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How The Restaurant And Hospitality Community Is Coping With The Coronavirus Pandemic

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Social and economic disruption caused by COVID-19 pandemic has hit restaurant, nightlife, and hospitality workers very, very hard. These are the people we cover at Zagat Stories, and we’re adapting our coverage to the crisis affecting everyone in the industry. As we work to bring their experiences to the forefront, we’ve been asking chefs, restaurateurs, and others in the hospitality community so share their thoughts, concerns, worries, advice, and hopes with us to publish for others to see.

The goal is to encourage solidarity, communication, and guidance for any who need it. If you would like to submit your own thoughts to share in this extremely difficult and challenging time, send them to and we’ll review them for posting here. And we’ll continue to update this post with more voices as they come in.

Join The Infatuation x Zagat in helping the restaurant industry and those in need during the COVID-19 crisis.

Mark Ellman
Chef/owner, Honu Seafood & Pizza and Frida’s Beach House, Hawaii, 6/5/2020

We’re in the beginning stages of organizing how we can best operate. We are looking at reopening in late July/early August. Quite frankly, retrofitting our restaurants with plexi-glass everywhere is not something I want to do. Dining out in Hawaii—I think more than in many other places—is a communal activity, and I’d rather wait til things are safer. We’re fortunate that both our restaurants are open-air—no closed interiors in either—and to also have completely outdoor dining areas. Obviously, our year-round good weather allows us to make the most of all of this. We will set every table, service station, everything that is movable, six feet away from anything else. And we’re asking the county liquor commission to extend our premises so we can utilize the lawn at Frida’s.

Juan Correa
Founder/owner, Llama Inn and Llama San, New York, 5/28/2020

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We need to unite. We may have disagreements as to what is the right approach, as to what is the right policy we should be pushing forward, but we have to have a broader tent, regardless of our differences. We also need to be more diverse. Where are the restaurants that represent the Bronx? Where are the restaurants that represent Harlem, that represent Queens? For lack of better words, I think we have a group that is just too male, too white. And honestly, if I were a politician, perhaps I would be thinking, “Gee, these guys are very, very successful. They’re backed by big money. Why should I be listening to their struggles? I want to see the struggles of those that are more representative of the broader population.” We need to get better at that.

Nancy Silverton
Chef/owner, Mozza Restaurant Group, Los Angeles, 5/27/2020

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But you know what’s really interesting during these times is that all of us have to reinvent our restaurants. All of us are essentially opening new restaurants with new guidelines, and we have to figure out how to make money to compensate for the lack of customers. We’re going to see a whole new frontier coming up. Nobody’s going to be able to afford to open at 25 percent capacity. Fifty percent might be doable, but with that 50 percent limit, how many people want to go out to eat?

The new normal is that people are going to enter a restaurant, and they’re certainly going to have to have their temperatures taken. They are going to be served by people with masks and gloves. They are not going to be sitting near each other. So there’s going to be no vibe in a restaurant. It’s going to be like the feeling of picking an unknown restaurant, say on a Saturday night, where there’s two tables, and you’re like, “Wow, this restaurant is about to go out of business” kind of feeling.

John Wang
Founder, Queens Night Market, New York, 5/27/2020

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Two things have always been at the core of the Queens Night Market. The first is affordability. The second is diversity, both in our attendees and vendors. So far, we’ve represented over 90 countries through our vendors’ food. There’s probably a part of me that, out of habit, tries to diversify the offerings that we send to hospitals, but it’s also a natural cross section of the vendors we have in our network who responded to the call to action.

What I also think makes Queens Night Market unique is that a lot of our vendors are there because they want to share their food. Their main purpose is to share their culture, background, and stories, or they enjoy being under that tent and selling with their family. The market’s application criteria is “what do you want to sell, and how is this reflective of your cultural heritage or personal background.” For the most part, we only feature vendors that sell food that is important to them, that has a family or cultural tradition that they want to preserve.

Ezequiel Vázquez-Ger
Co-owner, Seven Reasons, Washington DC, 5/26/2020

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Before all this happened, we were coaching one of our line cooks, Will Harner. We were thinking of promoting him to sous chef or maybe chef de cuisine of a second project. In the process of training Will, he shared with us an idea about healthy, affordable burgers. When all of this started, he called and said, “Ezequiel, I always heard that the best ideas are developed in crisis. I thought about launching my burger concept in the middle of this crisis. What do you think?” I said, “Will, you’re a genius. Let’s do it!”

So we decided to give him the Seven Reasons kitchen for lunch service. He could use our purveyors to place orders and launch his concept, Soleado, from here. It’s been great. He’s selling 15 to 25 orders a day. And it was the beginning of our program, “From from Employees to Entrepreneurs.” The idea is that we guide cooks, give them all the support they need, and advance them whatever capital they need to start building it. Then they execute it on their own.

Fabián Von Hauske
Chef/owner, Contra, Wildair, Contrair, New York, 5/26/2020

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The day before the lockdown was announced, we decided to close. We took some time to think things through. Two weeks afterward, we opened the hybrid of both restaurants. A lot of my staff are really young kids, and they moved back home with their parents or left the city. So when we were approaching how to do this, we just wanted to do something different. We really only had the staff to do one place. We combined the staff from both restaurants, and we’re working out of the Contra kitchen.

The food is neither from Contra or Wildair. It’s adapted to simple dishes that travel well, but still resembles what we do—fresh products, good proteins. When we started, it was a very simple menu. The team was adapting to a whole new restaurant. Now we have dishes that are a little more complicated, and we’re less afraid of introducing things that take a little more skill. It’s a good chance to develop new things and be creative. As restaurant people, we’ve got to be open to new possibilities.

Gabriel Stulman
Founder/CEO, Happy Cooking Hospitality, New York, 5/21/2020

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I am not in the mindset of taking things day by day or week by week. I think that’s fucking irresponsible. You’re only thinking week by week? Cool. You might as well just roll over into your grave. That’s not how you save your business or get reopened. You need to be forward-thinking, to be proactive. I’ve been thinking since day one about what the future looks like. And the reality is a lot of the answers to it are things that we can control, and a lot of the answers are things we cannot control. What are the things that I can control? I can control my concepts. I can control my labor. I can control my menu mix. I can control how we are marketing ourselves.

I cannot control how many people come through the restaurants. I cannot control the figurative and literal appetites of diners post-COVID. Even when Andrew Cuomo says it’s safe to go to restaurants, are people still apprehensive to do so? I think a percentage of people absolutely will be thrilled to go back to restaurants as soon as it is deemed safe. I think there’s gonna be a bunch of people that are going to be like, “It may be fine for Cuomo, but I’m still not ready to go.” I cannot control whether or not I get a PPP loan. So far, I have not. Will I get it in the second tranche? I have no idea. The PPP loan is a great program for some businesses, and a materially flawed program for the hospitality industry. It’s not a lifesaver. If you need to spend 75 percent of the money on labor and you’re not open, it’s fucking flawed.

Anthony Strong
Chef/owner, Prairie, San Francisco, 5/20/2020

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I had heard that grocery store shelves were empty, and I knew people were going to need groceries. I started to think more about what products we might be able to get in and how people’s needs might be changing. The hardest thing was figuring out how to get our hands on retail-sized things, or figure out what we can get in bulk and repurpose for retail. We don’t have access to many retail products at all. Thankfully, we’re able to get a bunch of retail-sized packaging—like, Kewpie mayonnaise only comes in one bottle size. Or, we can buy bulk 50 pound bags of flour and break them down into smaller bags of five pounds each.

