Chef Todd Richards on Running Airport Restaurants During COVID

It's a journey into the unknown.

Portrait of Chef Todd Richards
Photo: Dustin Chambers / The New York Times / Redux

I spoke with Todd Richards twice over the past few months: first in March, as COVID-19 was starting to spread across the United States, and again in May, when he was recovering from the virus at home. The distance between the conversations felt enormous. Initially, we focused on his role as culinary director for One Flew South and Chicken + Beer in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and on how travel has been a part of Richards' life since childhood, figuring heavily into his cookbook Soul: A Chef's Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes. Two months later, we reflected on taking a pause—through quarantine or travel—to assess safety, routines, and goals.

—Julia Turshen, founder of Equity At The Table (Eatt) and author of Now & Again

This conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

JT: Are you thinking about what people are going through as they're coming to your restaurants? Anxiety can manifest in some unkind and impatient behavior.

TR: Our number one job is taking the stress out of travel. The first question that any server asks a patron is, "How much time do you have?" If people are having a bad experience in the airport, more than likely, the restaurants did not create it. But if you treat us with kindness, we'll give that back to you. We'll probably give you a double dose of kindness.

JT: What does safety look like for you and your team now?

TR: Can your business be a carry-out, to-go, sit-down, and catering operation all in one breath? Places with the ability to flex their overall operation will have an easier recovery time. We as operators must protect ourselves and our biggest asset, our employees. We have to embrace technology, for example.

JT: Last time we spoke, we discussed how the human touch has gone away—like how people order from iPads in airports. That's something we're having to relearn and reconsider. How can we feel that sense of connection without literally touching?

TR: We're in the hospitality business, and we have to build genuine care and comfort for all people involved. We can still be personable with someone.

JT: You've been dealing with your own health and recovery while navigating professional shifts. What gives you comfort right now?

TR: Only having notifications on my phone for phone calls or text messages gave me enough time to not only heal but focus my energy on creating the next version of the restaurants. I allow myself only one hour a day to look at news. If you are consumed with everything that's happening, it becomes prohibitive for you to accomplish anything. Also, the purpose of restaurants, intrinsically, is to feed people. Making money is the outcome. Understanding why you got into the restaurant business in the first place helps.

JT: So many people, myself included, have taken trips to get away from the day to day, gather perspective, and reflect. It almost sounds like you're able to take that journey right now even without leaving your home.

TR: Everyone at some point should take time to stop and think about the things that they can actually accomplish. On the other side of this, I feel I could achieve more for myself, which means I can do more for my family than ever before.

Lightning Round

  1. The most recent thing I cooked was jerk chicken.
  2. I put NBA 2K20 on my screen of choice when I need to escape for an hour.
  3. House music makes me feel energized. (I'm from Chicago!)
  4. I think of my family barbecues when I need some inspiration.
  5. My fridge always has flour tortillas and Champagne waiting for me.
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