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 recent protests in response to 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, from coast to coast, to share what they’re seeing in their communities, how they’ve been affected, and how they’re responding.
Friday, May 29th
“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 take-out-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 sell my house fast jacksonville 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 28th
“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 16th, 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 webpage for take-out 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 27th
“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 15th—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 1st, so it was a real shock to me how fast the re-opening actually came (Ed’s Note: Governor Greg Abbott announced on May 18th that Texas bars could reopen on May 22nd 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 26th
“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 22nd
“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 [the chef and 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. (Ed’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 21st
“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 15th, we were mandated to close our restaurants and open for take-out 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 take-out 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 21st 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 17th, 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 1st, when restaurants in Texas were allowed to open at 25 percent capacity. Instead, we opened on May 14th. 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 20th
“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 17th. 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 18th
“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 15th
“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
Photo by Jamie and Eric Photography
“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.
“The sale of pre-mixed drinks is illegal in Chicago, but for a lot of independent restaurants and bars, that’s the only way we can survive the pandemic.”
Julia Momose, Kumiko and Cocktails for Hope, Chicago: Even though Illinois eased restrictions for delivery of packaged goods like alcohol, these new allowances don’t go far enough. Basically, licensed restaurants and bars can sell unopened bottles of spirits, wine, and beer—even cocktail kits which include everything customers need to make their own cocktails, but everything has to be in their original containers. This puts a big burden on bars because we’d have to source a bunch of other materials to build these kits in the first place. The sale of pre-mixed drinks is illegal in Chicago, but for a lot of independent restaurants and bars, that’s the only way we can survive the pandemic. By easing restrictions on cocktails to-go, we can hire back some employees to work and to keep the lights on. It’s become a bit of a cliché, but there’s an adage in the industry that “vodka pays the bills.” That’s just not true. It’s the vodka sodas, the martinis, that are bringing the margins. Us bartenders create the value in the vodka, by mixing drinks.
Stores including liquor stores are deemed essential right now, so retail sales for them are through the roof. The way the laws are currently structured, allowing the sales of packaged liquor, is creating hundreds of liquor stores. Binny’s will be fine, while breweries are able to sell growlers. What are growlers, anyway? They’re one liquid that has been inserted into another vessel—exactly what we hope to accomplish with cocktails to-go. Luckily, there are other states that see the value in letting bars and restaurants sell cocktails, like New York and California. That’s why I started Cocktails for Hope with bartenders, attorneys, and some of our bar regulars with connections to city government. We are trying to have conversations with Illinois’s and Chicago’s leaders to help them see this is a sustainable way to keep businesses afloat. Bars that don’t serve food or aren’t equipped with kitchens won’t survive the current moment. Waiting for government financial relief just won’t fly anymore.
The existing verbiage prohibiting cocktails to-go is mostly worried about transporting so-called open containers in vehicles, but the same argument could be made against growlers. And then, of course, there’s sanitation, but us professionals in the food industry are already aware of these laws. We have to deal with them daily. There’s also a lot of confusion about who can and can’t serve cocktails to-go. I’ve heard from some colleagues in other Illinois cities that they are able to while other bars have received cease-and-desists. Through Cocktails with Hope, we want to work with policy-makers to create and establish strong, informed verbiage that will help roll out safe, temporary—and I want to underline temporary—measures so that bars can hire back staff while the shelter-in-place orders are in effect and still do business.
Our next steps are organizing in a smart way—the likes on social media don’t do anything unless the governor sees it. Please, if you love bars and restaurants, pick up the phone and call your representatives. An inclusive cocktail to-go program needed to happen a month ago, but the next best time to start something is now. Bar owners and bartenders, we’re ready: The moment Governor Pritzker says, “Cool, how do we do this safely,” our volunteer attorneys have suggested guidelines ready to roll out and totally doable for any bar (dive bars, restaurant bars, cocktails bars). These guidelines shouldn’t cut anyone out—all businesses serving alcohol to consumers should be included. We need to save our communities.
Tuesday, April 28th
“My farmer friends told me about the milk dumping. We also saw the increased need at food banks. Then it dawned on us: We can make cheese and send it to food banks.”
Pete Messmer, Lively Run Dairy, Interlaken, NY: Farmers are being told that they have more milk than the market needs, more milk than they can get paid for right now. Sadly, that means a lot of it is being dumped.
Restaurants and institutional buyers like schools bought 50 percent of the total dairy products that were consumed in this country. And a lot of it was packaged in bulk—50 pound sacks of shredded cheese, vats of sour cream. The plants that process the milk into dairy products can’t or haven’t switched their packaging lines to retail packages quickly enough as demand has increased. This is how we get crazy scenarios where farmers are dumping milk, but grocery stores in major urban centers are limiting the amount of dairy people can buy.
We make cheese at Lively Run and my farmer friends told me about the milk dumping. We also saw the increased need at food banks because disruption to the economy has caused a lot of food insecurity. We’ve always donated to food banks and some of our employees volunteer there. Then it dawned on us: We can make cheese and send it to food banks.
One of the things about a small business like us is that we’re really nimble and can shift gears quickly. We’re set up to do retail packaging anyways, so all we needed was the funds to kickstart the process of getting excess milk, making cheese, and getting it to foodbanks. We set up a GoFundMe with a goal of $20,000 and we hit that in a day. We decided to double our goal and see what happens and we hit that in a week. It’s fueling my ambitions because I think people see it’s a valuable project that can be immediately helpful to those in need. It’s good for small dairy farms, it’s good for the food banks, and it could help keep our friends in the cheesemaking community busy. We’re not making a profit, but we’re at least doing something.
We knew a goat farm that was dumping milk, so we started by making chèvre. We wanted to make cheese that didn’t need to age for a long time, so we could get it out the door as quickly as possible. We made our first donation to six food banks last Friday: close to 150 pounds. Not a huge amount, but this week will be considerably larger than that. In addition to the chèvre, we’re scheduled to make cow cheese curds this Wednesday to get out for delivery on Friday.
Like everyone else, our business has been affected by COVID-19. About half of our sales were restaurant sales, so that’s gone, and the retail packaging requires more work. The business itself is in no danger, but everyone has been working really hard. I worked about 80 hours last week and that’s true for basically everyone who works here. We’re using the money from our GoFundMe to buy directly from the dairy farms and cover our cost of production, but we’re not making a profit from it. That’s not the point—the point is to get food to food banks.
I’ve spoken to experts and it seems that there will be surplus milk on the market for the rest of the year and maybe longer, because this problem will compound. Lively Run is working with the Center for Transformative Action to start a non-profit organization to do this on a larger scale. There are dairy farms all over New York state, and every cheesemaker has extra plant capacity. There’s no reason why we can’t all be doing this.
The governor’s office just announced that they’re going to fund dairy producers to take milk, make it into cheese, and donate to food banks, which is exactly what we’re doing. They’ve appropriated a budget towards it, so I would love to apply for that and be part of this project on a state level because that’s been our vision from the beginning. My fear is that the money will go to huge processing plants like Byrne Dairy and Polly-O and not the small dairy producers who are really hurting right now and could use some help.
“We had expected a two-fold increase in retail sales, but it has been three-fold since March 15th. It’s been a perfect storm of ramen.”
Kenshiro Uki, Sun Noodle, Carlstadt, NJ: 80 percent of our business is food service. In February, our business in Europe started to get hit hard and then the same thing happened in the U.S. in March. Right away, we started calling our customers, trying to be proactive and to see what their intentions were—do take-out or shut down completely. So many ramen shops we talked to were like, “There is no way you can do ramen take-out.” That is just not accepted. But some of them have figured out their own process; if you cook the noodles a certain way and rinse and shock them, then take-out is okay. Today, across the board, 70 percent of our food service channel is completely closed.
We are fortunate that we sell ramen kits in grocery stores, either the noodles by themselves or noodles plus concentrated soup bases. It was actually an easier pivot for us to focus on retail. All the ingredients we use for food service, we use for the noodles anyways. We started calling our distribution channels and increasing production at our factories to focus on retail.
We had expected a two-fold increase in retail sales, but it has been three-fold since March 15th. We saw an increase not just in orders from grocery stores but from meal kit companies like Blue Apron and Purple Carrot. We also had a partnership with Costco in the works already to supply our noodles for meal kits sold in their stores. We have added more regions to our Costco network faster than we expected. Pre-pandemic, we were in 88 Costco stores. Now we are in over 200.
Our business has flipped completely. Our Instagram is now about home cooking. Our tagged photos are people making ramen at home. Thanks to the dedication and commitment of ramen chefs and shops all over the country, ramen has enjoyed much broader popularity in recent years. It has opened people’s eyes to the possibility of pairing it with their favorite ingredients, similar to what they might do with pasta. This has dovetailed with the general trend toward being at home and cooking as a relaxing weekend activity. It’s been a perfect storm of ramen.
This situation has made us more aware that we need to balance our mix of where our revenue comes from. We take pride in supplying the best ramen shops, and we have been speaking to those restaurant owners about how they are going to change after this. We are talking about collaborating on do-it-yourself ramen kits in partnership with restaurants. That way, they can have revenue coming in even if their places aren’t open. Restaurants are our core market—we want to support them through this.
Monday, April 27th
“If I got PPP at this point, I don’t think we’d use it.”
Brandon Jew, Mister Jiu’s, San Francisco: Last week, I got really excited because I got a DocuSign for paperwork for PPP. I thought this meant I was approved. I signed them really quickly and have been waiting since then. I’ve been asking around and only one place I knew had gotten the loan, but they probably won’t even use it. The PPP is really flawed for restaurants, especially for restaurants that aren’t operating right now. With it, you can get your employees off unemployment and pay them for eight weeks, but after that you can’t use the money anymore. The problem is, do we think we’re actually going to be running restaurants the same way? Are we going to have that many cooks and front-of-house staff? Are we going to be operating at 100 percent again? No, we’re not. It’s guaranteed that we’re going to get restrictions on how to reopen and operate from the state or even the Feds. All of us are waiting to find out what those are going to be. We have our best guesses, after seeing what is happening in Hong Kong and Copenhagen. Restaurant operators in both places have been concentrating on getting customers back into dining rooms with new cleaning protocols, signing health declarations, and thinking through steps of service that will be contactless.
We’re also trying to get a sense of the psyche of the diner. There will be a hesitation to go out and into restaurants. How do you as an operator alleviate some of that concern? I attended a webinar that the James Beard Foundation was hosting and it was really informative. What I’ve come to realize is that we will probably not open if we don’t have widespread testing available. If we opened early and didn’t have that testing and another infection started, we would have to shut down again. Doing that whole thing again would just be really hard on everyone.
I’m trying to be patient. As an operator, I want to make sure that the environment that we rehire our staff and invite people into is safe. We have to think about spacing. We did a floor plan to see what that would look like at Mister Jiu’s, putting tables six feet away from each other. It’s less than half of what we’d normally do: 40 seats vs. the usual 100 seats. And then I’m not sure if bar seating would be gone since I’m not sure if bartenders can be that close to customers. Some people think we’ll need sneeze guards, which is so crazy. I think every operator is trying to balance providing a service to the general public and protecting staff. Mayor Breed announced that any essential worker, which includes restaurants, who doesn’t have symptoms can get tested. That’s a good next step for every city. This is all going to be very planned and it’s going to require rehiring furloughed employees and trying to onboard them in rounds, which is why the PPP doesn’t work. It almost incentivizes you to reopen, but I don’t think it outweighs the risk of the general health. If I got PPP at this point, I don’t think we’d use it.
