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Restaurants in the Time of Coronavirus: A Chronicle (II)

Restaurants in the Time of Coronavirus: A Chronicle (II)

Chicago, Culture, Featured Chef Interviews, Homepage Featured, Homepage Featured, Must-Read Features, San Diego, Washington D.C.

March 18-March 19

Restaurant owners and workers alike feel abandoned by the government and the general public during their darkest times. They’re all taking it hour by hour with no guarantee of a tomorrow.

With or without government mandates, uncertainty is the new normal.

Some restaurants are preparing themselves for a full-blown quarantine and shut down. Other restaurants are desperately pivoting towards carryout and delivery models that they avoided during better days. This is especially prominent in states like Virginia, where a shutdown has not been mandated. I heard and wrote all about it for local publication, Washington City Paper here.

Illinois is one of the many states to mandate all restaurants to suspend in-dining services, reverting to carryout and delivery only. Some restaurants are choosing to operate temporary community relief kitchens instead.

“From Sunday to Monday to Tuesday, we’ve been constantly changing and writing business plans,” says Adrienne Lo, co-owner of Fat Rice in Chicago. Fat Rice has always been a bakery and a dine-in restaurant. It was never built to last on a carryout or delivery model. “To create a new business plan and get on a delivery platform to only be able to deliver for maybe three days…” Lo trails off, leaving the absurdity of the thought hanging heavy in the air. Lo, along with partner Abe Conlon, made the decision to turn Fat Rice into a community pantry before shutting down temporarily.

“We felt like we were lying to ourselves thinking [carryout and delivery] would be okay.”

Lo is determined to do her part to help flatten the curve. She, along with a core team of eight employees at Fat Rice, came up with a model whereby they could prepare meal kits for their community while maintaining 6 feet of separation and keeping in accordance with the CDC’s guidelines. This ‘Fat Rice Community Relief Kitchen’ has already prepped 200 meal kits consisting of raw and prepared food that will feed two people at least three meals. Available on a pay-what-you-can basis, Lo hopes that these kits will encourage people to leave their houses as little as possible to limit potential transmission of the virus.

Once inventory runs out, Lo and Conlon are at a loss. “The restaurant industry as we know it is gone,” she states flatly. “Our plans are like everybody. We’re in the same boat. Take it day by day, hour by hour.” The two join their fellow restaurant owners in waiting for further guidance from Mayor Lightfoot. Will there be a city-wide “shelter in place” mandate? “We’re ready to close this place down. To close the city down.”

“Just file for unemployment,” they say. Little do they know…

The wait to file for unemployment has evolved from spending a few hours on hold to several days. Emily Alexander, who shared her wait time and frustration with us two days ago was still dialing her unemployment office. A glitch prevents her and millions of others from filing online. After days of waiting on hold for five hours at a time, she only just spoke to the appropriate representative Friday afternoon.

The wait time is only one horror of the unemployment filing process. James Beard Semifinalist Nominee Chef Paola Velez of Kith/Kin in Washington, D.C. tweeted on Friday morning about the lack of empathy throughout the process. With her permission, I’m sharing her statements below, edited for clarity.

Just got done filing my DC unemployment claim. A requirement of being able to collect unemployment is that you have to file every Sunday for the foreseeable future & provide them with 2 work applications. I understand that in normal circumstances this would be normal…

But throughout this pandemic [and] the complete shutdown of the service industry. It’s insensitive to ask folks to apply to ghost jobs, reminding them every week of the pain and turmoil they just experienced. This is insult to injury. The Dept. of DC employment should be more empathetic.

I don’t want to sound argumentative but when I spoke with the agent I was told clearly several times that if I fail to do this my unemployment will be canceled. I felt completely broken that yet again another system failed me.

That’s jarring for anyone who is currently experiencing this. I’m typically able to think clearly in terrible situations. Yet I found myself pleading while literally crying for my humanity to be seen by this agent. It’s destabilizing.

A representative from the office of Ward 6 DC Council Member Charles Allen reached out to Velez shortly after the tweets went public. Their response mentions: “the legislation passed on Tuesday waives requirements for both the traditional one-week waiting period and also for the need to show attempts at job applications.”

