It hit me that this Saturday will mark four weeks since Mike Brown called into my radio show to tell us they would not be opening Travail 3.0 as planned. And that they had to lay off their team. One month ago. Seems like a hundred years. Like so many others, I’ll never forget that week.
Where have we come in these four weeks? I think, far. Restaurants were forced to make the decision to pivot to takeout or remain closed. Some, like Travail/Pig Ate My Pizza and Mucci’s went suddenly into the takeout business with fervor and drive, putting the full force of their personalities behind this new-to-them endeavor.
Others had hiccups. Of course it had to do with the fact that some restaurants were never built to do curbside or mass delivery, like Revival, but it also had to do with the amazing outpouring of support from eaters. Some joints opened with one plan, like Centro in Northeast, and then closed because they couldn’t make it work safely for everyone. Like others, they re-opened with a newer streamlined plan that would keep a minimum of people in the restaurant working, while maintaining food safety and quality for their loyal guests. Others who said they would not do takeout, like The Freehouse, moved cautiously into a curbside model as they watched how the community was responding, and as hospitalitarians, felt driven to answer the call. There are still hundreds of eateries across the metro that are open and hoping to feed you, in modified ways.
A lot of places, like Red Cow/Red Rabbit, moved into a take-and-bake model of takeout. With scaled down staff and dwindling inventory, cooking-to-order is not manageable for some, so it made sense to move to prepared meal packs that could be pre-assembled, picked up nightly, and finished at home. Grand Cafe has moved the take-and-bake needle even further by offering meal packs that are meant to feed two people for a few days (and come with sassy fun games and flowers and virtual hang out access). Not only are they helping their guests stay home more often, but in the process cut down the time their own staff has to be out of their homes.
Because that’s maybe one of the bright spots that I can think of, the fact that everyone actively started caring about restaurant people. While takeout eaters donated and tipped big, we saw over and over how restaurant owners shuffled that money into funds to support their unemployed staff. Russell Klein of Meritage told me how he calls a few employees every day, to check in and just see how they’re doing, if they need help from the fund that’s been set up for them. Not everyone has felt the big love, as Kim Bartmann’s employees have alleged a case of wage theft against her. But no one can deny the fact that it’s the human impact of taking restaurant/service workers out of the economy, that we are all feeling. Spoon and Stable’s Gavin Kaysen reminded me that DC Chef Kwame Onwuachi recently said, “If the kitchen is the heartbeat of the house, then restaurants are the heartbeat of our nation.”
So what’s next? Three words never carried so much weight.
I feel like we should all understand something at the outset: none, zero, of the restaurant people that I’ve talked to over the last two days, think this is over on May 4th, the date the Governor has currently set as the ban limit. The dates in their heads roll from June to September. Of course it’s all guesswork, but I think it’s best to level set that we’re not having a Cinco de Mayo bar crawl this year.
And when we do come back, what does it look like? “Do we ever have paper menus again,” wondered Kaysen. “Are we actually handing someone a menu that someone else just gave up? Probably not. We have to start thinking about servers in facemasks and using a wiped down tablet for menus, or better yet a site accessible on your phone that you can see the menu.” Will there be restrictions on occupancy? Will they have to remove tables?
“You know what’s hard,” Kaysen noted, “is that the restaurant community has born the brunt of this, financially and socially. It turns out COVID19 is our Kryptonite. But what’s equally hard is that we are going to have to still bear the burden when we re-open. How do we police our guests? If you take bar stools out to leave a gap, someone is going to stand there. If we have to limit capacity, we have to hire a lower percentage of people back. It’s hard to say that it will ever be what it was.”
Tim Niver, of Mucci’s and Saint Dinette, agrees. “Even if, in the best case scenario that we start loosening up by June, we are not coming back to business as usual. We’ll stay in this format even after restrictions are loosened. Eventually, we’ll bring back some tables, socially distanced, and then invite some people to reserve them a couple of nights a week.” They’ll plan to keep up their takeout operations to support those who still want to shelter, and move to a minimal dining-in structure. “It will be like a hybrid, with takeout running out the back and a few tables on short rotation. We figure that during summer, everyone wants to grill out anyway, and there are a lot of people who have been furloughed and are watching their discretionary spending. So it’s going to be a slow roll.”