The cool part about that is that we’ve been able to pass those savings on to our customers. The extra cool part is that we’re able to get people things they’d never be able to find in a grocery store. Like, you can get a side of hamachi for $72. You have to buy the whole side, but we’ll break it down and cut it into portions for you. That thing would make like 100 pieces of nigiri—imagine what that would cost in a sushi restaurant. I found all these really cool preserved vegetables from Italy that we started carrying, like grilled radicchio and turnip tops and porcini mushrooms. We get giant cans of escargot, 72 escargot in a can, for a really good price. The interesting thing is that I’ve never used like 90 percent of the products we have in our store here. But people are really geeking out on this stuff. I’m geeking out on this stuff!

Nick Liberato
Chef/owner, Venice Whaler and Pier House, Los Angeles, 5/19/2020

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The smartest business model moving forward will be having some sort of takeaway, a better takeaway, and delivery options. I’ve always been a big fan of easily executed menu items that are great for takeaway or delivery. When I when I first created the Whaler takeaway food, I envisioned people picking up their clam chowder with grilled sourdough and walking out to Venice Pier and enjoying it while looking over the ocean, or grabbing a couple cheesesteaks and bringing them back to the house, eating them over a game, or bringing them to the beach and setting them down in your towel.

I think a lot of the people that may be losing out on their big restaurant buildout concepts may be adapting to smaller venues that have a number of different food concepts in the same area—one that doesn’t have as much overhead, a lower rent with a smaller kitchen, and just more modest expectations of what the businesses needs to provide as far as an experience.

Melissa Miranda
Chef/owner, Musang, Seattle, 5/15/2020

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We say that this restaurant is community-driven, not chef-driven. And now, through this crisis, we actually were able to start a group called the Seattle Community Kitchen Collective. There are seven of us chefs from all over the city—Chera and Geo Quibuyen from Hood Famous, Kristi Brown and Damon Bomar from That Brown Girl Cooks, Tarik Abdullah from Feed the People, Cameron Hanin of Guerilla Pizza, and Guitar Srisuthiamorn from Sugar Hill and Ayutthaya. We started texting and coordinating about a month ago and thought, “Can we create this super group that we’ve always dreamed of, that can help envision the future of what restaurants might look like?”

We’re going to do takeout until I feel like it’s safe. The reason we closed was for the safety of my employees and their families. My kitchen staff is almost all young Filipinos, and every one of them has their own story to tell. The menu is collaborative, and every single cook has had eyes and hands on every single dish.

Lydia Chang
Partner/manager, Q by Peter Chang and Mama Chang, Washington DC, 5/14/2020

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China’s restaurant community is probably a month ahead of us. As we are talking to our friends in China, they tell us about the QR codes which really help with tracking. Anyone going into a public setting—to restaurants, hotels, shopping malls—they all have to scan this code. That shows anywhere they have traveled to, and also if they have been staying in quarantine under 14 days. Only beyond that time are they able to receive the codes. They take your temperature at the restaurant. When you’re inside, they section you. Normally, if you have a seating capacity of 100, now you only have a seating capacity of 50 people. It’s a lot of managing the traffic and keeping track of who comes in and out. They’ve dealt with this before during SARS back in 2002. They started practicing 18 years ago with face coverings.

Michael Lomonaco
Chef, Porter House Bar & Grill, Hudson Yards Grill, and the Center Bar at Time Warner Center, New York, 5/13/2020

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Any reopening will involve a pre-opening. We’ll have to gather everybody back, the front and back of house. After a period like this, there’s going to be training, particularly around the sanitary restraints and requirements, not knowing what those are going to be. We’re trying to think our way through those things. We’ve been trying to gather information from other places to see what’s been going on in Hong Kong and Singapore. Hong Kong is a good example, because just anecdotally I’ve been getting information from people I know who operate in the East about the use of masks in restaurants and how that works. We think those are the kinds of parameters we’ll have to work within. We should start to understand what they may be.

We’ve been developing different versions of scenarios of how the reopening might happen. We’ve been trying to decide what reopening menus would be, compared to a menu six months later, compared to the menus where we were. A reopening menu might be smaller. What dishes do we keep? What changes do we make in preparation? What changes do we make in the menu itself for a smaller staff, not knowing how many guests would arrive? We’ve been doing a lot of brainstorming.

Brian Landry
Chef/owner, QED Hospitality, New Orleans, 5/12/2020

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We’re getting closer and closer to the potential to reopen as states are relaxing their stay-at-home orders. But as of today, we have no food and beverage operations. And the places we currently operate are in boutique hotels, so we won’t be making a decision about what reentry looks like alone. We’re going to do that with the hotel ownership. We’re going to do that with the operators of the hotel side. In a hotel, do you open the restaurant first because you may not have travelers right away? Or do you wait until both the food and beverage and the hotel are ready to open together?

Jeff Katz
Partner/manager, Crown Shy, New York, 5/11/2020

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The reality is that we know now that we’re going to have to consider that stuff in a way that, three months ago, we would’ve said, “Shut up. I don’t want to do that.”

Then there are the realities of trying to make our guests feel comfortable when they come into the restaurant. We would usually set a table before you get there. But is my team seating you, the host team—are they going to walk you to the table and wipe the table down, disinfect the table in your presence so that you’re comfortable sitting there? These are the kinds of things we have to think about. We would not normally wrap our silverware. We’re not a hospital. But are we going to wrap our silverware so you feel better about using it? We know the virus lives on surfaces. Are we going to be wearing masks? Are we going to be wearing gloves? Are you going to pick up your own food at the pass, instead of having someone bring it to you, to minimize contact? There’s a lot of crazy stuff that I would now have to consider a possibility.

We would be in the middle of opening another restaurant right now if this hadn’t all gone down. But that restaurant is a very fancy, very fine-dining kind of restaurant. Even in that case, do we need to start considering crazy stuff like, if you buy a tasting menu to-go, do you need to give me a $500 deposit so that I can send you all of the beautiful china that you would have had in the restaurant?

T. Cole Newton
Owner/bartender, Twelve Mile Limit and The Domino, New Orleans, 5/8/2020

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Bars as communal space isn’t a foreign concept to New Orleans, though. It’s part of the reason I think this pandemic has been so tough on residents here. This is a famously social place. We celebrate everything. Creole tomatoes are in season? Let’s party! To not be able to hug, and toast, and gather together in these community spaces—that pulls at the very fabric of who we are. It also doesn’t help that 12 percent of the metro area’s workforce—72,000 people—work in hospitality. Most of those people have lost their jobs.

It’s a problem especially acute in New Orleans, but it’s obviously a nationwide issue. I serve on the National Board of Directors for the United States Bartenders’ Guild, and we’re doing our best to support bartenders around the country who are in need—which is pretty much all bartenders right now.

Yann de Rochefort
Founder/CEO, Boqueria, New York, 5/7/2020

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I think one of the biggest learnings from all of this is that crises increase the contrast on everything. Your weaknesses are felt more acutely, and your strengths help you even more than they normally do. Faults in your business model, or faults in your financing, or having some of the wrong people in place—things that you feel like you can live with when things are OK—all of a sudden you realize that you can’t, that they could be fatal. And you have to take very quick action.

The reverse is also true—the people who have great character and great skill, and who you’re glad to have around, can be lifesaving in a circumstance like this.

Pichet Ong
Pastry chef, Washington DC, 5/7/2020

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I’ve been in this industry for more than 30 years, and have often gone without health insurance. This isn’t a line of work where every job comes with health insurance. I had it when I worked under Danny Meyer, Jean-Georges Management, and Coppelia. I had my own insurance after 2008. A few times I let it lapse. It sucks.

I don’t know how we can fix this system without major changes, but obviously something has to change. It’s too expensive. The cost of operating a restaurant is very high in this country. Independent restaurateurs cannot afford the extra cost, especially in cities with higher operating costs and taxes. Obviously other countries have addressed this in other ways, but we would need a whole and comprehensive systems overhaul.