The response further suggests that this has not been communicated clearly to those processing claims.

Chaos churns.

Related Resource: These Organizations Are Helping Unemployed Hospitality Workers (Plate Magazine)

What about the *really* little guys?

While most major restaurants in each city have resources to avail of, many smaller-owned restaurants run by immigrants are at a huge disadvantage. Chef Danny Lee of The Fried Rice Collective restaurants in Washington D.C. and San Diego published a plea on social media Friday morning:

This is Kalorama Deli, a small corner deli owned and operated by an elderly Korean couple who are some of the hardest working people I’ve ever seen. They don’t have the luxury of social media, or email notifications from groups like the Restaurant Association or the various coalitions and groups that are now being formed to keep us aware of any updates on aid, grants, procedures, etc. There are thousands of these types of shops all around the country, owned by immigrants who have no idea that there are steps they can start taking now to save their businesses and livelihoods. Today I went to Kalorama Deli and brought them the DC Government’s sheet on the SBA Disaster Assistance program, and in Korean (this page is translated into several languages). I also wrote down several other websites for information ranging from unemployment, food programs, emergency supplies, etc. If you are in a position where you are able to, I implore you to visit at least one store similar to this one, and just spend ten minutes with them to give them the necessary, bare bones information that’s available so that they can at least know that there are programs out there that can, god willing, save them.

The language barrier is a concern for many restaurant owners as well. Humberto Martinez Jr. (Junior) of Timothy O’Toole’s Pub Group in Greater Chicago describes the scenario of translating ambiguous unemployment paperwork for employees who don’t speak English for their first language as “heartbreaking.”

“If we read it and can’t get anywhere, what’s going to happen to them?” he asks.

Just because a restaurant or a restaurant owner seemed successful prior to the shutdowns, doesn’t mean they’re going to easily weather what’s to come.

“I’ve been in this business for 30 years,” Junior says chokingly. “I’ve been through 9/11. I’ve been through the 2008 recession. [COVID-19] is dwarfing those two events. Everywhere you turn there’s a question mark or a roadblock.”

Junior, like many in the industry, set up an employee relief fund for his staff. When he shared it on Facebook, he received dozens of comments criticizing him for asking the public for help. While many questioned his integrity, few have questioned the structure of the restaurant industry as a whole.

“I’m on the hook for four leases that I’m personally guaranteeing plus two outstanding loans on the business that have gotten us to this point,” Junior describes. “I have a mortgage payment. A car payment. Four children. I don’t need to explain myself to these people but this is a very vulnerable industry and banks are being very picky.”

Rising Star chef and James Beard nominee Kevin Tien recently opened Emilie’s in Washington D.C. to rave reviews. Despite the apparent popularity and considerable financial backing, he doesn’t know if Emilie’s will survive this turn of events.

“We’re only 4 months old. We haven’t even paid back investors yet. We were slowly getting the traffic we needed and right when we were about to be in a good spot, the worst possible thing could happen. But we’re making the best of it and trying to be creative in the solutions we’re offering.”

Tien has laid off 90% of his staff. His managerial team stays on with pay cuts so vicious that Tien states, “They’re basically here because they’re really good friends at this point.” By no means are they giving up but, at moments, the situation seems truly hopeless when there is no external help.

This past year, another Washington D.C. staple, Bad Saint, garnered a James Beard Award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic, was named one the best Filipino restaurant in America by Eater, among plenty of other notable press. Co-owner Geneveive Villamora breaks down during our conversation. “I don’t know who can ride out a year-long or even a six-month long epidemic,” she says incredulously. “I love the restaurant and it really was a dream of mine for so long. It’s so much more than a restaurant or a business to me. It expresses how much I care about my family and my heritage. I have so much pride sharing it with all different kinds of people and it’s been such a vehicle for me learning about myself and the community and understanding human nature. We’re woven into people’s lives.”

Villamora wants answers: “The fact that governments locally and nationally have stood by and watched us free fall is appalling to me. Everyone has wanted to be along for the ride of the growth of restaurants. Now that we’re in dire need and so many lives are threatened it seems of no concern to people who are in positions who can actively do something about it.”

Related resource: What restaurants need right now to actually survive (Eater)

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