Young Joni’s Ann Kim, who is still working on building out her fourth restaurant, Sooki & Mimi, knows that when it does open, it won’t be a typical opening. “The days of a packed house with a three hour wait and a line out the door, that’s over.” Kim admits that she almost pulled the plug on the new spot, because even though the construction loans had all been set in motion and the GC was getting paid, the thought of figuring out how to make money to pay it all back was nearly too much. “I was really depressed and angry for a long time. I thought maybe it would be better to cut losses and walk, this is the most expensive project we’ve ever done. But then I got over my pity party, because I don’t go down without a fight. I’ve had a total shift in perspective, and it’s time to get creative and innovative. I have to look at the menu differently, think newly about service, what does Uptown need from me?”
What I’m trying to ease us all into, is that nothing will be the same. I know we all want to imagine ourselves sitting on our favorite barstools with our favorite bartenders sloshing our favorite drinks toward us at our favorite time of day while we mull over which snacky snack we might pick from a vast menu, but I need you to let go of that thought for the foreseeable future. And maybe realize, that on the bright side, nothing will be the same.
“I keep thinking that the Bocuse era brought chefs out of the kitchen, and that Daniel’s generation gave us a passport to the world,” Kaysen told me, “What is our generation going to be known for? This is the moment. We are on the doorstep. We can’t ignore it.”
All of these independent restaurant owners, separately from each other, mentioned that they know this is an opportunity for them to reshape their work and the industry. “We are looking at everything,” Kaysen went on, “what systems we loved, what systems we didn’t love, and what systems we never had the courage to change.” It’s all on the table: wages, tipping, hours, quality of life, mental health, margins, expectations.
“Once we got the takeout thing flowing, we sat all our people down,” Niver said, “and I looked at them and asked: How do you want your life to look? There are no rules anymore, we have to create the other side of this.”
For all three of them, part of the issue comes down to the razor thin margins that restaurants have been operating under, which the general public doesn’t really understand. They see this as an opportunity to tell those margin stories, themselves. Niver actually recalled a Kaysen comment, “we have undervalued our own product, maybe out of humble service, but we haven’t passed the actual cost on. And we have to start thinking differently about that.”
It’s about creating a more steady and sustainable life for a restaurant and all of its workers. “You know, last year we had a two month winter, this year we have a four month pandemic, what’s coming next year? Can’t we figure something out so that the common truth about restaurants isn’t that they are all about 3 months away from closing?” Niver is working on it.
He’s been thinking about how better margins can help sustain the business, which would provide healthcare and more security. “Look, I want all my people to be able to have a four day work week, have a life, feel secure, and still make $50K. I feel like we can figure this out.”
What’s most important, though it’s become a bit of a tired phrase, is that everyone is in this together. “It’s incredibly hard to be inspired right now,” Kim told me, “but we have to do it. We have to flip it all upside down and create a new playbook. We have talked for YEARS that the industry we love isn’t sustainable, though it’s been all this internal turmoil alone. So now our entire world has changed, for all restaurants. It’s the time for brilliant ideas and for needs to be met. I mean, what does it say that along with groceries and pharmacists, that the government deemed restaurants as essential!”
We have to embrace change, and be brave enough to understand that, as diners, we may not get everything we want, when we want it anymore. And maybe that’s for the better. Everyone believes that while many places won’t be able to make it to the other side, and as horrible as that is, there’s a potential bright spot to look forward to. Kaysen summed it up rather nicely, “If anything good comes out of this, it will be that the restaurant community stops seeing itself as an industry, and starts seeing itself as a profession. We should hold ourselves to the same standards of health and quality as we do our food.”