Restaurants Shouldn’t Have to “Cook Their Way Out” of the COVID Crisis

restaurant-crisis

A few days after 9/11, I returned to my restaurant job. I’d recently started working as a waiter at an upscale Italian restaurant in downtown Manhattan. The air was still musty and ripe with the aroma of burning jet fuel and smoldering steel. Yet, there we were. Serving people food for a profit.

This one particular night stands out in my memory because, shortly after the restaurant re-opened, we had a guest order a $500 bottle of Sassicaia. Under normal circumstances, it would’ve been cause for celebration. That night, however, given the backdrop of carnage and horror, it felt grotesque for someone to be so frivolous. First responders and emergency workers were still sifting through rubble at Ground Zero. The devastation we were experiencing all around us made it hard for our staff to muster warmth for the few guests we were tasked with serving.

We had a skeleton crew that night. The police and military had blockaded swaths of the city. Working with a leaner team meant that service might be less fluid than normal. We hoped that guests would be more forgiving under the circumstances, and most people were. But when the sommelier struggled to locate the bottle of Sassicaia for this table after ten or fifteen minutes, the guest who’d ordered it became irate.

The staff stood by in disbelief as the man reprimanded the sommelier for not having retrieved his wine sooner. Even though the city was crumbling just miles away—thousands of lives lost—this individual felt entitled to more expeditious service. We shut our mouths, swallowed our pride and took the high road. Even in times of crisis, we knew, that’s life in restaurants.

There is a figurative switch you have to throw when you serve people—everyone who’s ever taken an order in a restaurant understands this. Working in hospitality requires that you master control of that switch. You don’t get too many free passes in the restaurant industry, so you cannot allow that switch to short circuit.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, waiters have become disposable, which in some ways is fortunate because it would be virtually impossible to act like everything is normal under the circumstances. How do we put on our “jazz hands” when we have to wash them every time we touch anything?? Income losses have been crippling for front of house staff, but many of our comrades in the back of house continue to prepare takeout food under the most adverse conditions for hungry patrons sheltered at home.

Long before Anthony Bourdain told us so, cooks have always been cut from a different cloth. They’re taught to put their noses down and fight through whatever challenges come their way. The new garde manger guy no-call, no-showed. The dishwashing machine just broke down. A food delivery arrived incomplete. Chefs don’t make excuses because no one will ever accept them. People want their food, and they want it now.

Some restaurants have little choice but to remain open in some limited capacity. A friend of mine who manages a new cafe in Sonoma told me that he’s stressed to the owners to focus on “the social capital” that can be earned by continuing to serve the community. “Local people are grateful that we’re here for them, and many have said they’re excited to come back when life returns to normal.”

The way that some restaurants have adapted to the challenges of the crisis exemplifies the resourcefulness of our industry leaders. One can’t help but be inspired by the way that some independent restaurants like Addo in Seattle have transformed their full-service business into a grocery-takeout-delivery hybrid model, including offering subscription services to generate more consistent revenue. Addo’s chef and owner Eric Rivera is finding ways to keep his staff on the payroll while also extending health benefits to protect its welfare.

Nick Kokonas and his Chicago-based restaurant group that includes Next and Alinea are deploying technologies using Tock, their proprietary ticketing system, in innovative ways—streamlining kitchen operations to sell comfort food delivered at a fraction of their normal prix fixe prices. Like Chef Rivera, Mr. Kokonas and his partners have been able to recall a quarter of their furloughed staff with plans to take back more as they grow their takeout business.

But these triumphs don’t feel as triumphant as they should. It seems unfair to ask restaurants to “cook their way out” of this crisis. People are dying by the tens of thousands worldwide from the Coronavirus, and we shouldn’t have to put our workforce in harm’s way while the rest of society—save healthcare professionals—hermetically seals itself in a sanitized bubble. The most vulnerable among us are the poor and immigrant populations. Many of the faceless people cooking and delivering your food are undocumented, a population that has been systematically forsaken by our directionless immigration policies.

Quarantined people, many confronted with their own lack of cooking skills, must learn to manage their hormonal cravings for restaurant food. Instead, they just absolutely have to have that dish they love so much from such-and-such trendy restaurant, and ‘thank god they’re finally on Uber Eats now.’ Everyone’s patting themselves on the back for supporting local businesses, as if their twenty dollar delivery will even come close to stemming the tide for these ailing businesses.

Meanwhile most of these exposed restaurant workers are uninsured and paid wages that wouldn’t cover a tiny fraction of the medical expenses they would incur if they contracted the virus. How can restaurant owners expect these people to work without providing proper health insurance during one of the worst pandemic crises in human history? All the GoFundMes in the world can’t cover the potential catastrophic medical expenses that might result from exposing so many of these uninsured restaurant workers to infection. At best, those funds will be like providing boxes of band-aids to hundreds of thousands of restaurant workers that are bleeding to death.