It’s basically impossible to retire in this industry if all you have done is work in kitchens. I’ve been a chef, a restaurant owner, I’ve been a partner, consultant, I’ve been involved in food-related businesses such as food provisioning, recipe development and book author, teaching, and systems implementation. I hate to say it, but unless you own a multi-unit operation or have capital invested in other areas, you might have to work for the rest of your life. When I was coming up in this field, it seemed like being a chef was like being a rockstar, like fame meant success, but wage increases don’t always come with recognition. We pay cooks too little because the skill of cooking is not valued.

Esdras Ochoa
Founder/chef, Mexicali Taco & Co. and others, Los Angeles, 5/6/2020

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The seller of the business, this Chinese couple who had a restaurant here, you could tell they were very stressed out because their business kind of didn’t work out. They were very happy they had found a buyer to take over their lease. Then the coronavirus hit, and we were second-guessing, and they were super scared.

A lot of our decision had to do with my partner and I, the way we work. We’re really old-school. We shake on it, and that’s kind of how we’ve done business since we met.

We gave our word. We had given the sellers a little deposit, but it wasn’t set in stone. It was a couple Gs, which is good money now. But at the moment, we thought it was either lose that two Gs, or there’s a big chance we might lose more. We could have just given them that money and walked away.

But no, man, it goes back to our beliefs. We gave them our word, and we can’t do this to our people either. Let’s tough it out. If we pulled back, we’re not going to do good for our employees and the sellers. That karma just doesn’t feel right. It’s hard to sleep at night like that. So we’re just riding it on faith and a good work ethic and positivity and hoping we’re going to be OK. I think we will.

Nate Mook
CEO, World Central Kitchen, 5/6/2020

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You’re seeing restaurants stay open for the sole purpose of serving their communities. You’re seeing groups organizing support mechanisms, whether it’s free meals or funds for hospitality workers. We’re seeing chefs go to work preparing meals for their neighbors who are out of work. We’re seeing amazing, hard-working food-service workers at schools across the country continuing to work hard every single day to prepare meals for students, and do it in a way that everything has to be distributed individually, so it’s an incredible amount of work. We’re seeing the immense hardship that our society is facing right now, and how important access to food is, and how fragile these systems really are.

Typically when we look at disasters that break down our social fabric, they tend to be geographically isolated, like hurricanes or some event that causes a specific area to be affected. This situation is touching every state in our country, and every country in the world. Even looking at the United States, it’s touching big cities, it’s touching rural areas, and everything in between. And the reality is that any one organization, any one institution—even our federal government—simply does not have the capacity to respond to it everywhere. That means the most important thing right now is what’s happening on the local level. It’s the local leadership, the local community-based organizations. It’s the local restaurants. They’re the ones that really are on the front lines of this every single day.

Aaron Lefkove
Co-founder, Littleneck and Littleneck Outpost, New York, 5/4/2020

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I have mixed feelings about places that are staying open right now. The staff can be as careful as they want, but if somebody sneezes on you on the subway, there’s nothing you can do about that. I really just left it up to the staff. When the final couple of people were like, I don’t know if I feel comfortable doing this—I was like, alright.

Right now the plan is that I do want to bring every single person back. Anybody who knows anything about this business knows that your people are your greatest asset. Trying to get good people is incredibly tough, even in a healthy economy. So I told everybody that they still have a job. There’s just no job to come to right now. Everybody’s been very understanding. There’s no real playbook for what’s going on.

Bryan Rackley
Co-founder/oyster bar manager, Kimball House and Watchman’s, Atlanta, 4/30/2020

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Here in Georgia, restaurants are able to open, technically. Am I planning to open up? Fuck no. It’s not that we don’t want to reopen. It’s a lose-lose, because the restrictions in place if you open are pretty prohibitive from a practical standpoint. The amount of temperature-taking and sanitizing and stuff like that. We have a small dining room anyway—how many people can we actually fit in there?

I just think the optics of it are not good. We’ve got so many people in our two- or three-mile demographic that would think it was a selfish move for us to open up for full-on business. For us, if we’re going to be down 50 percent, we might as well be down 50 percent and doing it safely. Kimball House is a standalone building with this sidewalk that loops around it—we have one entrance, one exit. Everything’s sanitized. No one comes in the building. We’ve got a pretty good system down, at least as far as we can tell. If we can generate some money and keep people safe, that’s what we’ll do until we have a little bit more proof that it makes sense to let people in. We’re paranoid about the safety of our families and our little people. We’re taking it seriously.

Pat Martin
Founder/pitmaster, Martin’s and Hugh-Baby’s, Nashville, 4/30/2020

I think over the next decade, we will see a smaller footprint from restaurants. Restaurateurs and architects will make more calculated decisions about what is needed for guests. When people start looking at the design of restaurants, the facilities will change because now, instead of wanting a 4,000-foot restaurant you will only need 2,000 or 2,500. If I know now that I only need 2,500 feet of space to do the same sales, why would I open a 4,000-foot restaurant? When the economy is doing great, you don’t think about things like that. But now, you start counting inches. People will think about outside dining more as they think about their capital expenditures, because right now people are being forced to take their food outside anyway. Consumers are becoming more comfortable eating in casual fashion, whereas they might not have chosen to eat outside unless they were in the mood.”

People look at off-premise dining as the redheaded stepchild of restaurants—it’s not in their comfort zone. This situation is forcing everyone to become more comfortable with sales when people are not eating at their locations, and restaurant operators who understand that as an opportunity to increase their profit margin will benefit. We’re being forced to slow down our lives as people and as families, and we’re rediscovering the value of having a meal at home together—something the generation before us understood. If operators are looking at this as just something they have to do until things get back to normal, they’re going to miss out. This will be a fundamental change in society’s dining habits, and some operators and restaurateurs will see this as an opportunity to grow.

David Bouley
Chef/owner, Bouley at Home among others, New York, 4/24/2020

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Now, we’re obviously closed like everyone else. We don’t have a big group of employees like a lot of folks do. We’re smaller, so our energy is going into preparation in terms of designing foods that will service health, like we’ve been doing now for quite a number of years with this Chef and Doctor series. We’re learning a lot more about different kinds of foods. There’s a lot of data and a lot of results in terms of certain kinds of foods that can help build strength in the immune system.

We’re not doing any food as takeouts or pickup at this time. Some of our energy is going into designing things that we think people can do at home at practical levels of skill, with accessible products. There’s no better time to start this than now, because everybody’s at home. Hopefully a lot of people are cooking. We’re building something that we’re going to start streaming out, and hopefully we can get into correspondence—what do they have in their pantry, what do they have accessible, what do they like to eat, and how do we augment that to have better service of health.

People have to think about eating balanced meals at this time—meals that give them the energy that they need and a good night’s sleep. My suggestion to our chef brothers and sisters is to create food that has the full impact of bioavailability. There’s no better time than now to educate those who are buying food that chefs are preparing in terms of why they put the food together, and how chefs can think about building more strength from a health point of view, not just a flavor point of view.

Lucas Sin
Chef/owner, Junzi Kitchen, New York, 4/23/2020

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A lot has changed in the last couple of weeks, especially in New York City. We have had a couple of new initiatives that we’ve put together. The first is Share a Meal. It started because we were the first restaurant to partner with New York Presbyterian at Weill Cornell to build a program for hospitals to receive funds to allocate towards meals. We noticed a lot of our really good friends were delivering meals to the hospitals. We wanted to find a way to build sort of structure around it so the food could be delivered in a safe and hygienic way. Piggybacking off of that, we set up the Share a Meal program where people can donate meals through us, so that we can provide properly packaged and healthy and nutritious meals for hospitals. That’s been going really well so far. Yesterday was the first day we hit 350 meals a day, so we’re very proud of our little Chinese restaurant.