This morning, I got an email that I got a James Beard Foundation grant. Basically, they created this fund a few weeks ago for restaurants that were looking for financial assistance. $15,000 on a first come, first serve basis. When I got the email, I was like…what? I don’t know what happens next. It’s weird because I got so excited about PPP and then was like, nope that’s not gonna happen. I’m positive this is going to be a different experience, but I don’t want to get too excited. But what’s awesome about this fund is that it’s actually going to restaurants. With PPP, these ginormous restaurant chains that are publicly traded got them. When you hear that Ruth’s Chris is giving it back, it’s nice, but who is it going to next? We’re not sure if the administration is changing guidelines for this or accounting for small businesses.
All the coalitions have been talking about what we really need. We had a Zoom the other day with Thomas Keller. We wanted him to be an ally for our coalition. We want to make sure he hears from us since we don’t have representation on that weird board [the Great American Economic Revival Industry Group]. It was an interesting call. He seemed responsive to the points we were trying to make, but he couldn’t guarantee a lot of things since he doesn’t know when he’ll talk to the president. The only meeting he had with him so far was a Zoom call with 200 people. He’s unsure what kind of influence he’ll actually have on Trump. My politics, they don’t need to be talked about, but I have no interest in spending time and energy to get Trump on my side.
We launched our store online, which has random stuff like lap cheong and some dishes that can be reheated. It’ll be another revenue source for when we do open and people are still skeptical about going out to dinner. One interesting development has been with a company called RideOS. They contacted me about their pilot program. They have a fleet of self-driving cars that could deliver groceries and pre-made meals; we’d be told the car’s delivery route and just load the car up. They’re figuring out a system of how to drop off and confirm pick-up. But it’s interesting. With both of these things, we can bring back more employees.
At least once a day, I get this doomsday feeling. Like, what kind of world is this? Is it ever going to feel like it did before? It’s kind of dreamy in a weird way. Like “The Twilight Zone.”
“We reconfigured our kitchen, set up a little photo studio in the dining room, built a standalone to-go website, and bought a pile of to-go wares.”
Jake Adams and Eden Rehmet, Hollow, Delhi, NY: We were open for a busy dinner rush on Thursday, March 12th, with people elbow to elbow at the bar, including a large contingent of people fleeing the city for their weekend houses. It felt a little like we were going to unwittingly become a vector for COVID-19 transmission in Delaware County, and the next day we felt that to be responsible we didn’t have any choice but to close immediately. We put up a notice on our front door and our website, had a drink or two (maybe a wee cry), and went home to start figuring out what to do next.
In hindsight, it was obviously the right decision, but at the time, it felt insane. We’re a tiny space, about 1,000 square feet with a max occupancy of 39. Our menu is communal and encourages sharing. Since we’re small, the energy moves around the room and everyone ends up talking to each other.
We started all over. We spent that weekend trying to mitigate food waste and sanitize EVERYTHING before coming up with a new plan/menu/concept. We went from operating as a bar izakaya, with just 2 percent of business being pick-up, to a bodega slash prepared foods and takeaway spot slash wine shop. We reached out to our farms and purveyors to ensure they would still be able to supply us, reconfigured our kitchen, set up a little photo studio in the dining room, built a standalone to-go website, and bought a pile of to-go wares.
We had to adjust our menu, thinking about what would travel well and could be reheated easily. It’s been well received. Many people in our community want to support local businesses, so they’re ordering from us. We’ve kept the Japanese pork curry on the menu. That sells out within an hour and a half. People are fighting over it in a funny way. A lot of people are trying to have dinner dates over Zoom and want to eat the same thing. Eden’s cell is the contact for pick-up and she’ll get texts from people, saying how it was such a beautiful meal.
We’ve sold between 1,400 and 1,600 meals at this point. We’re making slightly less than we’d normally pull in (the to-go containers are eating into our costs). But we’re lucky because it’s always been just the two of us, so we didn’t need to factor in payroll. We can pay for rent, utilities, and maybe a touch of our original build-out costs. It helps when you don’t have to pay yourself. We applied for an economic injury loan, but we weren’t able to apply for PPP since we didn’t have any records of paying ourselves. We’ve run things as lean as possible, getting second-hand equipment and repairing things ourselves, and living up here, our overhead cost is much lower than when we lived in Brooklyn. We can pivot really quickly, which is crazy and kind of terrifying.
We’re only three weeks into this new model and are constantly honing our systems, but things are going well so far. We sell out of most items within the first few hours of them being posted and we’re stretched to capacity given our limited refrigerator space. It’s been so nice to reconnect with our regulars, albeit from a distance and behind masks.
We’re working about a little less than we were before, except now we can take off Sunday afternoons, which we couldn’t do before. There’s this undercurrent of always thinking about things though. You can’t switch it on and off. We’re scared this will go through the summer, which is our busy season. We usually make double what we make in the winter. But as long as we’re able to survive, pay the rent and utilities, keep supporting our purveyors, and continue to provide some form of community for our area, we’ll keep at it. We think it’s important for everyone to have some normalcy to enjoy during this time.
Friday, April 24th
“We’re a bunch of yes people. When a farmer comes to us, saying, ‘I have 1,000 pounds of daikon I thought I’d sell to restaurants,’ we fill in that gap.”
Taylor Lanzet, Dig Food Group, New York City: In New York, grocery deliveries are coveted. To actually get a time slot is the best part of your day. Since we have relationships with independent farmers and an exceptional supply of ingredients, it seemed like we could help with that need. So we launched the Dig Acres Farm Box on March 28th, which allows us to bring in produce from our suppliers and directly distribute to customers. We’re trying to fill in that spot when you’re running low on groceries. We saw how people were stocked up on pantry items but were trying to figure out how to get fresh vegetables.
We designed the farm box to change every week, so our team chats with our farmers to get the best mix. We’re curating based on what’s coming in and what farmers need help moving. We’re a bunch of yes people. When a farmer comes to us, saying, “I have 1,000 pounds of daikon I thought I’d sell to restaurants,” we fill in that gap. (And that’s a true story!)
We’ve sent thousands of boxes at this point, and today we’re launching it in Boston and Philly. The demand was so high.
Last summer, at Dig Acres Farm, we piloted the farm box with FoodKick. I used to run a CSA, so I had personal experience in building these things. We could not keep up with demand. It was amazing. The box, in some ways, was us figuring out what Dig Food Group could be. We were thinking about how to really extend the brand beyond the restaurants [Dig Inn, 232 Bleecker], and that is getting vegetables to people. As soon as this crisis hit, it was like, well, we were planning on doing it again this summer, so why don’t we start earlier. We had the infrastructure already set. Now, we’re getting so many requests from farmers and farmers’ market delivery companies to collaborate. In some ways, it feels like we launched a new business in the past month.
We also created Dig Feeds. You can text DIGFEEDS to 80519 to gift a meal to someone or request a meal if you need it. It’s our way to get food to anyone in need. The other day, an emergency room resident at Kings County Hospital texted, we got dietary restrictions and allergies, and we coordinated 40 meals for her team. I just packed them in my car. We started this about a month ago and we’re a couple days away from 100,000 meals donated. It’s amazing because it has created a lot of purpose for the team. When we started, we had no idea what it would become. For our chefs, feeding people isn’t just about cooking for guests but giving back.
We’ve started to think about the future of Dig when this is all over. We’re asking ourselves how we can support small and diverse farmers, how can we help people cook food that makes them feel good. It’s not about going back to what we were before, but building a better food system moving forward.
Thursday, April 23rd
Courtesy of Twisted Soul
“Governor Kemp said he’s reopening businesses in Georgia as soon as this Friday. We were speechless. Georgia hasn’t even peaked yet.”
Deborah VanTrece, Twisted Soul, Atlanta, GA: I was in the kitchen with a couple of my staff, chopping vegetables or cooking chicken or something, keeping our social distance, doing our take-out thing, when I heard the news. I think someone saw a headline or got a text on their phone. We stopped for a second and said, “Nah that’s not true, it couldn’t be,” and continued to work. Then everybody’s phones started blowing up. Governor Kemp is on TV saying he’s reopening businesses in Georgia as soon as this Friday.
We were speechless. I mean, we’re in the same state where the CDC is. Georgia hasn’t even peaked yet. This is crazy. We looked around at our dining room for a quick second, like, could we do it? Is it possible? Meanwhile, we’re serving carry-out, so people are coming in to pick up their orders. We’ve got a big sign up that says, “Please Practice Social Distancing.” We’re giving away as much food as we can for free to healthcare workers and restaurant workers. We’ve got barriers up, so you can’t come too close to our employees. We’re wearing masks and watching people come around all the traffic cones and chairs like it’s some kind of obstacle course to get your food. And we’re sitting there thinking, how do you ever control people enough to make this safe? We see clearly that you can’t—certainly not that quickly. We can’t even get two workers behind our bar and keep them away from each other. And the experts are saying wear a mask. How the hell are you going to sit there and eat with a mask on? This is just not feasible. It doesn’t make sense.
Healthcare workers have families; their families want them to come home. What we have to do is feed them and stay away from each other so they can do their jobs, so we’re not loading up the hospitals even more. I thought for a moment Georgia was going in the right direction: Businesses are closed. We’re converting the World Congress Center to add extra hospital beds. That was last week. And then this week, the president said we need to reopen soon and so Kemp was like, “I’m going to be one of the first ones! I’m going to jump on that bandwagon!” He just wants a damn invitation to the party. He wants to get in with the boys. And I just read that President Trump and Mike Pence called and congratulated him. (Ed’s Note: At a news conference hours later, Trump stated that he “disagrees strongly” with Kemp’s plans to reopen.) He just made us the laughing stock of the world.
My response is: WTF? All capitals. I think it’s ridiculous. I don’t see the good in it at all; I just see harm on top of harm. And to make this call and not have anything lined up—to say, “We’ll give you some rules and guidelines in a couple days”—is very irresponsible. You’re putting lives in danger. If we’re not willing to protect the most vulnerable people, something is wrong with us as a society.
We have no intentions of re-opening now. None of the restaurateurs I’ve spoken with do either. No one wants to do this. But Kemp telling us to is another nail in the coffin for business owners. Because the next thing is, “Oh, they can work so we’ll take that unemployment away.” Then the question becomes: Save your business or save your life?
Photo courtesy of Sadie Clements
“We make beautiful food, not at all like typical hospital food, and we’re proud of it. We see food as healing.”
Sadie Clements, UC San Diego Health, San Diego, CA: I work at UC San Diego Health, the hospital at the University of California, San Diego. We’re an academic research medical center with 10 other sister hospitals (UCLA, UCSF, etc.) within the state. We have a team of researchers, scientists, and engineers, so there is always innovation driving our work. Like all the other UCs, we’re acute care centers, trauma one, which means the sickest of the sick come to us.
All the patients in the hospital need to eat when they are here, so my department, led by my director Jill Martin, services them and any therapeutic diet needs. We have 23 different therapeutic diets; there is one if you have, say, diabetes and COVID-19. Our hospital has 808 beds. On a normal day, without COVID-19, we would have around 600 of the beds filled. We serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Plus, my department also oversees the hospital cafeteria for staff and the cafe and coffee shop, which are normally for visitors and staff. It’s a lot of meals.
