another lockdown ramping up—there is a lot of doom and gloom on the horizon. We’re planning for the future. It’s all about the positioning at this point. We are the only Persian grocery store in this area, and we need to build on that with more products and more prepared foods. We’re also getting ready for indoor dining and thinking of launching a brunch menu on weekends. While things are uncertain, we feel like we’ve fallen into a pretty good rhythm. — As told to Deepi Harish
Tuesday, September 15
“We wanted to wait as long as possible to open. We don’t have an active bar, a late-night window, or even full capacity. But our sales are doubling week over week.”
Christal Bramson, Rebel Taco, Washington, D.C.: When we started Rebel Taco two years ago, it was just a catering business and a food truck in the DMV. Demand allowed us to open a food stall in Philadelphia in 2019, and later that year we finally decided to plant our feet with a brick-and-mortar location in Washington, D.C. That was always the vision for Rebel. We conducted R&D for nearly two years and waited for the right opportunity. We thought we found it in March 2020. Then, the pandemic hit.
It’s always extremely disheartening to delay an opening in any situation, after countless hours and energy expended to get to opening day. But that feeling of dismay is further exacerbated when that delay is due to circumstances beyond your control. All the opening budgets and marketing strategies we’d put in place were no longer applicable, and for the first time, we were faced with a seemingly alien question: How do you launch a new concept during a global pandemic?
The types of questions we began to ask ourselves were so different from the normal lines of inquiry during an opening. Instead of, “How many people should we expect at our grand opening?” we asked ourselves, “How will we ensure social distancing ?” Instead of, “Will people like our food?” it became, “Will people feel safe going out to eat?” But even if customers don’t come, the bills do. We wanted to wait as long as possible to open, but this summer, we realized the “right” time might never come. So we opened on August 5.
We had to redesign the restaurant. We made it so our storefront had windows, so folks could easily place to-go orders and pick up their tacos. We’re at half capacity for dining in, so we positioned tables six feet apart. We added QR codes to each table, so customers could order and pay for their food and drinks in one place. This has actually proven to be quite efficient, and is something that we’ll be keeping beyond the pandemic.
Our entire hospitality career has been filled taking leaps of faith, and this may have been our biggest one to date. But each order that goes out and each happy customer makes it all worth it. We’ve been very fortunate to have a steady stream of customers who were already familiar with us and have been waiting for our brick-and-mortar location. On opening night, owners and managers were actually delivering tacos to customers’ doors. It was a really special experience.
The restaurant scene here in D.C. is resilient, and so are we. We’re by no means firing on all cylinders—we don’t have an active bar, a late-night window, or even full capacity. But our sales are doubling week over week, particularly driven by pick-up and delivery orders, which have allowed us to cover our costs effectively. Based on our current projections, this store has the potential to be one of our highest grossing locations. It’s encouraging. I’ve heard time and time again that folks are eating out more than before to show their support of the local industry. People don’t forget the joy that restaurants bring. —As told to Lulu Chang
Wednesday, September 9
“One of our merchants was able to cover his whole month’s operating expenses from just one week of being featured in our box. We’re the reason his business didn’t shut down.”
Angela Shen, Savor Seattle, Seattle: Our company’s mission is to serve joy, and we did that through leading food tours at Pike Place Market, the heart and soul of Seattle’s food scene, for the past 15 years. Growing up in the restaurant industry—my parents owned Chinese restaurants—I saw how food brought people together. It was a natural transition to create these food tours, connecting people to generations of makers operating out of the market. How we’re doing it now is a little bit different, but it’s still what we do.
Once the pandemic hit, we had to stop the food tours. We were struggling, and I had to put myself in the shoes of locals to figure out the next step. How could we create a product that would meet their needs and keep us afloat? Our answer to that was creating a box filled with local food products and delivering it to those who were homebound. We had access to so many local purveyors from our food tours, and this would just be taking our food curation to a different level.
