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Pepe Moncayo’s Pandemic Restaurant Plan: Get Better & Give Everyone Health Insurance

Pepe Moncayo is chef/partner at Cranes restaurant in Washington DC. He previously worked under a number of Michelin-starred chefs in Singapore. Cranes opened right before the pandemic arrived as a Japanese kaiseki restaurant with Spanish influences, then reopened after the lockdown eased and later earned a Michelin star of its own.

We opened on the 8th of February in 2020, and we were pretty busy. We kept growing and growing and growing. Suddenly things started going low—you expect at least three months of business going up and up after an opening. But news from other countries like Spain or Singapore that were ahead of us with the pandemic started coming in. The truth is that on the last day of operation, the 15th of March, I didn’t even know what was going on. I wasn’t really understanding what this was. “Are we coming back next week? What’s going to happen?”

My concept at Cranes was a challenge. Where the restaurant is located is purely an office area. There’s no residential. Many colleagues thrived through the pandemic doing to-go and delivery because they were in residential neighborhoods, and people there supported them. Here, not even the delivery platforms can deliver more than two miles. Where I stay in the city, I couldn’t get delivery from the restaurant.

Cranes restaurant in Washington DC. Photo: Reema Desai.

It took me six or seven weeks of staying at home and thinking, “What am I going to do? What am I going to do?” I decided to do traditional Spanish cuisine. My concept is more fine dining and fusion cuisine from my history and my travels. So I said, “Let’s do traditional Spanish cuisine, stews and rices that travel better in a package.” I really changed the whole menu. And then when we opened back up, I transitioned from that menu to going back to what Cranes was supposed to be.

As a restaurateur who has opened some restaurants already, to envision how you are going to implement your idea, how you want to create the restaurant—the service, the cuisine, and so on—the truth is that all these changes went better than I expected. I’m very happy. I had visions of what this was going to be, but we are going in an even better direction. I feel very fortunate.

The first two weeks of the opening of the restaurant were a little rough, because it was flooded with people. I received some feedback that the portioning was too small, the length of the courses was too long. So I learned my lesson. I always look at the bright side of things, but the pandemic has been—excuse my French—a shit show. But it also gave us an opportunity to learn, to think, to reconsider the way we do things and where we are, because it’s not the same being in Singapore. I changed the way I cook, the way I serve, and the way I course my food. So for now, I’m getting into that sweet spot where things are working. It’s nice.

Photo: Reema Desai.

When it comes to staff and compensation—honestly, I’m a socialist. In Spain, we have a lot of worker rights, compensation, and a very strong social security system that gives unemployment. Any time you work for more than six months at a company, you’re going to get unemployment. You have free medical care that all of our taxes pay for. You go to the hospital, you break your knee, you have cancer, your bill is going to be zero.

When I came to the US—I’m new to this country—my advisor was telling me, “Okay, Pepe, this is what you can offer, this is what you cannot. Some people get medical insurance.” I was like, “What do you mean, some people get medical insurance? Can I not give medical insurance to everyone?” He said “Yeah, you could do that.” I was like, “Are you crazy? Only give it to some people? No way!” So we offer medical insurance to everyone. They don’t need to pay anything. It’s fully paid for by the company.

I give as many benefits as I can. I mean, it’s just on the human side. I don’t want to criticize, but I think it’s pretty irrational to work and not have any insurance. To me, it’s a no-go. The way you make business also matters. That’s my point of view on that.

Photo: Reema Desai.

We were barely surviving from 2020 to 2021. We were like, “Oh man, I don’t see what’s going to happen.” And suddenly in April, the Michelin Guide gave a star to the restaurant. Suddenly, from seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, a comet went into my face, like pow! Since then, from April to December, we have been growing like crazy and hiring people. There’s almost 100 people working in the restaurant nowadays.

There’s been a crazy expansion of business—even in July and August, which was supposed to be slow. My colleagues said that in January and February, things were going to slow down. And it did happen. But things are still very good. For the first time, I am able to say, “Now we are stable. We are not growing like crazy, we are not hiring literally anyone coming through the door.

But that’s not always bad either, like with this one guy, I said, “What’s your experience?” He said, “I was dishwashing in that other place.” Okay, welcome! The next week, he was a prep cook. The next week, he was starting dinner. The next week he was doing the fryer. The next week he was running a station as an assistant in this restaurant. I’m so proud of this guy, because he’s fantastic.

My plan for this year is to really understand this business, because it’s been so unpredictable. I never had the opportunity to say, I’m going to grab it, I’m going to control it. That’s my plan for this year—fine-tune things and really make it a well-oiled machine.