We have a really innovative model for patients called Room Service. Servers wear bistro-style uniforms and use an iPad for orders, so you feel like you’re at a restaurant. On the iPad, the server can pull up your therapeutic diet prescribed by your doctor and reference it when they share your meal options. All the food is à la carte and orders are sent downstairs to the kitchen and printed out on a ticket, like a restaurant. We make beautiful food, not at all like typical hospital food, and we’re proud of it. We see food as healing.
When we started to notice what was happening in China, yes, it was on our radar, but a lot of people were thinking, “Is this going to happen here?” In a hospital, you’re always preparing for an emergency. I have a seven-day supply of food in my storage unit if an earthquake hit. But have I ever sat around a table and planned for a pandemic? No, not at all.
On February 10th, we got our first patients—seven people who had been in Wuhan to visit family for the holidays and were showing signs of COVID-19. It was scary. We didn’t know what to do, even though we have the brightest minds here. As we worked with the patients, we started to ask the doctors: Is a lack of appetite a symptom? The patients were sick and we wanted to heal them, but they weren’t eating anything. Our servers couldn’t get into the rooms; only attending doctors and nurses could go in. So we didn’t know what was going on and we couldn’t communicate with the patients. We realized, oh my gosh, we didn’t meet the basic need of serving culturally appropriate food or asking what their preferences are. My team and I needed to figure out a way to patch through to the room with a Mandarin translator.
We have an amazing diverse staff, and one cook, Bokai Liao, offered to help. The day we made contact with these patients—it makes me tear up thinking about it. You’re sick, you’re cold, you don’t know what’s happening, you have this weird sickness; it’s like you’re in a deep, dark hole. When Bokai called them, you could hear the joy in their voices. Bokai was emotional, but he talked to each patient for a long time, writing down all their preferences. They asked for hot water, no cold foods. We bought rice wine, fermented soy beans, and Sriracha. Bokai became their personal chef, talking to them about how they were feeling and making them these beautiful warm meals.
We felt proud after this. Then we found out a cruise ship was stopping and had COVID-19 patients. We saw Ohio shut down, Pennsylvania shut down, and our schools shut down on February 13th. That’s when things really got real. I remember working 14 hours on Valentine’s Day. It felt like a war room, with our CEO and all these parts of the hospital running in synchronicity in order to take care of people. The beauty of people in food service is that we can pivot easily. That’s where we thrive. Some hospitals have decided to do a reduced menu for patients. We wanted to have all our offerings. Unfortunately, we have to conserve PPE, so my staff can’t go into the rooms. So we called patients on the phone and got their preferences for the next three to four meals since we don’t know if one day they’ll be too weak to pick up the phone. If they’re sick, we can be like, well we know they like tomato bisque, and give them that. We also started using disposable trays, cups, and cutlery for our patients.
We have about 500 beds filled now, since we had to postpone a lot of elective surgeries. Usually we have 100,000 meal transactions a month, but it’s around 30,000 this month. Since we aren’t allowing any visitors and some staff is working from home, the numbers have dropped. So we have more bandwidth to try other things. Our cafeteria remains open, with breakfast, lunch, and dinner prepared in to-go boxes and grab-and-go sandwiches, salads, and yogurt parfaits. We already had an app for doctors and nurses who are too busy to get lunch; they just pay for it on the app and pick it up at the cafeteria when it’s ready. This reduces transfers of cash and credit cards and touching hands with cashiers.
We started to do groceries to go for our staff, so if you did a 16-hour shift, you just pre-order what you want. We had flats of eggs for Easter—I’m not sure if people dyed or ate them, but it was nice to have. People can also donate groceries to a healthcare worker—some people wanted to pay for a nurse who took care of them or a loved one. We also initiated family meals to go, so you can get a pizza and salad or stir-fries. We send emails, but no one on our staff sits at their desk and reads emails. So, our marketing team is helping us spread the word.
Our community in San Diego has been sending a lot of meals to doctors and nurses since they don’t have time to eat. Hotels have offered rooms for staff if they don’t want to put their families at risk. My best friend Summer asked me if we’re getting a lot of donations. I told her it’s mainly going up to the doctors and nurses and we’re cool with that. So she raised $800 to feed us back-of-house workers, in the kitchen and the environmental service team that cleans the rooms. Being sick isn’t pretty and a lot of that happens in hospitals. People forget about the back of house, but Summer was thinking of us. She’s sending us a beautiful meal from Lola 55. It’s kitchens feeding kitchens. Those of us in food have an unspoken alliance.
I never thought I would be in this position. I feel honored to be, even though sometimes it’s scary to go outside and your kids are telling you not to go. But you have to put on your mask, be sure you’re doing your part to get this thing under control, and figure out what the new reality is going to be.
Wednesday, April 22nd
“I don’t think any of our food businesses are going to look the way they did leading into this pandemic. I hope not.”
Reem Assil, Reem’s, Oakland and San Francisco, CA: Every day I’m oscillating between anger, grief, and hope. More so to the hope side though. I mean, you need to get angry so that you can do something. Right?
We opened a new location in San Francisco right before the pandemic hit. Leading up to that moment, I was feeling the pressure because I already had one space and it was stretching me really thin. Everybody knows me here. I felt like I needed to be the greatest and all these things. None of that really mattered a week later. We went into survival mode, and everything just felt so unfair in terms of who was able to pull through this and who was not. At some point, I was like, it doesn’t even matter. I wanted to get off the hamster wheel of having to be this great chef with the best restaurant. People were hungry and people lost their jobs. My workers were devastated.
That helped actually, my grief. There was clarity around my vision and values—why I started Reem’s in the first place. Our mission is to have good jobs, nourishing food, and sanctuary space for all. Obviously, physical space is hard right now. But creating the good jobs and the nourishing food, it didn’t matter how I did it as long as I did it. That helped me pivot and be creative about what my businesses can look like in the short term but then also in the more medium and long term. Right now, we’re doing a commissary-style kitchen at our Oakland location, feeding folks on the frontlines.
I don’t think any of our food businesses are going to look the way they did leading into this pandemic. I hope not. I hope they learned something from all of this. I’m in the midst of processing, but what I do know is that without resources, we can’t do anything. We’ll always be plagued with inequity if we don’t actually have the resources to really put our money where our mouth is. People talk about paying for the real cost of food. That’s definitely a part of it. But I’m not really talking about that. The whole system is messed up. We have an abundance of resources in this country, in this world. It’s because the 1 percent has all the resources and the 99 percent of us don’t. It costs so much to do anything. We need a redistribution of wealth on a broader scale.
What would society look like if we invested in women? If we invested in people of color? If we invested in immigrants? If we invested in those who have been most hurt by this economic system, and those who have shown, time and time again, that they can take care of one another, even in the lowest moments? If we had, I think we’d have been in a much different situation right now. But we’re operating in this super capitalist system, where we’re just throwing money at the problem and throwing it in the same way. I mean, Ruth’s Chris Steak House got a $20 million bailout for the PPP. To me, that indicates that we’re just funneling resources the same way we were funneling resources before.
It’s a privilege to be a business owner. I understand that and, as much as this is a struggle for me, having to take away the right for my workers to put food on their own tables is devastating. What would it be like to actually build trust and come down to the level of my employees, engage them a little bit more, and figure out what Reem’s looks like on the other side of this? Is it a worker-owned model? Is it partnership with the community on doing something a little bit more forward-thinking? Maybe we don’t go back to being a restaurant. Maybe we pivot to being a meal program. This is a time to empower all of the people who felt voiceless and helpless, and figure it out together.
All of the food industry talk is about workers, but I have yet to hear a worker’s voice in all of this. They have no agency in any of this. They’re just subject matter. They’re just data. They’re just a statistic. And it really bothers me. Unfortunately for a lot of workers in the food industry, they are in the trenches right now because they’re undocumented. They don’t have access and they don’t want to make themselves vulnerable to the state. What can we do as a community to protect those folks, to let them come out of the trenches? What would it look like if we did a rent strike? I have not paid my rent. I can say that on the record. We need rent relief. Not just as businesses but as people. Could we use this time to organize and galvanize people to feel like they are going to be protected if they speak out?
There’s a moratorium on evictions in San Francisco and Oakland. That’s a blessing. I’ve never talked to my landlords in the way that I’ve talked to them now because I have that power. I mean, obviously the Bay Area is a bubble. I feel privileged to be in it, but I’m going to take advantage of that moratorium and use my voice as a business owner, in partnership with my workers. And if we don’t take advantage of this moment, I’m afraid that we’re just going to go back to the way things were. This is the time to organize.
If things go relatively well, there will be sort of a pooling of community investment in Reem’s as a hospitality group. Then we can really do the work over the next six months to transition into a better model, where workers have equity and ownership, where the business is not just shaped by a few core people but by many. On a broader scale, I see Reem’s as part of an ecosystem with other restaurants that have a social-justice-minded vision that treats its workers well, pays people a living wage, and doesn’t price out the communities we serve.
That’s where I want to get to. It’s going to take money. It’s going to take resources. And it’s going to take people shifting their mindset on where that money should go and how it should be allocated.
“Social media has really saved us in this COVID-19 situation. We can’t imagine what things would have been like if we weren’t able to use it.”
Yin Chang and Moonlynn Tsai, Table to Table, New York City: We’ve been hearing and reading the news about Asian-owned mom and pop restaurants and shops in Chinatown. These places have been feeling up to an 80 percent loss in business since the very start of the coronavirus. Kopitiam [Tsai’s restaurant] was considered to be doing well up until the first week of March, so we figured we could use our platform to pass on the love. Moonlynn has been wonderful in putting out these blasts and she’s grown Kopitiam’s Instagram since she stepped in as a partner, taking it from 2,000 followers to now over 15,000.
We started Table to Table in early March and, initially, it was supposed to be a series of food tours highlighting these mom and pop spots in Chinatown. We felt like we needed to bring awareness and education—that you do not get the virus from looking at an Asian person or eating our food. Another goal was to go into these places and ask if they wanted help with taking pictures and setting up Instagram accounts or Yelp pages with those photos. A lot of these mom and pop shops either don’t have the capabilities to or don’t want to get on social media because it’s another thing to learn and then handle.
But for us, social media has really saved us in this COVID-19 situation. We’ve been able to ask for help, put out calls to action, and be in touch with our community. When we asked on Instagram if anyone is willing to translate English to Chinese or vice versa for these mom and pop shops since we’re not fully fluent, people came out of the woodwork and were willing to do it with their own time. We can’t imagine what things would have been like if we weren’t able to use it.
Just as we were getting this together—boom—the mandated closures happened and so we weren’t able to get that started. We pivoted and began to use our personal social media platforms and Table to Table’s Instagram to publicize restaurants that are still open in Chinatown and hanging on by a thread. Taking photos and posting them on social media goes a long way. It helps other people find these restaurants so they know they exist and are still operating. In one specific Table to Table Instagram post, we urged followers to support a local Chinatown restaurant, Green Garden Village. A follower commented saying they had organized and picked up a dinner order for two different families and would have never known of the restaurant if not for our post.
During this time, we’ve also been able to use Table to Table to highlight Chinatwn organizations and communities in need. We’ve transformed Kopitiam’s kitchen into a temporary relief hub to feed elderly residents in Chinatown. We’ve also been able to provide hot meals for the Clean Streets Ambassadors, a group that cleans, power-washes, and disinfects Chinatown every single day. We’re proud that through Table to Table we’re able to shine more light on the people who really deserve it most—they’re the underdogs and our everyday heroes that most people don’t even know about.