We have sold over 12,000 boxes since we launched in March. Each box features around nine different products from nine different merchants, like fresh produce from Frank’s Quality Produce and wild sockeye salmon from SeaBear Smokehouse. This means each box sends nine micro-payments for each purveyor. One of our merchants was able to cover his whole month’s operating expenses from just one week of being featured in our box. We’re the reason his business didn’t shut down, and his story isn’t uncommon. We’ve helped recover over 20 jobs for the 70 vendors we’ve worked with thus far. The response from our customers has been encouraging too. The boxes have been a source of hope for them, and their responses have been a source of hope for me.
With every box that we sell, we donate a minimum of $5; it’s our way to make a bigger impact. So far we’ve been able to give almost $40,000 to the Pike Place Market Foundation’s Community Safety Net Fund, which supports market residents and merchants who have been impacted by COVID-19-related closures.
After that, I realized we could do even more with these boxes. When the protests started, my heart went out to George Floyd’s family and then locally to our community. I felt the responsibility to do something, and that’s how the Seattle Solidarity Box was born, which features products like JuneBaby’s lemon marmalade and Boon Boona Coffee. We’ve donated 100% of the proceeds from the first 200 boxes and $5 for every box sold after that to Black Lives Matter. At this point, we’ve sold about 2,000 Seattle Solidarity Boxes and donated nearly $15,000 to BLM.
It was the biggest product launch we’ve ever had, and I began to think longer term. What did my company stand for? What would this look like once the world went back to normal? There was no reason we couldn’t expand out of Pike Place and use our box as a gateway to support local and social injustice causes. This month we’re selling a box to celebrate Hispanic Heritage month, which features 10 Hispanic-owned small businesses in the Seattle area. We’re donating $5 for every box sold to Casa Latina, an organization that helps immigrants with housing services, job location, and community resources. They aren’t the only organization I want to partner with, and I have to remind myself that this is just one box, just one round.
As I think about the future, I feel like a portion of our business will always be food tours, but we’re shifting the focus to our boxes. Our impact and our ability to meet the needs of our community is so much bigger in this box phase than it could have ever been on foot doing our guided tour. —As told to Iona Brannon
Monday, September 7
“I’m a hairstylist, and when the pandemic hit, I wasn’t able to work. So I finally gave into my crazy dream of doing something vegan that resonated with my heritage.”
Thuy Pham, Mama Đút Foods, Portland, OR: Necessity led me to open Mama Đút Foods, a plant-based Vietnamese pop-up. I’m a hairstylist, and when the pandemic hit, I wasn’t able to work. I’m a full-time single mom and I needed to find another way to support my family. So in mid-April, I finally launched Mama Đút. Đút in Vietnamese means “feed,” and my daughter would always say, “Mama, đút.” It seemed like a good name for a food business, so I registered for it a few years ago and sort of forgot about it. I always had a crazy dream of doing something vegan that resonated with my heritage. I never took it particularly seriously until now.
Early on I was lucky enough to find a collaborative kitchen collective where I could rent space by the hour. Initially I thought I’d be selling prepackaged vegan pork belly, but because I was offered more space to make actual dishes, I felt encouraged to expand my menu to full-blown vegan takes on Vietnamese food. Vegan food has been very whitewashed, but if you look at vegan food around the world, Indigenous and Native folx have always eaten this way because it’s more available and more affordable than eating meat-centric items. A lot of my recipes are inspired by Vietnamese Buddhist diets, and ingredients are sourced from local farms and places like Hồng Phát, a local Vietnamese-owned grocery store. I’ve known the owner since I was a kid.
In the beginning much of my Mama Đút business came from hair clients and followers on my hairstyling IG page. Within a week I was surprised that I had 100 orders. Even though I am back to working as a hairstylist two and a half days a week, I spend the other days working on my pop-up. Now I’m using those profits to help those in need.