The second thing is I started doing these pop-ups called Distance Dining—three-course delivered pop-ups where we explore the relationship between Chinese cooking and other cuisines. So last week we did, for example, Chinese-Japanese food in collaboration with Element Farms in New Jersey and Kitsby in Brooklyn. Next week we’re doing a Chinese-Thai dinner—three courses looking at how Muslim immigrants in the 16th century to northern Thailand affected Thai food generally. It’s really cool, and it’s really specific.

It’s a crisis, but you can still cook collaboratively and creatively. You can share recipes, you can drop off stews at each others’ restaurants. My team loves being able to think about things we wouldn’t normally think about, but also be able to serve a large amount of people through delivery.

Maria Di Rende
Owner, Enzo’s of Arthur Avenue, New York, 4/22/2020

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I am staying open simply to give my workers a chance to make some money. It does cost me more to stay open, but it gives them a sense of stability. I want to help them out. They feel that if they come in, they’re doing something. And they also have been very, very supportive, even saying, “Don’t worry about paying us.” The neighborhood businesses that are staying open, we’re kind of supporting each other that way. Because if they’re all shut down, you just feel more depressed. We are all in it together.

Anju Sharma
Owner, Amma, New York, 4/21/2020

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We did the takeout for a week, trying to balance and see how it goes. We had my delivery boys going out doing food deliveries, and some of the guests were coming in also. They’re scared about the longer-term effect of this disease, and who can get it. And then me and my husband were talking. I said, “You know what? Closing is the best bet.” We were doing pick-up too, sure—but not very much of it. So we just decided on a Friday, let’s close the delivery also. We were panicking too. Tears in my eyes, because we opened this restaurant 18, 19 years back. I’ve never seen the lights off in that restaurant. So it was hurting like crazy.

Really it was safety that made us decide to close the restaurant. To open it, you are wearing gloves, you are wearing masks. After five minutes of washing your hands, you make sure everything is okay. That’s how my employees were doing it. But still we decided, you know what? Let’s close it. And it was very painful. Almost every day, we are talking, we are texting, we are calling each other. We were a fine dining restaurant, so I had a sommelier also. We had so much wine there. He keeps saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll be okay one day.” And I’m just saying, “Yes, we’ll be okay one day, and then all will be good again.”

Roberto Santibañez
Chef/owner, Mi Vida, Washington DC, 4/21/2020

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At the beginning, we had to lay off so many people. Plans for the Grill are on hold, which I’m fine with. The other restaurants are still open for delivery and pick-up with a reduced staff. Once we hopefully get the funds for these loans, we’ll continue to do just that, but with a little bit more staff, with a little bit better conditions for everybody. Getting a dishwasher for every shift will be nice. Right now, we only have one. We always made our tortillas by hand and with fresh masa. We stopped that. We are just working with store-bought tortillas. We will bring the tortilla ladies back on. That’ll make it better. I will feel better then. Hopefully this will work, you know?

There’s been a lot of social media contact with our guests who are very appreciative and very happy that we’re still open. They send messages through Instagram—you know, “Go, guys!” Because we have been allowed to sell alcohol, people send pictures of their little plastic box with guacamole and a margarita in a plastic container. It’s been fantastic to see that much love. It’s amazing that people still have time to write reviews. They simply go on and say, “We’re so glad that you guys are open,” and they give you five stars. It’s just been really, really wonderful to see that.

Joceyln “JoJo” Law-Yone and Simone Jacobson
Co-owners, Thamee, Washington DC, 4/16/2020

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JOJO LAW-YONE: Our team may not be unique, but we are a group of people of all ages, ethnicities, and work experiences who genuinely like working with each other. What has worked for us is a light and bright sense of humor—which worked well for us when we were busy sweating to get good food to guests when our restaurant was open, and it’s the dose of medicine that is getting us through these grim days of staying home during the coronavirus. We are connected by our own private chat room, and the daily quotes, jokes, pics of what they cook, songs, and brilliant humor that are shared are all inspiring.

SIMONE JACOBSON: I am currently organizing in solidarity with the DC Tenants’ Union and the DC Hospitality Coalition. While I am humbled by the brave and brilliant people (mostly women of color) leading the charge for these two critical and collaborative groups, I’m also frustrated that my fellow small-business owner and restaurateur peers are being forced to transform their professional toolkits in unbelievable ways to fill the gap where our governments are failing us. Restaurant owners specialize in food, beverage, and hospitality, but now we’re being forced into advocacy, policy expertise, and grant writing on top of trying to navigate states of emergency and becoming de facto social service organizations for our own staff members—many from already vulnerable populations and marginalized communities.

Walter Manzke
Chef/owner, Republique and others, Los Angeles, 4/14/2020

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We normally had 190 people on our staff here, and we hope we can get back to that. But currently, it’s very tight and very small and very limited. It’s a few of us keeping all of this together. We really just had to give everyone a break. I never told anybody, “Look, you work for me. You have to come to work and you have to do this.” We’ve always left it up to them. “Do you feel comfortable doing it? Do you feel safe doing it? Is it something you feel good about and want to do?” And we’ve only taken those who feel that way, and we haven’t held it against anybody who’s said, “I’m scared to death and I just want to stay at home like I’m being told to and get through this.” We respect all of that, and we let anybody do that.

When this thing started and they told us, “OK, all the restaurants have to close,” it’s easy to say, “Yeah, whatever you need, I’ll help you out.” And it’s a different situation when you’re waking up in the morning and seeing how grim it is on the news and coming into work and seeing your customers coming in with gloves and masks on. It’s a lot of pressure, and it puts a lot of things in your head. I’ve been the same way to where you wake up one morning and you feel like, “I’m going to be fine, this is all good. I gotta do what I gotta do.” And there’s the next day, you feel scared to death. “Oh my God, what happens if I get this? I have kids.”

Andra “AJ” Johnson
Partner/bar director, Serenata, Washington DC, 4/13/2020

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I view the restaurant industry as an independent industry, independent of government funding, independent of subsidies. And we are responsible for the people that work in it. It’s been disheartening to see so many people being laid off, or healthcare just being taken away during this pandemic without warning. You’ve got people who have 30 or 40 restaurants, and they’ve literally just fired everybody. And that is not appropriate. Here at our full-service Latin American cocktail bar, Serenata, because my staff is on the smaller side, we have provided our own sort of stimulus plan in terms of pay advances. We’re also making sure we’re going through our personal paid sick leave and any PTO that our staff qualifies for at this time. And, on top of that, we’re providing pay advances for people that have been with us for at least three months. W’ve been working with a couple of other restaurant partners to get meals to DC public schools and some elderly centers over in Wards 7 and 8. It’s fulfilling in that way to try and help people who are definitely without. Our whole industry is based on creating and giving a service, and since we’re not currently creating and providing an experience, then it really just is people coming out to try to help others.

Ben Conniff
Co-founder and chief marketing officer, Luke’s Lobster, Portland ME, 4/10/2020

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Everyone here is concerned about making sure there are people to buy the lobster so that the lobstermen can go out and fish. And it’s also finding more ways to preserve the company so that everybody can come back and be home when this passes. Everyone is nervous, but it’s been really productive because we have such a transparent relationship with the stakeholders. That’s how we’ve always operated. When we go to them, we tell it like it is and we answer their questions honestly. They’re all aware that we’re in a very tough place right now, that we don’t have our team, and that what’s going to be happening with the restaurants remains to be seen based on the arc of this virus. They appreciate that we’re trying to be nimble with things like e-commerce, and that we’re trying to bring on more grocery partners, and we’re doing everything that we can to get their products out there. They appreciate that, and they understand the predicament that we’re in because we’ve been an open book about how our business works.