These are obviously challenging times for every single person on a global scale, but being Asian, we’ve also had to deal with racism on top of it. There are moments where you wonder what humanity has come to. And then there are moments that remind us there are good, generous, and kind people out there. Social media has allowed us to see that and give us hope in humanity during these really dark times.
Tuesday, April 21st
“Coffee is a thing that essential workers really need to get through these difficult, exhausting times. But there are barely any coffee shops open.”
Sam Penix, Fuel Frontlines NYC and Everyman Espresso, New York City: I was inspired by Feed the Frontlines NYC, a project started by the family behind Tarallucci e Vino. They deliver meals to frontline hospital workers, and I was interested in helping them provide coffee. We did our first drop—a couple boxes of coffee—at a field hospital in Central Park. That was interesting because we had no idea where it was or who we were delivering to. But after that, I wanted to send anything I could get my hands on that would help these hospital workers.
Before all this, I was like, “My name is Sam Penix and I own a coffee shop and that is what I do.” Why would I stop doing that if I can do it in a way that is safe and can support essential workers? These people are working overtime, whether they’re in a grocery store or a hospital. Coffee is a thing that essential workers really need to get through these difficult, exhausting times. But there are barely any coffee shops open.
My first job for Fuel Frontlines NYC was March 29th and I set up the website a couple days later. The idea is that anyone can go to the website and pay for coffee—which is broken down by price point and how many people it serves—and we make and deliver that coffee to mostly hospital workers but generally any essential workers. I’m trying not to use words like donation since we’re not a 501(c)(3). Our focus is serving as many people as we can. There is no bottleneck.
Essential workers can request coffee by filling out a form on the website. Within a few hours, depending on if I’m scootering to a hospital or brewing coffee, I’ll get back and be like, “Yo, it’s Sam! You thought it was a robot you were connecting to, but it’s me! When do you want us to deliver coffee?” We require an onsite person with a cell phone because we don’t want to go to a hospital and just hang out. That’s it. That’s all I need. So far, I have raised $20,000. My coffee has reached 12 hospitals, and I’ve served 3,000 cups of coffee.
The more revenue I bring in, the more people I can pay. Today, I hired someone to help with making coffee; they’re out of work and can safely walk to Everyman Espresso in Soho. I bought all the stock of Keetz & Co. energy bites, so around 150 cases. I’ve committed to buying everything she has, which means she needs to go into production soon. I have also bought coffee beans from every friend who has a coffee shop and can safely open it. I went to Third Rail and bought 300 pounds of coffee and Chalait for 21 five-pound bags. If we can give a shop owner cash for premium coffee, I’m doing that. Now that we have done a drop to a full hospital, meaning we served 1,200 people at once, it’s about to get fucking real. I’m going to need a lot of coffee. This is a project that not only supplies frontline workers but helps me and my community recover some losses from product that’s just sitting there.
You want to know the juicy celebrity details? Piper Perabo, Leslie Bibb, and Sam Rockwell are regulars and they’ve taken an interest in the project and have been reaching out to their community, which is mainly actors. At this point, people who have donated are: Kathy Bates, Rosie Perez, Billy Bob Thornton, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Taraji P. Henson, Danny DeVito, Laura Linney, and Colin Farrell. That got us some exposure. It’s pretty cool, but it’s not about celebrities. It’s about our community—that I can hire people, I can buy more goods from small producers seeing a downturn in their business, I can help coffee supply chains by buying beans from roasters to support farmers. This is about the coffee community and how we can restart our economy while supporting so many lives.
“The free sack lunches and pantry boxes started on Ladybird’s dime, but donations from the community have made it possible to sustain this.”
Meghan Heriford, Ladybird Diner & Ladybird Pantry, Lawrence, KS: On March 14th, with the hope of slowing the spread of COVID-19 in our great little college community, we closed Ladybird Diner and shifted our focus to providing free sack lunches to anyone who needs them. Our mission is to lessen the increasing burdens many of our neighbors face from sudden unemployment and the weight of all the unknowns around the pandemic, and to provide nourishment for anyone in need. No strings, no questions, no substitutions.
There is always a line waiting for us to bring the food out. Yesterday was cheeseburgers, chicken noodle soup, and PB&J for the few kids who somehow aren’t sick of it yet.
Once lunch was served, we got to work putting together the day’s pantry box distributions, another new offering for Ladybird. This is a quieter, less harried time of day. Portioning the beans is my favorite. There is such a sonic and tactile pleasure in the whir-click of dried beans tumbling into a paper sack. I looked out through the window and waved at the people picking up lunches as I filled boxes with vegetables, cheese, milk, and bread, sneaking in little boxes of Lucky Charms for kids.
I’m thinking about community and what that looks like now, and how that song moved from one set of lungs to another—and lost nothing for its travels. This is the way community works for us now. The free sack lunches and pantry boxes started on Ladybird’s dime, but donations from the community have made it possible to sustain this for much longer than we would’ve been able to. They’re donations from neighbors who trust us to care for other neighbors. Every dollar that has come in includes an unwritten copyright permission: Here, I wrote this song; I trust you will play it well. So far, we’ve received $25,000 in donations and handed out 5,500 lunches and 400 pantry boxes.
After the lunches have been made and given out and the pantry boxes are packed and picked up, there is still the work of keeping the restaurant space clean and organized. Yesterday afternoon, I caught myself silently chanting “left foot, right foot” while I was taking out the trash. I recognize that burnout is a risk, but I’m not doing anything I don’t want to be doing. My heart is keeping up even when my knees aren’t. We’ll keep doing as much as we can for as long as we can.
The part of me that is driven to do this every day is the same part of me that opened the diner in the first place. I want to make people happy. A couple weeks ago, a kid sent me a thank you card for putting a small box of chocolate cereal in his family’s pantry box. It was such a big thing for him!
I have a stack of cards from kids now. I don’t know how they are going to process or recall this weird pivot in their lives, so much collective trauma and confusion. But maybe some of them will remember that there was a lady who gave them chocolate cereal and smiled through the window when they came to pick up lunch.
Monday, April 20th
“People buying seeds now are newbies. They went to their local grocery store, looked at the shelves, and panicked.”
Nikos Kavanya, Fedco Seeds, Clinton, ME: Right after the government declared a national emergency—on the 13th of March—sales took off. It was like somebody put the pedal to the metal. Seed orders doubled, then tripled, then nearly quadrupled. And for the week that followed, we broke every sales record we have ever had, bigger than anything we’ve experienced. We couldn’t handle orders fast enough; we had to upgrade our server. We’ve decided to put a hold on new orders until early May so we can get caught up.
People are sort of going from zero to 60. They see the empty shelves in the grocery store and it doesn’t matter what they’re being told—there’s distrust. When you don’t know when you’re coming out of seclusion, you’re getting enough to cover what you think that time period will be. Some people think it’s two weeks, and some people think it’s more like the end of the summer. Unknown possibilities have now become possible in people’s minds.
Seasoned gardeners placed their orders a while ago, so this is usually the time when sales taper off. People buying seeds now are newbies. They don’t have a clue what they’re getting into. But they went to their local grocery store, looked at the shelves, and panicked. It’s like, “Okay, I haven’t grown a thing in my life and now I’m gonna grow all my food.” They are scared that there won’t be a steady food supply.
We have a basic gardening collection, starting with beans and cucumbers. We’re sold out of that at the moment, so we need to make more. Most people are growing some beans, some cukes and squash, lettuce—you know—the basics. Lots of tomatoes and peppers.
Many people are calling us once they get their seeds saying, “Now, what do I do?” And that’s my concern. We need to teach our neighbors how to grow food. This awareness is starting to come into people’s consciousness: The more food that can be grown at home, the more secure we’ll be. I’m hoping from my own point of view that people also just learn how to grow seeds.
Friday, April 17th
“Lots of e-commerce companies are seeing spikes in orders that are so crazily outside of anybody’s expectations. Planning is basically impossible.”
Ethan Frisch and Ori Zohar, Burlap & Barrel, New York City: March was an absolute roller coaster. It started off fairly normal, except we were in India and doing a sourcing trip that we had to cut short. We were visiting with Floyd Cardoz, a friend and collaborator we’d been working with on a new project we had planned to launch in April. But other than that, it was business as usual. Then halfway through the month, we lost half our business as restaurants closed. Obviously it wasn’t as devastating for us as it was for the restaurants we supply, but it still felt crushing and apocalyptic. We had built the business as a restaurant supply company—restaurants and chefs were our first champions.
Then in the last two weeks of March, home cooks came to the rescue, and it wound up being one of the best months we’ve ever had. We’re seeing two different types of folks ordering from us: existing customers who are cooking a lot more and new customers who are running out of their spices and going online to replace them with something better. We’ve had a run on two spices in particular: Royal Cinnamon and bay leaves. Everyone is baking or stewing big pots of beans.
I don’t think we’d ever gotten a single question about sifters on top of our spice jars. They’re designed to easily fit measuring spoons, so they don’t have sifters. But now we’re getting tons of requests. I think it’s a sign our customer base is expanding. In the first couple years of business, customers tended to be savvier, more confident cooks who generally knew how to use the spices they were buying. But the new folks are more casual cooks who have more time to spend in their kitchens at home than they ever have. They’re people who want to shake cinnamon over their coffee or sprinkle spices directly from the jar into a pot. They need a little more hand-holding—hence the sifter tops. And yes, we’re already on it. We get our jars manufactured custom for us and the manufacturer also makes sifter tops. So we’re redesigning the jars slightly and we’ll start including sifter tops in the next six weeks.
We use a third party logistics company that handles fulfillment, which means we haven’t had to alter how we fulfill orders even with the high demand. But now there are social distancing practices in place and more aggressive cleaning measures. And as our business has grown, others have shrunk. All of this means that while we normally ship orders out the next business day, we’re now three to five days behind. We’re doing our best to stay up to date, and folks have been really forgiving. It’s all about communicating with customers and setting up expectations.
The supply of spices is something we think about every minute of every day. We import from a dozen different countries, all of which are being affected by the virus in different ways and subject to governments that are responding differently. Lockdowns in Guatemala and India have caused delays, but a new shipment of Royal Cinnamon from Vietnam should be getting on a boat today.
When and if the shipment does get here, there’s now a bigger delay on the import side. Something that would’ve cleared in a day now takes a few weeks. We’re just watching the situation carefully and being really cautious. We’re buying in larger quantities so that when we can get a shipment in, we’re stocked for a bit. It’s also better for partner farmers to receive one bulk sum versus payments over a period of time. So far, we’re comfortable and not worried about running out of stock.
But even though sales are up now, that’s only direct to consumer. We’ve lost all of our restaurant business. So what does the future beyond the next few weeks look like? Across the industry, lots of e-commerce companies are seeing spikes in orders that are so crazily outside of anybody’s expectations. Planning is basically impossible. We’re a tiny company. We’re lean and flexible. We can change our minds tomorrow. We’re just trying to figure out what the next course is.
“It’s very difficult to estimate when our alumni will receive their unemployment benefits. In response, we’re committed to funding that income gap.”
Shaolee Sen, Hot Bread Kitchen, New York City: For the last 10 years, Hot Bread Kitchen has been placing women in good jobs in the food industry and incubating small businesses, with an emphasis on minority-owned businesses. That’s what we do when it’s business as usual.