I’ve always cared about fighting food apartheid since I grew up in a refugee family and experienced food scarcity firsthand. I knew it would be central to whatever I ended up doing. The houseless community is suffering greatly during COVID-19 and I’ve been working with Rose Haven Day Shelter for Women and Children—which shared with me how its food donations dried up when restaurants were suddenly running on tighter budgets—as well as an organization called OurStreets Pdx. But none of this feels like enough. Food apartheid is such a big issue in the Portland community and how closely linked it is to systemic racism. I wish I could do more.
COVID-19 and the protests here in Portland made it even more clear to me how I can use food to attempt to help others. I am hoping to save up money and open a small brick-and-mortar by the beginning of next year to house my pop-up and continue to make meals for those in need. It would probably be easier for me to commit to just this project, but I find it hard to give up on my hair clients. When my ex-husband went to prison back in 2015, I found myself raising a toddler on my own. It was my hair clients’ faith in me that helped me to provide for my daughter, and I have such deep gratitude for them. Same goes to my Mama Đút customers, because without them I wouldn’t be able to live a literal lifelong dream. —As told to Emma Orlow
Friday, September 4
“My goal has always been to provide healthy meals to Black and brown communities, so we really focus on fresh, healthy foods for protestors.”
Rasheeda McCallum, Black Chef Movement, New York City: My whole life I saw Black and brown people develop medical problems due to the lack of healthy food options. Growing up in east New York, I couldn’t get fresh fruit or vegetables from school or any of the local grocery stores. So I started Ms. Goodies Meal Prep, which provides nutritious meals to communities that don’t have access to healthy food options. At the beginning of the pandemic, I expanded to feed frontline workers. I’ve worked in healthcare for several years as a nutrition department manager, so when COVID-19 got really bad in NYC, a lot of old coworkers, staff members, and friends called me to vent about their working conditions. I wanted to help in any way possible, so I decided to cook for them. Then Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were murdered. And the protests started.
I watched them on social media and in my own neighborhood, and I knew I had to do something. George Floyd could have been my uncle. Breonna Taylor could have been my sister. But I needed to do something that I felt comfortable with. I’m not the person going face-to-face with a police officer. But I know how to feed people. So I called up a few chef friends and people I went to culinary school with and they all wanted to cook meals for protesters, too. Since a bunch of us wanted to cook, I thought we should call ourselves something. That’s how the Black Chef Movement began—a group of Black chefs coming together to fuel a movement.
We created an Instagram account and began sending DMs to protest organizers so we could figure out how much food to bring. We usually try to feed about 10 percent of the protesters. We’d also hang flyers at the protests. Then things grew really quickly. My goal has always been to provide healthy meals to Black and brown communities, so we really focus on fresh, healthy foods for protestors. We base the amount of food we’re going off of the food donations we receive, and I always try to add another layer of nutrition. For example, if we have to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich I’ll sprinkle in some chia seeds for added omega-3s.
We’re cooking for two to three protests a day at this point. Over 100 volunteers help us cook and deliver food to protests. A lot of them are people at protests, friends of friends, or people who found us via Instagram (we have 7,500 followers now). Food donations have gotten so out of control that we’ve had to turn down some things because we don’t have the space. Everyone is sitting at home, especially people in the food world who are out of work. They want to help, and for maybe the first time ever, have the time to help.
That’s part of the reason why we’re fundraising for a community kitchen in Brooklyn. We’ll be able to keep all of the food there and cook there. (Right now people are cooking in their home kitchens for the protests.) I plan on keeping my first business, Ms. Goodies Meal Prep, and the Black Chef Movement alive to feed the masses, especially if COVID-19 causes cases to rise again in NYC in the winter. We also have plans for what the community kitchen will look like, post-pandemic. I imagine we’ll have nutrition and cooking classes for our community, a space for the kids in the neighborhood. It’ll be for everyone. That’s one of my big goals for the future. That and starting the Black Chef Movement in other cities. I have friends in L.A. who are looking to start a branch, people in Mississippi and Atlanta DM’ed us on Instagram, saying they want to help start branches there, too. This is just the work I’ve always done—making sure Black and brown communities have the same access to healthy and nutritious food as everyone else. —As told to Emily Schultz
Tuesday, September 1
"Our restaurant is supposed to be pretty transportive: We want to take you to a Russian dinner party. There's no way to translate that feeling to an open-air parking lot."