Hannah Cheng
Co-founder, Mimi Cheng’s, New York, 4/9/2020

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There’s a guy in our team, Jason—his mom is a nurse at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Brooklyn. He was telling us how she was working 18-hour shifts but could only eat food from the vending machine. They didn’t have access to any hot food. That just really enraged us because it was crazy. We looked at ourselves and were like, okay, we have the capacity right now, because our sales were slow regardless of delivery and takeout. So we started a GoFundMe, and the response was so incredible that we felt we needed to do this full time because this is where our priorities should lie. And because our community backed us with the resources to do that, we were able to make that pivot two weeks ago.

Jason Hammel
Chef/owner, Lula Cafe, Chicago, 4/9/2020

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The thing that I’m learning and realizing now is that everyone, all operators, have to make their own decisions about what’s going to save them in the best way. The loss of independent restaurants would be a tragic loss, and it’s one that is a very real possibility. Everyone has to figure it out on their own. That may mean delivery, or not. There’s no right or wrong way to do this. Whatever will work for your team and keep the focus on both caring for the people who have been let go, and also preparing for a time for the promise of return is a reality. We have to come back. I’m really afraid that some people won’t make it back.

Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo
Chefs/owners, Jon & Vinny’s among others, Los Angeles, 4/9/2020

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Jon and I have worked our entire lives for this—since we were 19 and 18 years old. I’m 40 and he’s 38. This wasn’t in the playbook. We have nine places in this city. We closed six of them within a week. It’s not how you imagine things going down. You know getting into the restaurant business there’s a lifespan to a restaurant: 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, maybe a restaurant can outlive you. But you never imagine closing all of your restaurants in one week. Everybody’s dealing with this, but it’s unimaginable.

Steven Greene
Executive chef, Herons, Cary, NC, 4/7/2020

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I coordinated the shutdown—it took about two days, but we donated all of our food. You have to think how much food we had in this 150-room hotel. With six walk-ins, we had just massive amounts of food and produce and bread. We donated half of it to Raleigh Rescue Mission for the homeless, and then half to the Boys and Girls Club. None of that food went to waste. Since the staff was being taken care of, we felt like it would be best to give it to charity. It actually made the news. One of my old cooks is the chef at Raleigh Rescue Mission, and it really meant a lot to him. He said, “This will feed a thousand families.” It was pretty awesome.

Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz
Founders/owners, Boka Restaurant Group, Chicago, 4/2/2020

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This was the asteroid that came and hit our earth, the thing that you were just never expecting. I think leadership is very important at times like this. But truth be told, Kevin and I have never seen anything like this. We’ve gone through many financial disasters, natural disasters. But this was something entirely different. You’re standing on that high diving board, and you’re looking down, and you’re like, “Oh my God, we have to make some very, very, very tough decisions.”

Blake Hartley
Executive chef, Lapeer’s Seafood Market, Atlanta, 4/1/2020

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On the Tuesday we made the call to close down, we were left thinking, okay, wow. Here we are making this call. It could be different next week. It could be the same in a month. We were very uncertain, but we knew we had a walk-in cooler full of food. What’s the legitimate thing to do here? We opened up our walk-in to our entire staff. We knew that we were going to be letting some people go. There were cuts being made left and right leading up to this. I had to lay off four people over the weekend. And that’s just not in my heart to do. It was for the betterment of the business at the time, but these are people that come in and work for you.

Levi Raines
Chef/partner, Bywater American Bistro, New Orleans, 3/31/2020

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Like most people, I’ve never been through anything like this in my life before. Sometimes it’s better to just turn off the phone and stop trying to follow what’s going on every hour of the day. Otherwise it’s so stressful, you can’t even organize your thoughts and decide what your game plan is. That’s probably been one of the hardest parts for me. In the beginning I didn’t necessarily think it was going to spread the way it has, or be as serious as it turned out, because I’m so head down in my restaurant all the time. And I’ve been so understaffed recently that I haven’t really been watching national news as much. So what do I do now? I just try to stay active. I’m building a coffee table. I’m grilling outside a lot, trying to clear my mind and keep stress levels low.

Angie Mar
Chef/owner, The Beatrice Inn, New York, 3/31/2020

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It took me a minute to get organized. We decided we would start takeout. No one’s ever going to make money off of takeout. I’m never gonna be able to pay my rent doing takeout. I barely cover my costs, with labor and food. But if I can provide as many jobs as possible to my employees, and keep as many of them working as possible, I’m going to do it, because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the human thing to do.

Ashleigh Shanti
Chef de cuisine, Benne on Eagle, Asheville, 3/30/2020

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I’ve been trying to do my best to find light and hope in these bleak circumstances and hang onto the resilience that most of us know that we need working in a kitchen anyway. I’ve been thinking through new dish ideas despite not having a kitchen to really dig in and do R&D. I’m finally beginning to read that stack of books that’s been put on my list of things to do for a while, and finding inspiration there. And there are all of these amazing community efforts happening right now, and these initiatives that have seemingly formed overnight. That gives me faith in humanity.

Evan Hennessey
Chef/owner, Stages at One Washington, Dover, New Hampshire, 3/27/2020

It’s difficult to look at the seats in our restaurant and not know when, or if, to expect our favorite guests to return. In eight years of business, it’s always been our choice as to when to open and close our doors. This time, we were told to close. As we look at a crumbling industry, we see chefs and restaurateurs petitioning the government for faster relief and demanding immediate help. We know this is in the works, but not immediately, as we are a huge industry and these things take time. At Stages, we have paid all our farms and vendors, limited our service providers, and laid off our staff. It’s the only way for us to protect the company and whatever future it shall have. And that is one certain thing—we shall have a future. We are smart, calculated, and creative. It’s how we got this far, and we’re already working on our solution.

Chris Hannah
Bartender/partner, Manolito/Jewel of the South, New Orleans, 3/26/2020

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It’s been extremely sad at Jewel of the South. Everyone was let go, and the bar and kitchen taken down, cleaned. The employees as a team have been keeping in contact, and to keep spirits up, we’ve created a GoFundMe and small Jewel online magazine to keep regulars in the know of our goings-on. In our lush courtyard, we’ve planted edible flowers and herbs from seed in hopes to use if and when we’re allowed to open up to the public.

Tal Ronnen
Chef/owner, Crossroads, Los Angeles, 3/26/2020

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Right now, we are running takeout and delivery on a skeleton crew. The reason we’ve made it seven years in this tough business is because of our incredible team, many who have been with us since day one. Laying off more than 50 staff this month was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. The support from our guests and photos of them cooking our meals at home have literally kept me and the remaining team going. We’re doing to-go orders and meal kits, which are some of our most popular dishes deconstructed for people to cook at home. We’re also doing pre-mixed cocktails for carryout that just need to be poured over ice. Caring for people is at our core, and we are definitely taking comfort in providing people with nourishing food.

Ti Martin
Co-proprietor, Commander’s Palace, New Orleans, 3/25/2020

One minute I am worried about asking my team to take a 50 percent pay cut. The next day, that seems luxurious. Then we start doing Commander’s To Go. Unheard of before the last two-and-a-half weeks. Then we are doing delivery. Delivery! And loving it. The team was working like mad. Happy to be trying, helping. Knowing we weren’t “making money,” just losing less while being able to keep more of the team employed. They had their temperature taken every morning, wore gloves, and washed hands constantly. They put marks on the floor to remind everyone how far apart to stay. We met daily, made decisions together. We were taking B12 shots from someone’s friend we had never met. It was someone’s birthday—their present was a wrapped roll of toilet paper. And they were damn happy for it.