In early March, when New York state went into pause, we anticipated that we would start to see layoffs for our alumni who went through these programs. So we reached out to around 200 of them—many work at companies, like Whole Foods, Eataly, FreshDirect, and corporate cafeterias like Aramark—to assess their situations. By early March, a third of our alumni had been laid off; a third or more were in a furloughed-type position; and the last third were still on payroll with their employers, which tended to be in corporate cafeterias.
Once we learned this, we knew there would be a gap in income while people figured out how to apply for unemployment. We started fundraising for cash assistance in the form of emergency stipends for the women who have been affected, so they can pay for rent, utilities, and essential household needs like food. We raised over $100,000 in a weekend, which is a large amount for an organization of our size and our reach. Our goal was to provide a bridge to cover the lost wages—up to $450 a week—until the unemployment benefits kicked in.
What we’ve been finding as the weeks go on is that it’s very difficult to estimate when our alumni will receive their unemployment benefits. This is particularly true for households without digital access [like computers at home and consistent Wi-Fi], since the application is online and complex. If they do get through the online portion, they’re then told to call a phone number. Many women in our program have been on hold for three to four hours a day trying to complete the process. Because of these barriers, we’re not seeing people move into unemployment as quickly as we thought, which is exacerbating an already major financial gap.
In response, we’re committed to funding that income gap. We’re seeing people who have supported the organization in the past resurface and give varied amounts—some just a small individual donation, some a larger family donation. But it’s been a steady flow. We’re still seeing our institutional and corporate funding coming through, which typically funds our programming throughout the year. Because of them, we’ve been able to disperse all of that money to our alumni and small businesses through these emergency stipends. We’re anticipating to raise another $100,000 and we’ve been trying to communicate with our alumni and businesses every week or so about what we’re seeing and how we’re spending the funds. We’re doing everything we can to make sure they are supported.
Thursday, April 16th
“When you’re living on an extremely thin margin and then the rug is pulled out from under you, you go from barely surviving to not surviving.”
Saru Jayaraman, One Fair Wage, Oakland, CA: It’s important to understand that prior to coronavirus, restaurant workers were already struggling. The restaurant industry was the nation’s second largest and fastest growing sector, with 13.5 million workers. It was also the lowest paying sector. Every year, the U.S. Department of Labor puts out a list of the 10 lowest paying jobs—seven of the 10 are always restaurant jobs. And that has a lot to do with the subminimum wage for tipped workers, which is still $2.13 an hour. (Ed’s Note: Subminimum wage is a wage lower than the federal standard of $7.25 an hour. Employers are required to pay at least $2.13 an hour to tipped workers, assuming that tips will add up to equal the federal standard. If wages and tips don’t meet the federal standard, employers must compensate employees.)
I would think at this point we can universally agree that a $2-an-hour wage is wholly unacceptable in the United States of America in 2020. You’re talking about a 70 percent female workforce of mostly waitresses—a huge percentage of them single mothers—working in mostly casual restaurants at a subminimum wage plus tips. They’re living, as I would call it, tip to mouth. You get the tips at night and that’s what you use to feed your kids the next day. I can’t tell you the number of stories we have heard about restaurant workers living in their cars, working three jobs, waiting for meals before their shifts.
So that was the reality prior to coronavirus. When you’re living on an extremely thin margin and then the rug is pulled out from under you, you go from barely surviving to not surviving. We’ve seen more than 10 million service workers lose their jobs. Most of them are ineligible for unemployment insurance. That’s not just because of immigration status. It’s also because of all the issues I just described. They didn’t work enough hours in any one restaurant. They are working three jobs, part-time, to piece together a livelihood that would allow them to pay their rent and the bills. And because they don’t work full-time at any one restaurant, they don’t get unemployment insurance anywhere.
This is why One Fair Wage is so important. It’s a national organization that has been fighting to ensure that every worker in America receives a full minimum wage with tips on top. There are currently seven states that guarantee this for workers: Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Minnesota, Montana, Alaska, and California, where I live. We’ve been moving local, state, and federal policy with a coalition of workers, employers, and consumers nationwide. About nine months ago, in July 2019, we won this in the U.S. House of Representatives. They passed the Raise the Wage Act, which says that everybody needs $15 an hour, with tips on top of that. But the Senate did not move the bill. That would have helped these workers stay afloat now.
After the pandemic started, we set up the One Fair Wage Emergency Fund. We knew we had to set up this up quickly because our workers would be hit immediately. In the first month, we raised nearly $13 million to hand out cash payments to unemployed service workers. Nearly 140,000 workers have applied for relief and we’ve sent payments to over 6,000 workers so far for a total of over $1 million.
What’s heartening to me is there are many employers who opposed our fight for one fair wage and are now coming to us, saying, “You were right.” Because they’ve seen their workers go from having tips one day to nothing the next day after being laid off. Even Trump, I saw him on CNN say, “I recognize tipped workers are now in a very perilous situation.” He used those words. Because you can recognize now that getting $2 plus tips has clearly decimated millions of people. But why was it acceptable then? Why was it acceptable prior to coronavirus? It’s never been acceptable. And this moment has made that clear.
“It’s just a bento. But some hospital workers say it’s the highlight of their day.”
Eric Sze, 886, New York City: We just finished a few drops today and now most of my time is spent in front of a computer. I’m just keying in donations from our Venmo account. The way our operation works is that people donate money through Venmo, we take that money to make bentos, and we donate and drop those off to hospital workers. It’s called Bento Essential. It took us two days to think of that name since anything that has bento in it sounds silly. We started less than a month ago, and we’ve raised about $95,000 and donated 5,000 bentos.
In the beginning, when the government shutdown happened, my partner and I were worried about our staff. A lot of them are living paycheck to paycheck, and some are undocumented. So even if a government stipend or benefit came in, they wouldn’t be able to receive it. We wanted a way to help them. So we started doing bento boxes for pick-up and delivery, with all proceeds going to our kitchen staff. We were inspired by bento boxes at Taiwanese convenience stores. People were overwhelmingly supportive. The first day, we sold all 60 bento boxes in an hour. The same thing the next day. My partner and I were making everything.
Then a restaurant regular DM’ed us on Instagram, saying he wanted to send us money so we could bring food to whoever we thought was most in need. That same day, our friend who is a neurologist at New York Presbyterian came in and we asked if her department needed food. She told us her hospital cafeteria and everything else around them closed or weren’t delivering to the hospital. They only had cookies and shit, so her colleagues were skipping meals.
The next thing you know, we posted on Instagram, saying, “Hey, we donated these meals to hospitals because they need it. So if you’re interested in helping, you can donate to our Venmo account and we’ll use that money to make meals for hospitals.” Within a week, we got $20,000. The second week, we were at $40,000. We’re able to pay our staff a set “salary” each week. It’s less than what they used to make, but they tell me it’s enough to get by. We’ve also expanded our hospital network to 25, so we asked some friends if they needed the money. Richard Ho is a good friend and he wasn’t sure if he was going to close Ho Foods or do delivery. I was like, we can do this thing together! So he came on board. The guys at Raku are great friends, too, so they joined us. Essentially, we buy bentos from Raku and Ho Foods each week, making sure they have a good margin to pay their own staff. Among the three of us, we’re looking at $20,000 per week to pay for food, labor, and gas (we deliver the bentos).
It’s cool that people are so compassionate. Our DMs are exploding. We get some from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 and feel so appreciative of the doctors and nurses who took care of them that they want to send $1,000 to feed them. It’s very personal. We get a lot from hospital workers, telling us thanks for the food. It surprises me that such a simple thing can bring so much joy. That shows how much hell they’re going through. It’s just a bento. But some hospital workers say it’s the highlight of their day.
Wednesday, April 15th
“We have not been able to open our restaurant in any capacity, even as a contactless pick-up spot. We are in a black hole.”
Sam Strand, Lunch Nightly, Kingston, NY: We imagined Lunch Nightly having a dual existence: a deli and whole animal butcher by day and a sexy dive with shareable plates by night (think: pastrami sandwiches, chicken salad, and tons of vegetables). But our plans [to open in March] were put on pause by what is now our new reality. The Department of Health, the gatekeepers for our business, has been a bit preoccupied—rightly so—with making sure everyone is upholding health stuff during the virus. But without a preliminary in-person inspection, we have not been able to open our restaurant in any capacity, even as a contactless pick-up spot for butcher and grocery items with prepared foods. We don’t know if it’s because they’re unable to come to us because of the current restrictions surrounding social distancing, or if it’s because they have fewer employees working. But, I guess, it would be weird for them to give us a greenlight when they’re trying to make sure New York remains on pause. We are in a black hole.
Since we haven’t been operational, meaning we cannot show a previous year’s earnings and payroll, we do not qualify for federal and state disaster or payroll relief. One year is the minimum time you must work in order to obtain these benefits. To put it simply, without a way to open, nor financial relief in sight, we’ve been left to our own devices. We had to rethink our financials, which meant no more fake tropical plants for our bathrooms or expensive ovens to melt cheese onto Reubens. By doing this, we’ve been able to make sure the lights stay on and that our sole employee, our chef June Rose, is paid. We’re owner-operated, so we’re not paying ourselves right now and I don’t see us being able to for a while.
But we’ve always been scrappy. We’ve been largely sheltering in place at Lunch Nightly and the upstairs apartment, which as a stroke of luck we were already using as an office and for discounted housing for our chef. We knew we’d be spending so much time here once we opened anyway, but now the apartment has taken on a new function. Every day our chef is teaching us his recipes—there’s more time for testing everything than we would’ve had initially. We’ve been drinking margaritas and giving each other tattoos. Some of the things we’ve been doing in the interim we are really proud of; others simply brought us joy in these uncertain times.
We’re scared and stressed but also feel so grateful to have this wild time to discover things about ourselves as friends and what our restaurant can be. We’ve always wanted to be more than just a restaurant, but now we can slow down to think more about what that looks like. For now, we’re in the process of hand-making t-shirts for people to buy. We’ve also been doing Instagram live videos that we’re calling LNTV. One was with our chef teaching people how to break down a whole chicken for a delicious, apocalypse-friendly meal called “ketchup chicken.” Another one we did was with Katherine Clary of Wine Zine to educate people on cheap natural wine. We’ve also been asking our friends, community, and future customers on Instagram about what staples would be useful for them—we’re learning what they need and how we can help them when we open.
“We’re working with under $10,000 in our bank account. We’re used to having about $100,000.”
Brandon Jew, Mister Jiu’s, San Francisco: Yesterday, our Bay Area Hospitality Coalition held a video conference since people have so many questions about PPP [Payroll Protection Program, a loan for small businesses to pay for payroll, rent, and utilities for up to eight weeks that can be forgiven if a percentage of employees are hired back]. We had close to 200 people sign on, and representatives from Wells Fargo and Chase to help answer questions, but the challenge is that every restaurant is a little different. For us, the clock is ticking. We have our healthcare covered through our GoFundMe this month, but it’s not enough for next month. If we get approved for our PPP, we can use that money to pay for healthcare for another four weeks. I’m feeling a little pressed right now. I want to keep all my employees on health insurance, but I can’t afford it.
One really awesome thing that came out of the blue is from Haus. They make apéritifs, and they asked a mutual friend if I would be interested in creating a flavor with them. So I came up with a flavor, along with nine other chefs like Edouardo Jordan and Ashley Christensen, and they sold them online, with all the profits going to those chefs. They’re sending me a check in a couple days for a couple thousand dollars. That’s pretty awesome. These days, $2,000 or $3,000 is vital. We’re working with under $10,000 in our bank account right now. We’re used to $100,000 for working capital and operations since our payroll is $65,000 and health insurance is $20,000. I’ve never seen our bank account so low, and it freaks me out every day. So having Haus send me that check—I feel really lucky.