Bonnie Morales, Kachka Alfresca, Portland, OR: I knew reopening a pandemic-friendly version of Kachka was not going to be feasible. Our restaurant is supposed to be pretty transportive: We want to take you to a Russian dinner party in my grandma’s living room, where it’s going to be boisterous and energetic. There’s no way to translate that feeling to an open-air parking lot. So on June 26, we opened Kachka Alfresca, an outdoor '90s-inspired cabana-themed outdoor party.
When we were doing menu development, that was the first time I saw my team light up in weeks. Months of this very transactional experience of cooking something perfectly, putting it in a box, and then handing it to someone through a doorway, that’s not easy. We are so accustomed to that immediate gratification when a server tells you that table two was crying because they thought their food tasted so good. Getting creative again and the idea of interacting with guests, those were uplifting moments.
Food-wise, I was really inspired by that carefree feeling you had when you first started going out to eat with your friends. For me, that was in the 1990s, hanging out at the TGI Friday’s, sharing fajitas. But for Alfresca, we still wanted to show off our Eastern European inflections. So we did make fajitas but with meat done up like shashlik, which are cubes of meat marinated in distilled white vinegar and onions, then skewered and grilled. Instead of tortillas, we serve them with lavash. Looking at it, you think, fajitas. But close your eyes, taste it, and you immediately are reminded of shashlik.
Kachka Alfresca easily doubles, or even triples, our daily sales average compared to when we were only doing takeout and delivery. Additionally, getting to serve cocktails is huge for us right now because Oregon does not allow for cocktails to-go. Essentially, vodka pays the bills, which is part of why we’re now in the process of bottling our own—spiked with horseradish.
Beyond getting to flex our creative muscles in the kitchen, we still do this because of the hospitality. But it’s hard to make someone feel like they’re being taken cared of if you’re intentionally staying away. The dynamic is very different, and it requires guests to be more proactive if they have concerns. This leaves us vulnerable to criticism from behind the computer screen. But overall the feedback has been wonderful and positive—we often get guests saying that we’re one of the places where they are comfortable dining out. That’s when walking 60 to 80 yards up and down stairs to run food feels worth it.
While we were building out Alfresca, we thought it would just be for summer because by October we can feed people inside our restaurant again, right? But we’re thinking that without a vaccine or a very clear plan on how to avoid another outbreak, we won’t be going back to normal. So at this point we’re not at all thinking about indoor dining, and by October, when it’s likely too unpleasant to eat outside, we’ll go back to doing takeout and selling deli items, like the frozen dumplings. We’re going to try and include some of the new dishes from Alfresca in whatever that future take-out menu is. We’re playing around with various formats, but like everything and everyone else, we’re building this plane as we’re flying it. —As told to Chadner Navarro
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 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 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.”
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
“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
“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
“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
“In under 60 days we grew to reach over 500 essential businesses across the country.”
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
“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
“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
“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.
“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.
“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
"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
"Farm-to-table food has been sidelined as elitist and hoity-toity, but now we’re seeing the resiliency of a local food system."
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.
"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."
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.
Friday, May 1st
"We’re feeding the local economy. If New York is okay, I won’t need anything. If New York doesn’t get help, I’m going to die with it."
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.
Thursday, April 30th
"When Governor Abbott said that restaurants could open on May 1st, people started calling us to make reservations literally minutes after the announcement."
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.
"I was wondering if I should reopen for take-out for Ramadan. But after reflecting, I realized I could do more for my community, more for my people."
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.
Wednesday, April 29th
"We decided to make everything we were doing internally public through our COVID-19 Playbook. I think thousands of people have read our guide."
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.