So we have coped together. We keep sharing what we are all thinking, what the plan is … this hour. It may be different next hour. Our forever-overworked financial team reads 110-page laws that haven’t even passed Congress yet when they go home at night. Our key team is ready to make ever more drastic cuts. We hold off, hoping if the SBA loan forgiveness law passes that we can keep the team. Yesterday we cleaned out the walk-ins, making bags of prepared food and veggies to cook for our team members. We sent out a message on our new emergency alert text system that we will give these out. We let the team of present and laid-off team members know they could stop by, but that it would be allowed at certain times and by your place in the alphabet to avoid any line. We admonish that if you don’t social distance, we will not share the items with you. Within 3 hours, over 70 team members showed up to receive the food—and to see each other, from that safe distance.

We are still making turtle soup for our friends at Rouses Market, who kindly offered this to us. We had been working on this prior to the epidemic. We set up a GoFundMe Commander’s Employee Relief Fund. We’re dealing with tax ramifications of our own substantial donation. We will make it regardless. We also will donate all gift card receipts through March 28th to the fund. We have been touched by people asking how to support the team, so we are thrilled that they can join us in this effort. We are telling our team to use this time to accomplish things you have long put off. During Katrina we did a cookbook, and our In the Land of Cocktails book. It was great to come out of that period with those under our belt. Those endeavors are also the opposite of our normal world—frenzied. They are hard work, but quieter work. Take care of yourself, particularly now, to stay healthy. But I have to tell you that the cocktail recipe testing was good timing too.

Matthias Merges
Chef/owner, Folkart Management, Chicago, 3/25/2020

We are doing the best we can under the closure circumstances. Providing real-time information, keeping insurance in place, and helping our staff look to the other side of this challenge by working on new menus, new cocktails, and striving to keep lines of communication open. Stay connected to your restaurant families through FaceTime opportunities, live cooking, or cocktail demos in media. Being in the restaurant business, we are surrounded with our teammates more than family in some situations. Keep close!! The best way to help the industry would be to contact your senator or congressman for restaurant industry financial relief. This is critical as the landscape of eating out has the potential to change completely as we know it. In particular, I would say Jason Hammel from Lula Cafe quickly has quickly become a leading voice and has mobilized the community.

JJ Johnson
Chef/owner, Fieldtrip, New York, 3/24/2020

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I just rolled my sleeves back up and got back in the kitchen. When I couldn’t afford to have a dishwasher, I washed dishes. If I couldn’t afford to have a prep cook one day, I’m prepping and cooking, or I’m the cashier, whatever. I am pushing to get through this so when we get to the other side, I can bring back my staff and they can have a place to call home again. People think it’s amazing that I’m behind the line cooking. There’s no celebrity JJ right now.

Jacques Pépin
Chef/teacher/writer, Connecticut, 3/23/2020

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Go back to the earth. Reconnect. Tomorrow I plan to look for dandelion greens. They are starting to come in now. There are places I go to find the tender shoots still hidden beneath the leaves. It’s a way of getting back to nature. I’ll stop by a farm for some fresh eggs and say hello to the lady farmer, and hear the chickens clucking. Then at home I’ll make a spring salad. This is heartening.

Steven Wong
Owner, Essex Pearl/Aqua Best, New York, 3/23/2020

I think everyone is having a very difficult time adjusting to the uncertainty. Everything has come to a stop. As a purveyor, my whole business depends on restaurants and providing service. No one is placing restaurant orders, and there is hardly anyone to service. Everyone is in the same boat, just trying to survive. This has forced me to make some very difficult decisions and lay off a large amount of my staff. Some have been with me for over 10 years. It’s just heartbreaking. But we are strong together, and we will come out of this. We need to stay positive and be extra kind to one another. Order delivery or gift cards, and most importantly help spread our message to push the government to pass legislation. We need immediate financial assistance from the government now. How can we go days or months without revenue or paychecks? Without government assistance, small businesses and independent restaurants will not survive and may close forever. It’s going to be a hard road to recovery, but with assistance we have a fighting chance to get back on our feet. On our last day of service, some of our regulars came to support us—whether it was buying live lobsters or grabbing one last drink. The feeling that we are loved by our community gives us hope to come back stronger.

Kwame Onwuachi
Chef, Kith and Kin, Washington DC, 3/23/2020

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I sat down with most of my team, and we talked about how unfortunate this whole ordeal is, and that we’re going to communicate as much as we can during the interim. But we’re pretty much waiting on the government to let us know when we can start operating at normal capacity. We talked about how we’ve been doing this for three years, and putting our blood, sweat, and tears into making people happy. We’ll come back stronger. We’ll get out of this. We’re resilient as human beings. We will figure out a way, no matter the situation. But the fear of the unknown is definitely scary. We’ve got to keep strong.

Lindsay Jang
Co-owner, Yardbird HK/Yakido LA, Hong Kong/Los Angeles, 3/22/2020

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I have been with my children in Canada for the past few weeks, and I am grateful for our Hong Kong team who are holding it down over there amidst all the unknowns. Every day is different, and we are doing everything we can operationally to pivot and be flexible with the changing norms of social behavior. Anxiety is high, fear is high … we are focusing on communicating and empathizing, knowing that the whole world is dealing with these epic shifts too. As of today, Sunday, March 22nd, we have had no known cases of COVID-19 internally and have not received any notice from the health department regarding a guest being positive. We are aware that can change at any moment, so we’re preparing for it and have decided to shut down dining room service proactively and focus on operations for off-site consumption. We have never been a pick-up, takeaway, or delivery-based restaurant, so we are working through these scenarios and taking each day as it comes. But I don’t feel like an authority at this point. I haven’t been on the ground in a few weeks. All I know from working remotely with my team is that your moral compass needs to be stronger than greed. Keep people safe. Be socially responsible. Not only does pick-up and delivery support the industry, but it also makes isolation better. We should still be enjoying delicious food and drinks—finding positivity in the small things daily. The Sweetgreen team never fails to inspire. They are supporting healthcare workers and people on the frontline. They are focusing on people. That’s what we should all be doing.

Aitor Zabala
Chef/creative director, Somni, Los Angeles, 3/22/2020

All our staff are off work. We are trying to be positive with them, connecting with each of them—today and tomorrow we are delivering fresh produce from our kind supplier, Girl & Dug Farms. Locally and nationally, our community of chefs and restaurateurs are calling on our representatives so we can be included in the stimulus bill. Without this, many of our businesses will not survive. Our staff will struggle without this. We need any help that can make our workers, restaurateurs, providers, and farmers look to the future with hope. Even though some things aren’t going to go our way, we need to come together, and more than ever help each other. After this passes—because it will pass—we have the opportunity to rebuild stronger than before. There are a few ways that help us a little. Firstly, if you can order take-out or merchandise or gift cards, that’s a start. For those who have reservations, postpone—don’t cancel. To help the employees, there are GoFundMe accounts. Go to your favorite restaurants page and support them in the ways they offer to you. Something that is a huge help to us is connecting with your own representatives to encourage them to add small businesses like our restaurants into the stimulus bill. To be connected at the US Capitol Switchboard, call 202-224-3121. The most comforting thing is seeing our industry coming together. It makes me feel positive for the future.

Warren Norrstein
Chef/owner, Big W’s Roadside Bar-B-Q, Wingdale, New York, 3/20/2020

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There’s always an abyss somewhere around us. It doesn’t help to walk up to the edge and stare into it all the time. We started by closing half of the tables in the dining room, then we started curbside pickup. Now customers have to call ahead, pay by phone, and then we will place the food out on the picnic tables in front of the restaurant. The look of total discomfort in the faces of my friends who eat here shouts “I miss my routine!”