We’re starting to get into a rhythm, understanding if we can try to do a little more or do what we’re doing in a better way. So this week, we’re working with Juice Shop, trying to take all the leftover carrots and turmeric they use for their juice, reinforce that with mushrooms, and turn it into a stock for congee. We’re hosting David Yoshimura, the former chef de cuisine at Californios, who has a restaurant called Nisei. He makes and sells bento boxes for pick-up right after we leave Mister Jiu’s, so 5 to 8 p.m. We’ve also been working to make Mister Jiu’s a marketplace. So we’re making the site user-friendly and thinking we can use the alley as a drive-thru, so people can pop the trunk and we don’t have to make any direct exchanges.
But I’m wondering how much I should be investing into these little lifelines. In California, [governor] Gavin Newsom is talking about the next steps to reopen. In our coalition, we’re starting to think about that as well. I’ve been working with some designers in the area to create posters for the coalition. They allude to the fact that we don’t know when we’re opening or who is coming back, but we do know we need help to reopen. A lot of parts need to sync up again in order for that to happen, like local media (to announce restaurant openings) and reservations systems. I was talking to Danny Bowien from Mission Chinese Food, and he was thinking about starting with a ticketed reservation system so you have a little more time to prepare. If you have 50 tickets sold, that’s different from reservations, with people ordering things à la carte. You can schedule and spread out the ticket times.
Reopening has been on my mind the last 48 hours, trying to figure out how we’re going to do that here and talking to other coalitions. Everything changes so fast in a day. But hopefully, next week, I can tell you my plan to reopen.
Tuesday, April 14th
“We’re in a figuring-it-out-as-we-go boat. It’s a leaky, little dingy sometimes, but then there are moments where we’re cruising.”
Sallie Miller and Gwen Gunheim, Miracle Plum, Santa Rosa, CA: We’re self-taught home cooks and our shop pays homage to that. We offer ceramics, linens, pantry items, a small line of our own products (jam, granola, tea), hard-to-find Japanese staples, tinned fish, and natural wine. It took longer than expected, but about two months ago, right before things started shutting down and sheltering in place became a reality, we got our shop’s website relaunched, with nearly our entire pantry selection listed there. We feel so lucky to have had these things in place—this is just a guess, but probably 80 percent of our business has switched to online ordering at this point.
We’re in a figuring-it-out-as-we-go boat. Our boat feels like a leaky, little dingy sometimes, but then there are moments where it feels like we’re cruising in a power yacht off the coast of Ibiza. All in all though, the very bottom line is: It’s going and we’re grateful for that, and we’re learning to be flexible grocers.
Many of our regular distributors got wiped out of stock early on and they are still wiped out of the items we usually purchase, for the time being. We’ve had some distributors who are getting products from Europe—mainly Italy—and those supply chains are stalled. They’re still waiting for food to arrive and it’s taking a lot longer to get to their warehouses. We’ve also seen some distribution companies who are owned by larger companies stop all together. We suspect that the larger company needed the inventory for the larger stores.
But it’s not all bad. Some distributors are intentionally supporting smaller accounts like ours. During all this, a family-owned, Bay Area-based food distribution company that typically services larger accounts reached out to help us and waived their minimum for delivery. That’s been an enormous help. Our dairy vendor walked in with a full dolly of product and announced that they were going to keep on supporting small businesses like ours by adjusting what they deliver to the larger stores. They are a local family business and started out really small, so they get it.
We’ve also had some vendors come on board after they were nearly leveled by the winery and restaurant closures. So we’re now stocking fish from TwoxSea, a fishery started by chef Kenny Belov to reliably supply his restaurant, Fish in Sausalito, and other restaurants and wholesale accounts with amazing fish. John Ginanni from Canteen Meats is dropping off sausages; soon we will offer his cured meats through our website. Since literally day one of Miracle Plum, farmer Miriam Blachman has been kind enough to offer our shop small amounts of whatever she grows. She mostly focuses on supplying SF-based restaurants with her beautiful produce. Initially, we had approached her about selling CSA boxes through our website, saying that we’d manage the customers if she could focus on managing her farm. Now she’s switched gears, and she’s harvesting on Thursdays and dropping off these stunning CSA boxes on Fridays. Tim Page from FEED Sonoma [a local farmers’ market] is also using Miracle Plum as a CSA drop site on Tuesdays. We just launched Quarantine Flowers with our flower farmer Gina Strathman. She lost spring wedding accounts, so we’re selling bouquets through the site, in case people need a little brightness in their lives.
There are plenty more vendors to add to this list of what we’re juggling, but basically we’re galvanizing who we can with what we can to support beloved small businesses as well as keep our own small business humming.
Monday, April 13th
“We knew food would continue to be consumed, but it would just be a shift from out of the home into the home.”
Franco Fubini, Natoora, London: Pre-COVID-19, there were three sides to our business: the restaurant side (we supplied over 1,200 restaurants, mainly in London, Paris, and New York), the retail side (which previously existed only in London), and the farming side (we have two farms, one in Sicily and one in Cornwall).
Because we have a presence in multiple regions, we had a sense of what was happening in Italy on the ground. On March 11th, we had a meeting to think through what we could do if there was a slowdown. We knew food would continue to be consumed, but it would just be a shift from out of the home into the home. We’ve been in New York for three years and, up until last month, we just worked with restaurants. We had around 220 to 240 restaurant accounts with places like Estela, Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, King, Sunday in Brooklyn, Four Horsemen, and Misi. When restaurants shut down in New York on March 17th, we did our first home deliveries the next day.
It started off a little slow, but we got a bit of press and started pushing on Instagram. It’s been building ever since. We add about a thousand customers a day, and we have 50,000 customers registered across London and New York. We do about 2,500 deliveries a week in London and 700 a week in New York, where we deliver Monday to Saturday in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and a little bit of Queens. On Saturdays, we do a run into the Hamptons, going all the way up to Montauk.
We’re using all our existing infrastructure, but we’re quickly changing the way we pick, pack, and process. The main difference is that residential orders have more individual items per order and the quantities are smaller, so it takes more man hours to make the same amount in sales. But in two weeks, we’ve streamlined our ordering system to increase capacity by 40 percent in New York and 28 percent in London.
Fruit and veg is the core of what we do, and we haven’t changed anything there. But we’ve added retail formats to some things, like a 500-ml bottle of olive oil in addition to the five-liter tin. We’ve also started adding new products to round things out, like milk and dried pasta. In New York, we’re now selling bread from She Wolf Bakery and, in the future, we’re looking at meat from Happy Valley.
A lot of companies like us have shifted to consumers, but they’re processing orders manually. It’s been a tremendous challenge, but the reality is that all of the technology that we had built for the chefs allows us to do this at scale. Still, we’re constantly making updates. The app’s live [shopping] basket was built to accommodate how chefs order throughout the day, so you don’t click a button to check out or place the order. We don’t offer delivery slots because restaurants always get their order at the same time and they’re always ordering for the next day. That’s been confusing for our customers. Right now, we don’t have next-day delivery because we’ve reached capacity, but you’ll see a delivery date soon and we’re hopefully releasing a new version of the app next week that will have a check-out button.
When the restaurants closed, our revenue in New York dropped by 95 to 96 percent. In London, it was down by 75 to 80 percent. But the crazy thing is that, in New York, we’re at about 80 percent of revenue. In London, we’re at 95 to 100 percent of revenue. The fact that we’ve retained 100 percent of a pre-COVID-19 revenue is nothing short of a miracle.
When restaurants open back up, we want to keep home delivery going, without a doubt. That will bring its own challenges because we’re using all our capacity right now. But we’re already thinking about it.
Friday, April 10th
“I get emails from ER doctors and nurses every day begging us to come to their hospitals.”
Ben Goldberg, New York Food Truck Association, New York City: We help food trucks with revenue streams like events, and we also focus on advocacy like trying to change laws and regulations—we helped get letter grades passed for food trucks in NYC. Typically, this would be our busy season, with about 50 events a month, but when COVID-19 hit, that came to a halt.
All our trucks were sitting idly by, so I went to go to talk to the hospitals. We found out that the hospital cafeterias were closing to limit their staff, so accessing food and beverages was becoming increasingly difficult for hospital workers. If you’re not able to get caffeine and food on a shift, with all the restaurants around you closed or only doing delivery, then it must be hard to get food before and after your shift as well. The last thing you want to think about after going through a grueling, 20-plus-hours shift is where you can get your next meal.
A lot of great companies have been donating pizza and other snacks, but they’re not individually packaged, which causes health concerns during a pandemic. Also, only staff is allowed inside the hospitals, so they had to dedicate their own resources to bring in these donations. We thought our trucks could act as a central distribution point. We could help coordinate donations and distribute them from the truck. We saw two benefits: help hospital workers and keep our trucks and their staff employed.
We launched our Frontline Food Trucks program at two hospitals: NYU Langone on 34th Street in Manhattan and NYU Langone in Brooklyn. We have one truck per location—Empire BBQ and Big D’s Grub—and we’re there seven days a week from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. We serve 2,000 snacks/meals per day per location. We create a break for hospital workers to take their minds off the craziness going inside for a few minutes. We’re also able to also employ food trucks, which is huge because, like a lot of restaurants, they have a very small runway and had to let go of their staff.
We reached out to companies we normally do branded promotions with—Core Foods, Chobani, Pipcorn—and asked them to donate what they could. We’re constantly getting pallets of food at our warehouse in Long Island City. Sweetgreen has really stepped up to the plate: They donate 400 salads to both of our locations, Monday through Friday. La Colombe is donating daily, too, and then we get one-offs: Dominique Ansel dropped off pastries today.
We’ve been contacted by 20 different hospital locations. I get emails from ER doctors and nurses every day begging us to come to their hospitals. I wish we could be at every location. It’s just the finances. We can’t afford to be at 12 hospitals, seven days a week. We pay a lot of the costs to operate these food trucks out of pocket, so we set up a GoFundMe page to help offset those costs.
We’re committed to be at NYU Langone through the end of June—by then we’ll have served 250,000 meals. Every day, we’re trying to find financial support so we can grow, and every day that goes by is a lost opportunity. We have the trucks, we have the need, and we have the food.
Thursday, April 9th
“Our accountant’s advice was to lay people off and hunker down. That didn’t feel right.”
Andrew Dana and Daniela Moreira, Call Your Mother and Timber Pizza Co., Washington, D.C.: We’re sort of risk-averse, despite working in a risky industry. We’ve been saving money for the last four to five years. We’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop, so we usually keep enough in the bank for two or three payrolls.
When we went to Thailand at the end of January, we were pretty tuned into COVID-19. We kept an eye on it when we got back and knew something would hit in March, so we decided to shut down our restaurants before the city mandated it, starting on March 8th for about two weeks. We wanted to get ahead of it and make sure our staff felt safe, and talk to people in the medical field to figure out best practices. Our accountant’s advice was to lay people off and hunker down. That didn’t feel right.
We have 144 employees. We talk about how we’re a family at the restaurants. We couldn’t imagine looking at our team in the face and telling them, “We’re all in this together but not now—fend for yourselves.” A lot of immigrants work for us and send money home. So if they stop getting paid, it affects not just them here but their families there. So we went against what our accountant told us to do—but he’s used to that—and we put the financial health of our employees ahead of the business. We’re paying everyone as long as possible. If it takes a village to build a restaurant, then it takes a village to weather a storm.
