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Karen Akunowicz: Not Just Work-Life Balance In Restaurants, But Real Quality Of Life

Karen Akunowicz won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northeast in 2018 for her work as executive chef at Myers & Chang in Boston. She opened her own first restaurant, Fox & the Knife, in 2019, and followed with Bar Volpe in 2021.

Boston is a wildly resilient city, and so many of us are hopeful. We’re not on the other side of the pandemic yet, but we are seeing a little bit of light. I think it’s pretty outstanding how many restaurants are still standing. People have really persevered. We have rolled with every punch.

We’ve used the word “pivot” so many times in the last two years, but people have not only pivoted. They have started new businesses. New restaurants have opened, and I really believe that is a radical act of hope at this point. Hope for our industry, and hope that people will recognize and remember that restaurants are not just places you go to get your favorite dish. They really are the framework of our community.

One of the things that helped us in the beginning of the pandemic was that Fox & the Knife was still a fairly new restaurant. We’d only been open for a year when the shutdowns happened in March 2020. We never closed. Overnight we pivoted to a takeout model. Even in those first three months we didn’t shut down. I had a team that really wanted to continue to work, to continue to serve our community. I had employees that needed to work. We didn’t know what was going to happen with unemployment, so we decided that we were going to do the best of our ability and keep moving forward.

Chef-owner Karen Akunowicz at Fox & the Knife restaurant in Boston. Photo: Brian Samuels,

We had that flexibility because we were a new restaurant. You open, and you feel very certain about exactly what you’re going to do, but then you spend three months or six months or a year saying, “Okay, we have to be really flexible and elastic. We have to be able to adapt to what this is actually going to be.” I think we still had that muscle memory, and that helped us a lot going into it.

With Bar Volpe, we opened mid-pandemic in November 2021. I had negotiated that lease a year before, and by no means did I think when I signed it in November 2020 that we would still be in a pandemic in November 2021. At that point in time, there weren’t many people saying, “Yeah, let’s look a year ahead.” That was definitely an advantage to me as a tenant, which we hadn’t seen in quite some time. I wouldn’t have done it if we hadn’t already had our plans and our concept in place. But knowing what we wanted to do, knowing that was the neighborhood we wanted to be in, and being willing to say, “It’s a really dark time right now, but we are going to come in and do something great with this space”—all that really worked out on my end.

Restaurant openings are always challenging. Permitting is challenging. Getting the things you need done is challenging. But at this point we are so used to it that you roll with it a little bit more. It’s like, okay, there’s a supply shortage. I can’t get any glasses? Oh, great. My equipment is somewhere in the back of a warehouse, and I was supposed to have it two weeks ago? Great. There’s nobody to hire for this restaurant that we’re opening? Okay, great.

Bar Volpe restaurant. Photo: Courtesy Karen Akunowicz.

It pushes you to be more adaptive and to go with the flow because you have to. There is nothing you can control. You change your perspective a tiny bit and say, “This is teaching me to accept whatever the universe is handing me at this point.”

Something that’s become clearer recently—and even more so during when there is less talent, less staff—is making sure the folks that you choose to come and join your team are the right people. You can feel very pressured to hire just to get folks in the door. You really need to fill a position. What we’ve done is to make sure that we’re hiring the right people for the job. They are people that aren’t just looking for any job, but people who specifically want to work with us.

Definitely, salaries are on the rise. Definitely, people want more work-life balance. But we’re talking to people like, “We can say more money. We can say less hours. But what are the things that really matter to you? And how can we help construct a benefit package that really works for you specifically?”

We are currently open just five days a week at both restaurants. We could push—we could be open six or seven days. But that would mean my management would be working more hours a week. We’d be stopping our staff dinner, or we would be running with less people on each shift, which in turn would mean the quality of our service would be poor. So we are choosing to be well staffed, and keep our team in good spirits, and working a good amount of hours. Part of that is really challenging. It’s saying, what is good for the many? What is the best for everybody? And in turn, realizing that is also what’s best for the business.

Even pre-pandemic, we’ve seen so many things in the industry that need to change. What are we doing to make sure that all our folks—including ourselves—have a better quality of life? I’m not just saying work-life balance, because that looks different for everybody. That’s going to look different for me than it does for the next person. But what are the things people need to be happy in their job? What are the things that people need to have a life outside of their work? I really think that means talking to people individually.

What drives me most every day is making sure that my team is taken care of, making sure that everybody has a job to come back to, and making sure that we are not just staying at the status quo, but that we are trying to be better every day.