Harry and Michelle Coleman didn’t just tell their staff at Empanada Harry’s that they had to get the COVID-19 vaccine. They made an example of themselves.
The young couple and owners of the 4-year-old west Kendall restaurant posted a photo of themselves with the bandages on their shoulders on March 9. Within two and a half months, all 13 employees had been fully vaccinated.
“We took the lead: We were the first ones in line when it became available,” Coleman said.
And they’re not stopping there. When their new barbecue restaurant, Smoke & Dough, opens in September, they intend to put the vaccine requirement on the application.
“Whoever doesn’t want to get vaccinated doesn’t have to apply,” Coleman said.
The literal mom-and-pop restaurant (the couple has two young daughters) are taking a stance they hope other Miami restaurant owners will follow : requiring their employees to protect themselves and diners from the coronavirus with a COVID-19 vaccine.
“We are the only business that deals with maskless people. So we have a bigger responsibility than anybody else,” Harry Coleman said. “We deal with health inspections all the time. So I consider this part of that.”
On Thursday, New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, an industry leader who also founded the burger franchise Shake Shack, announced that his restaurant group is requiring all of its employees to be fully vaccinated. (Shake Shack, which has a separate governing board, has not announced whether it will follow suit.)
“I think this is going to make even more people want to dine with us,” Meyer told CNBC. “The vast majority of people who dine out don’t want to see us go back to where things were…. We know that the vaccine works, and it’s time to make sure that this economy continues to move forward.”
Asked whether Florida restaurants will be allowed to make a similar mandate, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ staff pointed to a statement he made in May in which he said he supported a business’ right to impose a vaccine requirement.
“I think businesses can make those decisions,” he said on May 4. “Ultimately, we’re not preventing a business from making those types of decisions.”
Cindy Kruse didn’t hesitate to make that decision at her Cindy Lou’s Cookies bake shop in Little River.
She, her partner, and her four employees are all vaccinated. When she recently hired one person, she made sure he got his first vaccine and is set to receive the second shot “in a few days.”
“I want them to be vaccinated. I don’t want them to bring anything here, not just for ourselves but for our customers,” Kruse said. “We have a responsibility to ourselves and our customers.”
Kruse said she sees ensuring her staff is vaccinated as a sign to her customers that she cares about their health. Partly, she said, it’s about good business.
“We serve the public, and COVID is not on our menu,” she said. “We have a responsibility to our customers to be healthy and vaccinated. It’s the responsible thing to do in our industry.”
Kruse said she had a close friend lose a relative from COVID-19 and sees getting the shot as a moral imperative.
“We are so privileged to have the vaccine available and free to us,” she said. “As a responsible adult, human being and business owner, it’s important to me. It’s about our community. Our city.”
Meyer told CNBC that requiring vaccinations may actually help the industry’s problem with attracting staff. More, he said, would be willing to work in tight quarters knowing co-workers and, in New York’s case, diners as well, will be vaccinated. He offered eight hours of pay for each vaccination and has given his staff 45 days to get the jab.
Miami chef Michael Schwartz, who employs more than 400 at his seven restaurants including Harry’s Pizzeria, is meeting with his executives this week about their policy: “We are actively debating and evaluating our current policies so things could change very quickly. But we have strongly encouraged our teams to get vaccinated, and right now we require that every member of our staff wear a mask in accordance with CDC guidelines,” he wrote in a statement.
The Colemans know how a COVID case can affect staff morale. Empanada Harry’s had an early brush with COVID when a staff member got sick in April of 2020, lost the senses of smell and taste and was out more than a month as the virus persisted.
They never laid off any employees throughout last summer, when so many restaurants were forced to close. For those whose hours had to be cut, some to 20 hours a week, the Colemans put together meal packages. So when the Colemans asked the staff to follow them in getting the vaccine, they remembered the couple’s efforts.
“They remember, ‘We were there for you,’ and now they are there for us,” Coleman said.
When the vaccine became available, the couple helped make online appointments for their staff, including those who were not technologically savvy. They worried particularly for their older workers, who are more susceptible to the virus.
“We made it easy,” Coleman said. “We work close together. There’s no social distancing in a kitchen.”
Coleman said the staff was able to work for several weeks without masks. But as word of the delta variant spread, he said he and his staff put their masks back on, as the Centers for Disease Control recommended for people in indoor spaces. Vaccinated people can spread the mutation to others, even if they do not feel sick, the CDC wrote.
Coleman hopes other restaurants will make the same choice.
“I’m not an expert, but I’m guided by experts,” he said.
Miami Herald state government reporter Ana Ceballos contributed to this story.