During the two weeks we were closed, we were figuring out loans we could apply for and started an online experience store, where people could purchase cooking classes or name a menu item after themselves. We raised $50,000. We also started delivering bagels to hospitals. We wanted to figure out how to take care of people on the front lines. This also allowed us to figure out how to produce bagels with a skeleton crew. We initially started out with two hospitals, but seeing how happy it’s made their staff, we’re looking to deliver to more.
When we reopened Call Your Mother for pick-up on March 30th, we sold 1,500 bagels. It was busier than a typical weekday. Part of it is because we sell comfort food and part of it is because the community has embraced what we’re trying to do. We’re probably the only people who are thinking of opening a new location at this point. We had already been planning a Capitol Hill location of Call Your Mother, and we’re hoping to open in a limited fashion there in two weeks. This will help drive more dollars to pay our staff, since our bank accounts are slowly dwindling. Plus, a lot of our staff lives within walking distance of that location and we won’t have to add anyone new, so we can continue to get more money into people’s pockets. It really does take a village to get through this.
Wednesday, April 8th
“Because of the high demand for masks, we have put the apron business on hold so we can concentrate on mask making.”
Darwin and Nikki Manahan, Manahan+Co, Los Angeles: Our apron business has kept pretty steady for the last three years. Then, we got a call from Nikki’s brother in Japan. Japan is about a month ahead of us [with the virus], and he said, “You guys should start thinking about making masks. There is a huge mask shortage.” He put this seed inside our brains. So we started looking at YouTube videos to see if this would be possible. We made our first mask—just a basic version for coverage—on March 12th, about a week before the stay-at-home order in Los Angeles. I posted the mask to my personal Instagram and the response from bartenders and restaurant workers was overwhelming. It was just us two working at first. Soon, our business partner, Keith, started to help and then Nikki’s cousin, Cameron, who had never sewn before, got in on it. We have this four-person team in our apartment and we have been here for about three weeks, pumping out as many masks as we can. At first, we were putting out about 47 masks a day. Yesterday, we maxed out at 90. We try to be a little more efficient, communicate a little better, and improve our systems every single day.
Because of the high demand for masks, we have put the apron business on hold so we can concentrate on mask making. We know the shortage is very real and we want as many people to feel safe and protected as we can. Currently, all our revenue is driven from masks and donations—our customers are a lot of people in our neighborhood as well as restaurant workers. Our community is taking such good care of us. One of our friends, who works at Café Birdie in Los Angeles, is a resident of our apartment building—she cooks us Filipino food Monday through Friday so we don’t have to leave our sewing machines and can keep working around the clock.
We decided to donate a dollar from each mask to the Pilipino Workers Center in downtown—that community is literally in our backyard, and there are so many people in it who have lost their jobs, contracted the virus, and have to sleep in their cars. We like knowing that our money is going to help them.
We have been doing research every single day and redesigning our masks so that they will be compatible for hospital workers. We are making a version where you can insert a coffee filter or a HEPA filter for additional protection. We just finished a prototype a few days ago, and we are trying to get that into production. It takes time because we are just a few people working out of our apartment. We have cabin fever, but we feel blessed to have material and sewing machines. We have everything we need to help.
“Just over these two weeks, we’re at 1.3 million products from 240 brands donated to 28 hospitals.”
Cole Riley, Founders Give, New York City: In January, I launched a food media company called Founders Market. Our goal for the year was to create original programming focused on CPG (consumer packaged goods) founders. We were based out of the WeWork Food Labs on 25th Street, growing our little audience and working on rolling out an online marketplace, when COVID-19 hit. It didn’t feel right to keep doing what we were doing.
I knew from news reports and social media that doctors, nurses, and frontline staff were eating old vending machine snacks and drinking old coffee. I wanted to bring them premium products from some of the best brands in New York City. I started reaching out to founders and heard that a lot of them were having issues donating products. They didn’t have contacts at hospitals, and a lot of hospitals had minimum donation requirements that were a barrier. I thought, maybe I can represent these smaller brands at hospitals.
I was able to rally around 8,000 products from 30 brands, like Pilot Kombucha and Grady’s Cold Brew. I began cold-calling a few hospitals and got a positive response because I had a large enough volume to meet the minimum. I set up a logistics center in Long Island City at Mitchell’sNY Logistics with cold storage, dry storage, and a fleet of trucks.
Then over the past week, cafeterias and vending machines started closing down. Now it’s not an issue about premium products—it’s just products. New York’s food and beverage community is the heart of this operation, but I needed to engage big brands, like Hershey’s, Chobani, Sabra, and Kind, to meet this huge need. WeWork helped get Sabra on board—like me, they’re a member of WeWork Food Labs—and I cold-called the head of comms at Hershey’s. We’re in our second week, with referrals taking off and people coming directly to me. Just over these two weeks, we’re at 1.3 million products from 240 brands donated to 28 hospitals. You can even track our donations on our website.
Hospitals are overwhelmed with donations right now, which is a good thing. But sometimes it’s not the right donations, or it’s too much, or they aren’t told what’s coming beforehand. These large companies need to walk a fine line when donating products—you have to intimately know what the hospital can take. Say we send pallets of Chobani to Mount Sinai, but maybe they just got a food drop and they actually need toiletries instead. I’ve done walkthroughs with hospital operations teams, and I know Mount Sinai’s refrigerator space. I’m able to communicate the wants and needs between all the different parties and get everyone on the same page, so the products that are being donated are going to good use and not wasted.
Whether you’re donating 24 products or 600,000 products, I want everyone to feel like they’re really involved. I don’t want smaller brands to think they’re not a part of this movement or that they’re being washed out by huge partners with massive volume. We’re working with hospitals of different sizes, so I try to make sure that brands of all sizes can make an impact. If you’re donating 24 products, let’s go to a smaller hospital with two lounges so you can have your products in both lounges.
I’ve scaled up because the problem has gotten worse, and I’m identifying other problems, too. We’re working with Casper to bring in sheets for the pop-up hotels hospitals are making for staff that want or need to stay overnight. We’re coordinating toiletries and working with the mayor’s office to hopefully get trucks. I’m working 18-hour days every day, communicating with brands and hospitals, planning out combo pallets from different brands, coordinating deliveries. Hospitals are 501(c)(3)s, so brands will get an acknowledgement form to write off the products, but I’m not a 501(c)(3). We’re all doing this for free because we know the need is huge to get snacks and drinks into hospitals as soon as possible.
Tuesday, April 7th
“I was cooking on average for two to three families a day. So to go from that to nothing is not only a shock to my life but my bank account.”
DyAnne Iandoli, private chef, Long Island, NY: Initially, the families I cooked for just wanted to make sure I was following as many precautions as I could. Most of my work is in New York City. Then, it suddenly stopped. No one wanted anyone coming into their homes. I was supposed to cook for six families and I wound up only cooking for one. My last job in the city was March 13th. That’s when I realized, holy cow, this is about to implode on itself.
I’m based on Long Island, so I ended up getting more jobs in the Hamptons later since New Yorkers retreated to their vacation homes. But now those two jobs have been suspended indefinitely. It’s been tough, but it’s given me a different way of looking at what I want to do. I want to work on my blog, a cookbook I’ve been secretly writing, a raffle fundraiser I’m working on with the private chef community. We’re all coming together and creating a relief fund for the restaurant community through our fundraiser. We’re at $1,500, which isn’t a lot in the scheme of things but good for the small scale we have.
A lot of us are also using our platforms since we know a lot of people are stuck at home and they’re turning to us to help them. Not just me, but a lot of private chefs are doing demos on Instagram stories. I used to publish recipes on my blog every couple of weeks, but now I post every day. People have been asking me what they can make with beans and tomatoes, and it’s been fun for me to do what I love and help people that I know and don’t know. A lot of people are passing along my blog to friends. There has been so much traffic. This is something I’ve always intended to do but got caught up in the private chef stuff. I was cooking on average for two to three families a day. So to go from that to nothing is not only a shock to my life but my bank account.
I knew this was coming, so I really cut down on my spending. Now I’m having to dip into my savings. Being an independent business, it’s hard to file for unemployment.
I’m trying to make myself available in ways I wouldn’t normally. I’m doing drop-off meals and delivery. I’m lowering my price and making things like lasagna, big salads, and things that are usually just for special occasions. My plan is to keep focusing on my platforms, things I know can benefit me, and pretending I have an endgame in my head.
And I’m marketing myself now since people are asking about summer things. I recently got asked to do a rehearsal dinner in June, but who knows if that will be possible. I know it’s hard for people right now, with salaries getting cut. Because I’m in hospitality and we’re focused on helping people, I feel guilty asking people to pay upfront. For that rehearsal dinner in June, I just couldn’t ask for a deposit since I don’t know if it will get canceled or moved to another date. It’s helping me mentally but, financially, no.
I’ve had two clients reach out to me to send a little something, saying, you’ve always been so great to us and we want to make sure you’re okay. It’s crazy to have someone do that when you’re not doing anything for them. To feel appreciated is something you don’t always feel in this industry.
“We sell 50-pound bags of flour at our retail store in Vermont, and they’re flying out the door.”
Bill Tine, King Arthur Flour, Norwich, VT: Last Friday, we sent 1 million bags of flour on the road to retail stores. Our volume for the last few weeks was double the volume of what we would see for fall and holiday baking, our two big seasons. Two weeks in March outpacing holiday baking— it’s incredible.
We’ve done some research and found that only a quarter of the people buying our flour are stockpiling. The majority of people are just baking but four to 10 times the usual amount. People who were baking monthly are baking weekly, and people who were baking weekly are baking daily. We sell 50-pound bags of flour at our retail store in Vermont, and they’re flying out the door. Those people who would’ve used two or three five-pound bags of flour in a month? Now they’re using a 50-pound bag because they’re baking bread two or three times a week.
We also work in food service, supplying restaurants and bakeries, and that business has gone down a little bit. They’ve lost sales at their cafés, but their bread production is still holding on. They’re still baking bread for pick-up or delivery.
Because the supply chains for the food service industry and for consumers are distinct, operating with different mills and in different parts of the country, it’s not that easy to redirect flour. The food service mills package 50-pound bags of flour, selling them by the bag or by the truckload. Retail mills, on the other hand, pack five- or 10-pound bags. How fast these packaging lines can operate determines how much flour we can supply, but there’s no issue with wheat at all—there’s tons of wheat. And there is enough flour. We’ve increased production and we’re coming up with innovative solutions to do more.
We’ve added more shifts for workers at the mills in order to quickly up production. Thankfully, the mills don’t rely on a lot of people, so workers are able to maintain strict social distancing. We’ve also ramped up how quickly we can fulfill orders, adding shifts to increase capacity and to spread out workers within the center. We created a new production hub in the midwest just this past week. Still, we tell customers who order through our website that they can expect to wait three or four weeks. We want to meet or beat their expectations. And we’ve also put a two-bag limit [per flour type] on our site, mostly to give more people the opportunity to get flour. Even someone who’s baking daily—25 percent of our customers do—will only go through a few bags a week, and we want to spread out the product for more people.
In retail stores, expect flour to be constantly in and out of supply for the next month or more. If you go to the grocery store in the evening, it might be out. But if you return the next morning, it will be there.
Monday, April 6th
“Insurance companies have the power to save us all.”
