How Karen Akunowicz Is Making It Work
With her new takeout operation Fox Pasta, the award-winning chef is supporting laid-off employees while feeding Boston.
On Sunday, March 15, at 3 p.m., Karen Akunowicz heard Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announce that all restaurants had to reduce capacity by 50% and close by 11 p.m. in an effort to curb the coronavirus pandemic. So, the Fox and the Knife chef put her head down and spent the next few hours developing a plan with her staff, recalibrating the entire organizational structure of her Boston restaurant, Fox & the Knife. At 7 p.m.—so, just four hours later—Baker announced that, actually, all restaurants and bars must close completely, except for takeout and delivery, until April 17.
The news came in the middle of a staff party, and it, of course, shifted the tone of the celebration: Akunowicz now had to furlough, or lay off indefinitely, 30 employees. She stayed up all night devising a new plan to put into action the next morning, so she could continue paying the five employees she retained and keep her laid-off staff insured. And so was born Fox Pasta, the takeout-only operation that is supplying lucky Bostonians with fresh handmade pasta, sauces (including basil tomato and wild boar bolognese), specialty soups, and meats and cheeses.
We caught up with chef Akunowicz to talk about transforming her business, staying safe, and the future of restaurants.
Food & Wine: What was it like learning your restaurant had to close?
Karen Akunowicz: I spent half the night outside on the phone trying to figure out how we moved forward. We were going to try to make a go of it. We've always been a neighborhood restaurant, and we wanted to continue to feed people as faithfully and responsibly as we can. And if we could do that in that way, it felt important to us to try.
I also wanted to be able to keep my managers on salary and retain five of our employees. It's not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but I felt if I could fit five people in the lifeboat, that it was worth everything I had to try.
How did you land on the Fox Pasta concept?
For me it made sense to say, "We don't know what grocery stores are going to look like. We're able to provide food that is not processed and not boxed and not canned, and you can still make it at home and support a small business." We’ve been making our wild boar bolognese, amatriciana, and tomato basil sauce. I'm adding some new sauces this week. We started with 60 pounds a day of campanelle, spaghetti, and bucatini. We ramped up to 75 pounds by the end of the week.
It was a very quick turnaround. We were able to really pivot on the dime and the next day open up. As day one, day two, day three went by, by day four we were like, "Okay, this is how this works."
How has the business been going?
We are selling out every single day. Again, I don't know what this week will look like. We are trying to, in the best way we know how, stay true to who we are as a restaurant.
We're doing two-and-a-half times the amount of work for half the amount of money right now. And it is a lot every day. But we are committed to being here and to doing it.
What keeps you motivated to continue?
We're doing it to keep our management staff on salary. We're doing it continue to feed Boston and our neighborhood for as long as we safely can. And we're doing it because this is what we do. I know that will not be looked at favorably by everybody, but this is what we do. I don't know how to do anything else when things are bad but feed people. So I can do that, and I can follow CDC guidelines, and I can make sure that we are being stupid responsible and offer this to people; that is what I know how to do in this time. And that is the best thing that I know how to do for my team, for our community. And I feel incredibly proud about what we're doing.
I will be honest, there are days that I'm like, "Wow, it would have been easier to just shut it all down." But I don't know that I've ever taken the easy road to anything actually.
I couldn't move forward and look back and say, 'I could have done more. I didn't try this. I didn't think fast enough. I wasn't quick enough.' I wouldn't be able to live with myself.
Would you ever do delivery?
We'd love to offer delivery because we didn't offer delivery before. Every delivery company was like, "It's going to take 10 days to set up," which wasn't very helpful. They also really take 20 to 30% of your profits, so we don't know if it's something that we'll be able to do or not. But we are thinking about it and working on it. And we don't know what this week will look like.
How are you keeping the operation safe?
Like I said, we're a really small team. Nobody here takes public transportation. Everybody is temperature-checking twice a day. Everybody changes their clothes when they get here. We're doing all of the precautions that we can make sure that our team stays safe. Governor Baker deemed restaurants essential, so we are actually taking that incredibly seriously and taking that as a responsibility to be essential to our community.
What advice would you give to other restaurants that are pivoting?
I think if you can do something that still feels true to yourself and you can make the numbers work and you're giving people something that in this time makes sense, I think that's the key. I know not everyone can do that.
I think if we were a larger operation, we might not be able to do this, but because we are small we actually are. That's part of the reason that we're able to make it work. We're agile and we're scrappy.
Is there a GoFundMe for your staff?
So, I have not set up a GoFundMe, and I will tell you the reason why. When we furloughed our [30 person] staff, I am giving every single person on our staff 40 hours of PTO to start. Part of our efforts now is also to make sure to be able to do that. We paid everybody's health insurance through March, and we plan on paying it through April.
I really felt like because we were giving PTO and because we were going to figure out a way to continue to help our staff through insurance and through a system with tips, I did not want to start another GoFundMe account for a business that was operating. I feel like it's my responsibility to take care of them and there are so many other businesses that are closed down entirely. I wouldn't want to take away from any funding that those businesses were able to receive.
How should people who want to help save the industry get involved?
Off the top of my head, without going into my phone, Save Restaurants (saverestaurants.org) is a great place to start. They have a lot of advocacy work that they are doing and can direct you to other organizations, too.
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.