Tom Naumsuwan
Chef/owner, Wayla, New York, 3/19/2020

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It’s definitely a challenging time for us and everyone. On one hand, we have staff that rely on their weekly income to afford the cost of living, and because we already operate on such a thin profit margin, it is impossible to compensate them for an unforeseeable amount of time, when there is no revenue coming in. On the other hand, staff’s safety is also a top concern, and even if we were to keep our doors open, that might not be the best and safe decision for them. In the end, we decided that it is best if they stay home and to reach out to management on a case by case on what we can do to help them get through this. As far as for restaurant industry and ways to help, if guests are not going out, they can support by buying our gift cards (or their favorite restaurant’s gift card) so we know you don’t forget us, ordering to-go, or just leave kind words on social media. Especially in this difficult time, every nice gesture goes a long way and is very appreciated. One thing that I found comforting is to think, “This too shall pass!” It might be hard to imagine a normal world right now, but it will come soon enough, and we will be stronger than ever.

Gary Greengrass
Owner, Barney Greengrass, New York, 3/19/2020

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My problem is I don’t drink and I don’t smoke. I eat. When I stress, I’m eating. It’s not good. The gym I went to a little bit is closed now also. It’s not a healthy situation, as we say. I just try to be positive, and God willing, this whole thing is going to pass over so people get back to normal. Unfortunately, being a realist—things turned south very quickly here, within a week, and I don’t see it coming back that fast. It’s very fast going down the slopes. But I think it’s gonna be a long climb up the hill. It’s going to be a challenge.

Delores Tronco-DePierro
Founder/owner/managing partner, The Banty Rooster, New York, 3/19/2020

On Sunday, I had to lay off 33 people. Depending on their personal situations, they are taking it a variety of different ways. Some have children to provide for and are terrified that they won’t be able to do so. Others aren’t sure how they will make rent. A few have family close by that they can lean on. We packed up lots of food for the entire team and sent it home with them. I wish I could have done more, but if I want to realistically re-open when all of this has blown over, that’s as much as I could do. Don’t let fear make your decisions for you. As difficult as it is right now, have faith that we WILL make it through this as individuals and as an industry. Focus on keeping you and your team safe and healthy, and if you have time and energy to spare, use them to fight for systemic change and bailout from the government at all levels: federal, state, and local. First and foremost, call your congressional representatives and tell them that you want to see independent restaurants included in any aid or bailout packages they are putting together. The airlines, cruise lines, and casinos will be okay—your favorite neighborhood restaurants may not be, without some help from the government.

Abraham Merchant
Owner, Merchants Hospitality, New York, 3/19/2020

I think everyone is having a very tough time. We will get through of course, but there will be a lot of carnage from these crises. A lot of staff is taking in roommates and pooling resources together to survive. It is hard. There is no silver lining. Preserve your resources and consolidate. If you are in an industry that is not directly impacted, then spend money in any way possible at a restaurant, like with takeout, and when they re-open. Order delivery. Buy a gift certificate and book parties for December. Merchants Hospitality has set aside a fund for staff to be able to get no-interest loans at very flexible terms. Union Square Hospitality is allocating all profits from gift certificate purchase to staff. Some PR firms created restaurant bonds.

Hakan Swahn
Owner, Aquavit, New York, 3/19/2020

I do not think we are coping well in the industry. How can we? All income disappeared overnight without any idea when we can go back to work again. It makes it very difficult to plan. We have to assume the worst, and this means that expenses have to be cut to as close to zero as possible. Sadly, employees are the first to take the hit. People think restaurants have a big buffer to deal with this, but that is very far from the truth. I wish I could advise everyone to take a job, at least temporarily, but it’s not realistic as there are no jobs available at all in this situation. You have to trust that if your government tells you to abandon your business, they will take action which is sufficient to bring you back to operation and employing all that have been laid off. The best proposals I have heard so far are to sell discounted gift certificates, sometimes called “restaurant bonds.” This would bring necessary cash up front and provide a deal for the “bond buyer” once we open. As owners, we can only try to offer support in any way we can to those in our team really needing temporary support. This crisis will end eventually, but I think it will be a long uphill to get anywhere close to the activity we have seen until just a few days ago. Not very comforting but probably a reality.

Leonard Botello IV
Pitmaster/owner, Truth BBQ, Houston, 3/19/2020

We are taking it day by day. We are managing hours, cutting every cost that we can, introducing new business models and service modalities, and extending hours beyond our typical service model to accommodate as much to-go service as possible. Stay as strong as you can, follow your gut and your heart. We are all in this together, and no one in our industry is going to make an easy decision for the foreseeable future. There is no right answer for any of us except doing the best you can. Guests can still get to-go orders, gift cards, and merchandise purchases. Restaurants are always at a point where every dollar counts, but now we need every penny to stay open and keep our employees. There’s little comfort in any of this, honestly. I can’t imagine what would be said to alleviate any level of fear or stress at this time.

Katie Button
Chef/owner, Cúrate, Asheville, 3/18/2020

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It’s been impossible for many of us to come up with ways that would be viable to maintain our staff, with no income. Even if you go to delivery or takeout, it still might not be enough. So many of us, including myself, have been forced to lay off our entire workforce, and hold on for dear life to whatever capital we have, so that we have the money to reopen. I recommend that anyone in food, or even just anybody—call your bank, ask them what they are doing in terms of loan deferral for small businesses that are going to be out for who knows how long. Push the banks to get loud for whatever federal aid they need to get businesses what they need. We all have to be in this together.

Yia Vang
Chef/owner, Union Hmong Kitchen, Minneapolis, 3/18/2020

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With the closing of restaurants in Minnesota, we pivoted to family-style meals that people can order and pick up. (By the way, “family style” is just “eating” to the Hmong people, because we gather together for big group meals at all our important times and just every day. That ban on more than 10 people gathering is hard on us, because that’s usually just our immediate families.) On Saturday (March 13), my business partner and I said, let’s figure this out, so we built a little website for orders and launched it Monday morning. Customers have been supportive. One woman who lives in Los Angeles ordered a meal for her friend who lives here. That’s the thing about the restaurant industry that amazes me. No matter how hurt we are, we still will do our best to provide food for people. It’s a curse and a blessing, I guess. Cooks can be dealing with health issues, mental health issues, and maybe they should be stopping to do self-care, but they aren’t. They’re still cooking and putting out darn good food. We still make food, you can’t take that away from us. I have three pieces of advice: 1) Don’t lose hope, 2) Keep busy, because the moment we stop for too long, we’ll feel sorry for ourselves and lose hope, and 3) Be creative and think outside of the box. If there was ever a time to do that, it’s now. There’s a hustle and a grit in this industry that will see us through. You know, in a restaurant, if the toilet starts leaking right before service, you don’t have time to call a plumber—you figure out how to fix it yourself. My dad does that all the time. I call it Hmong-Gyvering.

All of our catering gigs for the rest of the month have cancelled, which is about $12,000 worth of sales. We had a bat mitzvah scheduled, and they had paid in full. The dad called me last Thursday to cancel and said, “I don’t want the refund, I know that right now a lot of people are cancelling, and I want you to be able to take care of your guys. But can you still make the food we ordered and put it into smaller packages so we can take it to friends and family who are quarantined?” One of their friends tweeted about it, and then it ended up on a Buzzfeed roundup of inspiring stories. MoveOn and Kristen Bell posted it. (The original Twitter post currently has 94.2K retweets, and 901.6K likes). I’ve heard from a lot of journalists. They are confused why Hmong food would be served at a bat mitzvah, but I loved that idea—two cultures literally coming together. That’s what we’re all about here.