Brian Galati, Machine Hospitality Group, and Chris O’Malley, King & Spalding LLP, Chicago: Ed Note: On March 26th, six Illinois hospitality groups filed a federal lawsuit against one insurance carrier, Society Insurance. They alleged the company wrongfully denied their insurance claims after they were forced to close due to Governor J.B. Pritzker’s executive order. At the center of it is what’s known as “business interruption insurance,” language that would protect businesses in case of unforeseen circumstances, and whether a virus is excluded from these policies. Some state legislatures, like New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Massachusetts, are in the early stages of proposing legislation to help small businesses who are seeing their business interruption insurance denied by providers.
BG: Around March 15th, we were forced to terminate several hundred people, around 200 employees within 48 hours of hearing about local governments shutting down businesses, both in Chicago and Nashville. We sent our claims to Society Insurance, knowing it would take time to get some sort of resolution, but I honestly thought something good would come out of it. After 24 hours, we were told that the claim was denied. A lot of restaurant owners and operators are in the same position, and we got to talking about filing insurance claims and getting denied by the same company. We all realized that we needed to do something, collectively.
CO: The company is denying these businesses insurance based on their property coverage, claiming that there was no damage to the property. But Illinois courts have consistently held that the presence of a dangerous substance on a property constitutes “physical loss or damage”—these cases have held that contaminants like a virus that preclude access to the property can be considered dangerous. We’re also arguing that the company’s own policies don’t include exclusions for losses caused by the virus. The multiple restaurant owners and operators are seeking to have the insurance company honor its obligation to provide coverage for losses incurred due to a necessary suspension of their operations, which were closed by government order. We intentionally moved quickly based on what we have on hand—memos from the company’s CEO advising agents to deny coverage, the policy itself—to argue that the company needs to keep its obligations. If something happens outside of litigation, if lawmakers move to address these kinds of policies to give operators relief before the case goes to court, that would be positive, but we can’t wait for that to happen.
BG: We are fighting for each and every employee and their families. We are fighting for the survival of our life’s work, our dreams, and the industry as a whole. Insurance companies have the power to save us all and make good on the two decades we have personally been paying high premiums with little to no claims. They can be the heroes that turn around the fate of every hospitality operator in the United States and in return we will survive and continue to pay those high premiums.
So we cannot sit this fight out. We must proceed with every ounce of energy we have—and when we are tired and exhausted and the anxiety and stress has done a number on us—we must dig deeper and fight even harder. My partner and I are no strangers to fighting. We fought to get our company this far and will not stop now when it matters most.
“For me, the end goal is still the same: that we all reopen our restaurants. I try to keep that in mind every day.”
Brandon Jew, Mister Jiu’s, San Francisco: This week, we started Lord Jiu’s [a collaboration with Lord Stanley, another San Francisco restaurant]. It was nice to get support from the community. I think people got tired of cooking for themselves or realized that cooking can be a lot of work! We’ve been doing 40 tasting menu orders a night. That’s our max. I’m in the weeds every day. Yesterday, I was butchering fish, making all these little sauces, and then there is the extra work of labeling everything and writing instructions on how to serve each dish. But it’s been fun, and we’re going to continue it for at least another week or two.
The SF New Deal has been really big for us, too. It’s a non-profit with a $1 million fund from a tech guy, and it’s been really cool because it organizes and delivers meals from restaurants to those living in low-income housing across the city. We get $10 per meal to put something together and a lot of purveyors are involved, so we get to use really great products and serve a healthy portion of food. I requested to partner with Chinatown, so we deliver 150 meals a day to people just three blocks away from our restaurant. It’s great. I feel like it’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for a while.
As for the little grocery thing, that’s been kind of a bummer. I mean it’s been doing well, but it’s just that the grocery stores that said they would potentially help kind of backed out. I don’t know why, to be honest. Sometimes when these things happen, you start to realize who your friends are and who’s just looking out for themselves. But we have plenty of friends, so we’re going to start some other things. Juice Shop makes the best juices in the Bay Area, and we’re going to collaborate, like making congee to send with their juice deliveries. We’re also going to set up an online store, possibly, so we can sell our prepared food through Mamahuhu, which is still open. Our friends at this really cute cafe, Yo También Cantina, have been really nimble and creative with putting up an online store quickly and setting up curbside pick-up. So we’re taking a note from them. I’m learning a lot about e-commerce right now. It’s a learning curve for sure.
We’re doing all of this with a team of four or five. But we’re in this together. Today, we’re launching that website I was talking about that’s meant to be a resource to any restaurant worker; it’s called Bay Area Hospitality Coalition. We’re trying to organize information and help answer questions. Ultimately, we want to create a support system. The Bay Area is late to the coalition game; there are already ones in Seattle, New Orleans, Chicago, New York, and now us and L.A. It’s really awesome to see all these hospitality leaders, on a Zoom call or on Slack. We’re all there in support of independent restaurants. The one thing we notice the most is that we’re kind of being left behind. There really needs to be a push for the special needs of independent restaurants in the next stimulus package. I don’t even feel like I can talk about this, politically, since I’m not as on top of it as chefs like Greg Baxtrom at Olmsted, Jason Hammel at Lula Cafe, or Mason Hereford at Turkey and the Wolf. They’ve been very vocal about these things and are working on a letter that will be sent to all the senators on what we need in the next stimulus package. I feel lucky that we have leaders like them that are really thinking about all of this, while I can concentrate on the Bay Area Hospitality Coalition.
For me, the end goal is still the same: that we all reopen our restaurants. I try to keep that in mind every day. I do the same exercise as I did when I was first opening Mister Jiu’s. It took us so long to open. Every day, I just had to come to this understanding that I needed to have patience, but I also needed to do something every day that got us a little closer to opening. We’re trying to apply for PPP [Paycheck Protection Program], feed people in our community, stay creative, and figure out how much money we have each week. These are just the things we have to do. Getting us back open, getting my friends’ places back open, even people who aren’t my friends, getting their restaurants back open. That’s what motivates me.
Thursday, April 2nd
“Prison kitchens are potential petri dishes of coronavirus infection, and sanitation practices must be stepped up.”
David Fathi, ACLU National Prison Project, Washington D.C.: Even in the best of times, prison food service leaves a lot to be desired. Sanitation is often poor, and outbreaks of foodborne illness are fairly common. There have been a number of court cases relating to how the food served to prisoners didn’t meet basic nutritional requirements.
Prisons are the ideal environment for the rapid spread and maximum damage from COVID-19 for a couple reasons: Many prisons have large numbers of people living together in close proximity, people in prisons have higher instances of chronic diseases that make them more vulnerable to becoming very sick or dying if they contract the virus, and people’s general health and immune systems are compromised due to the stressful living environment and inadequate nutrition. Put this together and it is the perfect storm for significant casualties in prisons.
We are being told that what is most important right now is washing our hands frequently, social distancing, and maintaining good environmental sanitation. Unfortunately, none of those things are easy to do in prison. Spacing seats further apart in a cafeteria is a great idea, but the reality is that many systems are already well over capacity. Social distancing is literally impossible.
My team did a tour of the Florence prison in Arizona on the day that the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a global pandemic. There was this hand sanitizer dispenser on the wall with a yellow note that said “Out.” It was just one example of how even basic services are not provided. That is true for food service as well as every other facet. I have been in many prison kitchens and food service areas that were frankly disgusting. Even though now it is of utmost importance that enhanced sanitation practices are adopted, I can’t be terribly confident that this is happening based on everything I have seen in the last few weeks.
My point is that cleanliness and sanitation are always essential in food service, particularly in an institutional food service setting. This is now exponentially more important given the way we know that the virus can live on surfaces, like counters or tables or sinks. Prison kitchens are potential petri dishes of coronavirus infection, and sanitation practices must be stepped up. If prisoners get coronavirus today, the staff will have it tomorrow, and the staff’s family members will have it the next day. This is not just a prison problem. It is a public health problem.
“The bill got written very quickly, and there are a lot of parts that are still really unclear. No one really knows if this funding is going to do anything.”
Naomi Pomeroy, Beast, Portland, OR, and Independent Restaurant Coalition: The CARES Act is a potential temporary lifeline for independent restaurants, but the thing is: It’s not enough money. It’s just not even close to enough. It’s like, if you’re out in the ocean and the Titanic just happened, this is the little doughnut [flotation device] that they throw you. Like okay, that’s helpful, but it’s not going to save your life.
When the Independent Restaurant Coalition first coalesced [in mid-March], the CARES package was already on the Senate floor and we barely got a word in. Admittedly, we’re not very happy with [the act]. We’re not gonna look a gift horse in the mouth, but that wasn’t a big enough gift. However, it was a great moment for us to peek our head in and tell folks on the Hill that independent restaurants are here—pay attention to us. Now that we have a much stronger presence in D.C., I feel like we can be heard when [the next round] comes around.
The bill got written very quickly, and there are a lot of parts that are still really unclear. No one really knows if this funding is going to do anything, because we don’t know how to implement it yet. The way it’s written right now, I’m being offered 2.5 months worth of payroll to pay for payroll, health insurance, bills, rent, and utilities. Anything else I spend beyond that will end up converting to a loan. But a lot of people in the industry owe a lot of money already. And even when you get into the black and no longer have debt that you’re sitting on, you typically still need cash flow reserves for slow times of the year.
The really unfortunate thing for some of us is that we were already coming off our worst four months of the year. No one was visiting Oregon leading up to COVID-19—everyone comes when it’s nice out, so I don’t start making money until May. Before all this, I was already dipping into reserves, big time, taking out loans to cover payroll and things like that. The concern is, if I borrow the money I’m qualified for and the clock starts ticking, it requires that I hire back 75 to 80 percent of my staff right now. I’ll spend that money on paying my staff, rent, all the things I’m supposed to do with it, but in the end, I don’t think my restaurant will be open by the time that 2.5-month period is up. My conservative guess is that we’ll reopen in July or August. And by then I’ll have missed out on all but maybe the last of the biggest months of the year for us.
So now the IRC is going back to the Small Business Association (Ed Note: This is the government agency that provides interpretation and guidance on how the CARES Act legislation will actually be carried out). We’re asking them to kick in the terms [for the 2.5 months of payroll] when we’re two weeks out from opening again, when we’re writing up menus and training staff and putting our people back to work—that’s when you want to be using your money. Not now.
We’re also hoping to get some tax rebates. Restaurants pay an incredible amount in taxes—20 percent, whereas other industries that are subsidized by tax breaks from the government only pay 3 or 4 percent. Compared to big chains like McDonald’s that pay minimum wage and use inexpensive, mass-manufactured products, our margins suck. But we’re trying to tell the government that what we offer is really important: We support small farmers and fishermen in this long chain that large suppliers don’t need.
Finally, the biggest problem for everybody right now is insurance. The insurance companies we’ve been paying for years—I pay something like $8,000 or $10,000 a year in insurance—are refusing to pay when there’s an emergency that’s beyond our control. Many insurance companies are citing a specific virus exclusion policy and saying that, in order for us to qualify for business interruption loans, we have to prove physical damage to our property. No, a tornado didn’t hit my restaurant—but I haven’t had a single customer in two weeks. We need the federal government to tell the insurance companies we’ve been paying to show up for us.
I filmed a PSA that Bravo will run tonight during Top Chef, just telling people that this is happening and that the restaurants you know and love aren’t going to survive if we don’t get the congressional support we need. When Congress is back in session, we want to be ready.