If we’ve learned anything from the COVID-19 crisis it’s that restaurants are essential to our cities’ lifeblood. If you live in any metropolitan area, you can feel its arteries hardening. Our social behaviors are so intertwined with our restaurant communities. Without them, we have no place to root for our local teams, to meet Tinder dates, to impress clientele or to feed our Instagram. Let’s treat them that way and leverage the maximum power of the public purse to provide the necessary triage in these unprecedented times.

The reality is that restaurants have mutated into a perverse playground for affluent people to display privilege at the expense of underpaid labor. This crisis is exposing that lob-sided power dynamic in an unsettling way with images of delivery workers crowding the streets waiting to deliver high end cuisine to quarantined people in the wealthiest zip codes. Hospitality can be a noble pursuit, but what is noble about poor people risking their lives to deliver fully packaged tasting menus to the least needy people in our society? It should be the other way around.

If we expect our restaurant soldiers to keep fighting for a cause they believe in, we should follow the lead of great chefs like Jose Andrés, who continues to mobilize his non-profit restaurant armada, The World Central Kitchen, for charitable causes by providing hot meals to the parts of the world that are suffering. Chef Andrés’ mission elevates the work of chefs and hospitality professionals by leading with compassion—not by the need to cater to the whims of rich people—and by demonstrating that the restaurant industry doesn’t just exist to sell us food. Restaurants are pillars of our community. They need our help when calamity strikes, and we must find ways of protecting them that go beyond simple patronage.

Notes From a Quarantined Restaurant Worker

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My first job out of college was in advertising sales for a television company. I was a lowly administrative assistant to a team of sales executives. Their jobs seemed to consist primarily of squandering their expense accounts pretending to be doing real business over long, boozy lunches with their friends from the big ad agencies. Like most post-Baccalaureates in the dawn of the Clinton Era, my salary was breadcrumbs and I wore cheap wool suits that I bought on sale at Burlington Coat Factory because that’s all I could afford. I felt lucky to have a job. 

On my first day of work, I was issued a laminated security pass with my photo on the front. I had a hopeful smile on my face, looking optimistic and ready to join the corporate workforce. I didn’t know any better. Passing this space-age security card over a sensor to open a door felt like an episode of Buck Rogers. I felt important until they assigned me a tiny, gray cubicle with a shoddy Windows PC and a corded telephone that had at least six different extensions. My cubicle was in the middle of a labyrinth of other cubicles. You could only see the crowns of the other assistants’ heads over the sterile, carpeted stanchions. It felt like being… well… quarantined.

The way my corporate colleagues were cooped up, literally, in their pens all day like zoo animals made a deep impression on me. We spent most days making personal phone calls, pilfering potato chips and sugary Snapples from the canteen and embezzling office supplies. Within seven months, the company was acquired and I was laid off with a laughable severance package. They did me a favor because by then I’d already realized that I couldn’t spend the rest of my work life caged in a corporate dystopia.

I lied in my first interview for a waiter job. I made up restaurant names that didn’t exist and supplied fake references. When the manager asked if I knew how to open a bottle of wine, I said of course. He gave me a bottle of cheap, by-the-glass Pinot Grigio and a flat, waiter’s corkscrew to demonstrate. I carefully turned the corkscrew and started pulling up on it without using the hinge. I had never opened a bottle of wine using anything other than my parents rusty, rabbit-ear corkscrew, and the manager knew it the minute he called my bluff. I’m sure he knew my resume was fabricated, too. He hired me out of pity, and I learned the ropes quickly. I was always a good bullshitter and bullshitting seemed like be a critical cognitive skill for a waiter. 

As time progressed, I found more lucrative, steady work in hospitality. My restaurant coworkers were different from the corporate zombies that lurked lifelessly inside the mausoleum of cubicles in my old office. When restaurant people went out after work, it was like the day was just beginning. There was no such thing as a “school night.” Dealing with customers could be challenging, but the environment wasn’t oppressive like an office. Working on your feet, moving freely through space made you feel less like a captive. Conversations with strangers at my tables would often lead to personal connections, the kind I never could’ve experienced in the corporate realm.

When the restaurant industry collectively went comatose last week because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it caught everyone in the industry by surprise. We’re accustomed to opening our doors come hell or high water. Even in the wake of 9/11, many restaurants in New York City reopened quickly because people needed places to gather, grieve and be nourished. Of course, income for tipped employees has always fluctuated with economic trends, but, unlike most corporate salaries, it’s always been somewhat recession proof. The Coronavirus outbreak has created conditions unlike any we’ve ever seen in the restaurant world—layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts. These things were only supposed to happen to people who work in cubicles. Not us.

Without the stimulation of my restaurant routine, a smog of depression started to form. I began feeling withdrawal symptoms from the adrenaline rush of a busy service. I’ve become so accustomed to the daily anxiety of waiting too long for a table’s food or the exhilaration of a busy night or a generous tip. Many restaurant professionals manufacture these tensions to heighten their sense of urgency in the workplace. Some thrive on it, others are destroyed by it. 