Michael Sinensky
Cofounder, Simple Venue, New York, 3/18/2020

Obviously this has been some of the worst business days of our lives. We had several closures before, with Hurricane Sandy being the most extreme, but with that disaster we were able to do something about it and come together to physically rebuild. With this outbreak and very little information, we feel helpless and nervous about our future. All of us in the hospitality industry are feeling the same way. Everyone is paycheck to paycheck nowadays in our industry, and we are pretty much closed. It’s very easy to panic at a time like this. Panic causes irrational decisions, so as best as you can, remain calm and research every possible avenue for relief. Don’t act on anything until you have triple-checked for misinformation, and that what you are about to spend hours of extremely valuable time on is real. Also, you must get rest. Easier said than done, but your health is paramount to anything else right now. We have created a campaign to sell $50 gift certificates for when we reopen. Half the money will be donated to our out-of-work employees. This break-even initiative is crucial for our staff’s financial survival. My youngest child saw me stressing out the other day, wrote her two-page “life story” on paper, and asked me to print 100 copies so she can sell it and give me the money. Thinking about my family and my employees will keep me going.

David Choi
Chef/owner, Seoul Taco, St. Louis/Chicago, 3/18/2020

As a restaurant owner, I am deeply thankful for all the support we’ve received from our customers. If people have the means and ability, I encourage them to buy gift cards and merchandise from local restaurants. For restaurants that are still open, customers can support these same restaurants by ordering delivery or carryout. In the long term though, we can’t expect our customers to be the only ones helping to sustain our businesses in these very uncertain times. As the COVID-19 crisis continues, it’s going to affect all Americans. We shouldn’t be burdening our customers, who might be going similar or even more difficult situations than we are. I’ve been fortunate enough to operate restaurants in both Missouri and Illinois. Regardless of location, what we need is outside assistance from our local, state, and federal governments. Without this kind of far-reaching help—with taxes, with rent, without some sort of bailout—we are going to see more small businesses close. Just like the government has been able to bail out large corporations, and just like they’ve found money to help multi-billion-dollar industries, they should be working on a way to help small businesses.

Without this kind of government assistance, we will see very few independent restaurants make it out of this crisis. The ones that survive will be large corporations and those who own their own real estate. These small businesses are what make up the majority of the hospitality industry—without them, we could see a return to the cookie-cutter big chains of the past. We all put our hearts and souls into each of our businesses—it has already been very mentally, physically, emotionally taxing to get to the point of running your own restaurant, and seeing a glimmer of success. Some of us will get through this crisis, but it will be incredibly difficult to hit the restart button and essentially start from scratch again.

Julia Jaksic
Chef/owner, Cafe Roze, Nashville, 3/17/2020

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We are listening to the information coming out from the CDC and educating ourselves the best we can on the virus. Unfortunately, we have decided to close our dining room for the safety of our employees and guests. It’s really about survival at the moment and doing whatever is safest for our communities. Guests can help by ordering takeout, or buying gift cards or other merchandise. We’re all in this together! We’ve received so many amazing messages from our customers which have kept us going through this difficult time.

Ryan McCaskey
Chef/owner, Acadia, Chicago, 3/17/2020

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I think at first our team, like many in the industry, felt shocked and panicked. But now the team has come to the realization that this is serious and that the future remains uncertain, with no quick fixes. They have been contacting me, eager to return or help in any way possible. Myself and the management team are putting together a plan to help our staff, feed our neighbors, and even provide food and groceries for our staff. I think the thing that is going to be the best response is to be proactive and come together as a restaurant and dining community. I’d advise others to be optimistically cautious. With so little information out there, I think it’d be prudent to not overreact, but take necessary steps with regards to preventative maintenance. In the meantime, ask questions and be proactive within your community. Don’t take anything for granted. Guests can really support their local eateries and establishments by buying gift cards for future dining dates, buying delivery orders and carry-out. Every dollar counts with such slim margins in the industry. And with so much of servers’ wages counted on through tips, I think it’s really important to spend what you can in any capacity. Hopefully the employers will allocate those revenues properly to their staff first. I haven’t read or seen too much at this time because we’re really frantically working hard to figure out our situation for the staff. But I’ve seen videos from Tom Colicchio and Rick Bayless that are on-point, passionate pleas.

Maiko Kyogoku
Owner, Bessou, New York, 3/17/2020

Right now, we are asking our staff to stay home and stay put. That said, a lot of our staff are suffering and need financial assistance. We closed our doors temporarily to keep us from closing our doors permanently—we need to make sure we have enough reserves to last through this long hibernation period. But we just had to let go all 26 of our staff members, and we’re keenly aware that, without our help, a lot of them are unable to survive. We also know that on a basic level, people need to eat. To that end, we are mobilizing a small team of healthy and willing individuals from our company to come together to make bentos for the city’s schoolkids who are homeless and unable to get meals right now. We are teaming up with the Food Education Fund to become a Food Hub for the city’s kids in need. We will be opening our doors for delivery and take-out tomorrow (3/18) through Friday (3/20) from 12pm-5pm, and we’ll be giving away free meals to these kids and their familie, or for purchase to customers who want to support us and our staff. Our menu is ever-updating on GrubHub/Seamless.

Scott Weiner
Partner/restaurateur, The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group, Chicago, 3/17/20

We’re keeping as many people employed as we can and utilizing food that will go to waste for meals that we can feed our unemployed staff with. Lots of communication. People in the industry should hold on to cash. Keep it for your payroll. Pay with credit cards and hold off on paying sales tax or anything else that can be pushed. Call your landlords and your banks. Also call your elected government officials and urge them to mandate insurance companies covering business interruption for all of hospitality. Guests can order online and support your local restaurants through carryout and delivery. Order direct from your favorite restaurants if you can. Try not to use third-party delivery services who keep up to 30 percent of what you are spending with your local restaurant. The Illinois Restaurant Association and the National Restaurant Association are out there fighting to allow restaurants to eventually be able to recover.

Ted Hopson
Chef/owner at The Bellwether, Los Angeles, 3/16/2020

Honestly, we are still trying to figure it out. The chef community has gathered in virtual forums to talk about it. I think that the fact it is not isolated, and all of us are in it, is the best coping we have right now. My staff is very nervous, and they should be; without a dining room, my servers, bartenders, hosts, and bussers are all out of a job. I think the best support the community can do is to buy those takeaway orders. Support those local places, so that in three weeks, they will still exist. Right now we are looking into options like offering our inventory of groceries for sale for takeaway. We have tons of stuff in house, and access to more. Getting salt, milk, eggs, etc. from your local restaurant, together with food for dinner, might be a lot easier than waiting at the store. I wish I had more news, but things are changing hour by hour, so we don’t know what to expect tomorrow. We are open today, but are we going to open tomorrow? It depends on how much support we can get from the community.

Mark Okuda
Chef/owner at The Brothers Sushi, Los Angeles, 3/16/2020

Definitely a lot of uncertainty in our industry. This is uncharted waters that hasn’t happened in our generation. To help my team, we are trying out to-go and delivery and seeing how it will work. If it is successful, I can truly have more of my employees helping me, but as of now I had to cut about 70 percent. I know some people are having a hard time getting clean water, so we at the restaurant are offering to fill an empty clean bottle up to two gallons (no purchase necessary) to people who need fresh clean filtered water. I would advise owners to try creative ways to attract customers for to-go and delivery. If you are struggling, you have to find ways and do whatever you can as an owner to keep your business alive—#mambamentality. If a guest has a favorite spot and if that restaurant is offering to-go or even gift cards, now is the time to support that establishment. A couple of dollars goes a long way for your favorite place to stay in business.
I really appreciate a lot of the world’s top chefs (Thomas Keller, Rene Redzepi, Dominique Crenn, and more) posting videos on social media about the challenge we are all going through—telling us to work together as a group and not to give up.