Beyond the obvious financial shortfall, being displaced from our restaurant families has been one of the biggest challenges. We are pillars of strength for each other—sharing staff meals together and making the same crass inside jokes. Enemies become friends, and friends become enemies, but we usually end up putting our differences aside. We know each other’s spouses, we become friends with each other’s friends and we nurture each other’s aspirations outside of the restaurant. Our social network is more durable than other industries because we go through so much together—the collective pain endured through self-sacrifice strengthens the ties that bind us.

This crisis has undoubtedly been hard on the people we serve, too. For people who love restaurants, this hiatus should serve as a sobering reminder of just how important their local restaurants are to their daily lives. Restaurants have always been there to graciously serve you, but you should never act like paying for things makes you a stakeholder in their businesses. When this is over, I hope that many of these entitled habits will die and people will dine more quietly, with a deeper respect for the work that goes into crafting great restaurant experiences.

Restaurant people are a rare breed. We’re survivors. We hustle more than everyone else. We’re independent and stubborn. Our parents didn’t pay our way. We earned it. Some of us have passions that we can only pursue with the supplemental income of our restaurants jobs. I wouldn’t be writing this if it wasn’t for the countless tables I’ve served to fund and grow this pursuit. All those years have taken their toll on my knees and my mental health, but I wouldn’t trade it for an instant to have to go back to the prison of a cubicle, no matter how much money they paid me. 

The Restaurant Industry Was Sick Before The Coronavirus

restaurant coronovirus

During past economic downturns and other maleficent acts of God, the restaurant industry has been uniquely resilient. While investment banks and tech startups self-immolated, most restaurants somehow managed to stay open. Amidst the corporate bloodletting of these Black Swan events, I’ve always felt secure in my choice to work as a restaurant professional. Even when the economy stalls, people always need somewhere to eat and drink.

The peace of mind I’d had from years of stable restaurant work was turned upside down this weekend when my restaurant laid off almost its entire staff, including many tenured employees. By the middle of this week, the carnage in the hospitality sector had spread globally. The growing pandemic crisis exposed underlying issues within the restaurant industry that run much deeper than the existential threats this virus creates on the surface.

Restaurants primarily function as community spaces, something we forget all too easily while we’re lining up for Cronuts or debating the merits of Salt Bae’s new burger joint. The public depends on restaurants to be reliable gathering places. Once public health has been compromised, communal spaces are no longer safe havens. In the case of restaurants, as we now know, that means they’re also no longer viable businesses.

The truth is that the restaurant industry’s immune system has been weakening for years now which explains its susceptibility to becoming insolvent from one public health emergency. As diners, we’ve become so distracted by the social media ramifications of our restaurant visits that we’ve barely noticed the mass exodus of talented chefs from America’s major food cities in recent years. We pinch their cheeks and admire how “cute” they are when they turn their backs on cities like New York or Chicago to open a fusion taqueria or some nose-to-tail restaurant in somewhere more charming and gentrified like Portland or Charleston.

restaurant industry

But these chefs aren’t only defecting in search of fresher air and greener pastures. The economics of creating profitable restaurants has become increasingly untenable in certain zip codes. Back in 2016, Union Square Hospitality Group’s chief development officer Richard Coraine had predicted then that New York City had already “forfeited its culinary supremacy” because of escalating costs. Even the fortunate restaurateurs who strike it rich in the most populated cities aren’t generating enough profit to pay their kitchen staff properly, make their investors whole and reinvest capital in their businesses. Most of them barely have enough appetizer forks.

Our favorite restaurants have been disappearing from under our eyes, even institutions with the most loyal clientele. These restaurants closed because there’s so much more that goes into sustaining a profitable restaurant than hungry people. Relationships with landlords sour, food costs fluctuate, labor laws change and culinary trends vacillate pressuring restaurant owners to squeeze every drop wherever they can. There is no rainy day fund. The well has been running dry for a while, but the public hasn’t noticed because it’s been punch drunk on all the buybacks the service economy has been recklessly doling out at the expense of its own health.

There are other mitigating factors. As the digital economy has proliferated, many restaurants have had to sell their souls to delivery services like Caviar and GrubHub, sacrificing a healthy cut of their margins to expand their reach. That partnership now plagues restaurant balance sheets. It’s become like doing business with the mafia. The restaurant does all the work while the delivery apps siphon away most of the profits. If they refuse to do business with the mob, they’ll lose revenue to their competitors. All we care about as consumers is the instant gratification of the end result. The doorbell rings and presto! We didn’t even have to pause The Bachelor.

This crisis should teach us that, as guests, we take for granted all the blood, sweat and tears that go into profitably selling food in a rented space. To help restaurants recover, the industry will need us to be more empathetic. If this empathy already existed, you wouldn’t see so many entitled “foodies” writing online reviews where they sound like spoiled little children who went to sleep without any dessert.

On a psychological level, what has kept the industry in such poor health is the attitude so many people have that restaurants exist only for them. We comp the steak you didn’t like, even though it was properly cooked. We cancel your order, even though it caused us to lose product. We send you an extra dessert because you didn’t like your table and threw a fit about it. When the dust finally settles from this nightmare, one positive outcome may be that depriving people access to so many restaurants they love might result in a deeper appreciation for the vital role that they play in serving in our communities.