There's never been a better time to crack open a cookbook called Emotional Eating, but the owners of Dimes, a Chinatown hub for hip people who enjoy turmeric cocktails, had no choice but to cancel its release party last Friday night. A few days later, as coronavirus concerns led to the closure of New York restaurants, they shuttered the restaurant. They have two neighboring businesses to fall back on—Dimes Deli is still serving takeaway, and Dimes Market remains stocked with kitchen staples to complement the cookbook—but both operate on a day-to-day basis while owners Alissa Wagner and Sabrina De Sousa wait for next steps from state and local governments that mandate ever-increasing restrictions but offer no relief.
It's a problem when they're trying to make decisions on behalf of fifty employees—hard choices between health and economics made with only anecdotal guidance.
No matter the scale of a restaurant empire or where it falls on the map, chefs and owners from coast to coast are right now discovering they have no greater insight or influence than the general public, with prominent restaurateurs like David Chang, Tom Colicchio, and Danny Meyer spending cash reserves to help employees before spending their emotions on social media, where they vent and plead their way through stages of grief as the federal government remains slow to aid the industry's recovery.
Wagner doesn't have the luxury of lobbying, let alone turning to lawyers or landlords for direction, but she is getting advice from Lower East Side business owners over the counter at Dimes Market, which, today anyway, remains a strong community hub, even if customers don't linger as long as they once did. She and her partners can't see past tomorrow, let alone months down the line, as they hustle to accommodate employee requests.
"Some people don't want to work, some wanted to be home with family, so we're just focused now on giving shifts to those who need them," Wagner says. "We know we're still in the early stages and just want to get our staff settled."
Across the Hudson River, in Jersey City, chef Dan Richer's past that point, now sorting out how to furlough his staff at Razza, the dinner-only pizzeria that received three stars from The New York Times. Sunday night may have been his last night for takeout service.
"We had one of our busiest weeks ever last week," Richer recalls. "It was like every night was Saturday night, with tipping like crazy," Still, his discomfort grew. He switched from cloth to paper napkins after bussing tables one night, and was shocked to find guests still offering handshakes and hugs. Now he's focused on charting his own course after confirming his workers receive maximum unemployment benefits.
Richer has the cellphone number of Jersey City mayor Steven Fulop, but he's been too shy to call, sure the mayor has bigger problems to deal with. He hasn't contacted his landlord yet either.
"But we're not paying $30,000 a month, so our rent isn't the biggest factor in our decision," he says, confident his landlord wants him to succeed and would accommodate a reduction of rent or holding off on payment. "Our team is the only reason we've been open this long–I'm less concerned with the restaurant's bills than our team's bills."
Death & Co owner Dave Kaplan is weathering the closure of his bars in New York, Denver, and Los Angeles from his home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, making hard decisions while grounded, but he's barely off the grid.
"Things are the same everywhere right now," he says. "One city is behind another behind the next." It's why he pulled the trigger and closed all his bars ahead of an announcement that would have allowed some locations to continue selling takeaway liquor. "The decision we made was to protect our community before our business," he says. "If we say, let's have to-go and delivery service, we're still encouraging people to come in at some level of congregation and risk spread by our people."
He didn't need to seek advice elsewhere to come to the moral conclusion, but he's been grateful for the business attorneys at New York firm Helbraun Levey, who have proven themselves invaluable in other ways, publishing a daily newsletter with the latest guidance and distributing it to their clients free of charge. Kaplan's so inspired, he's asked them to join him in an AMA across Death & Co's social media this Thursday, so he can help provide answers to industry allies who haven't yet had anywhere else to turn.
That doesn't mean Kaplan has stopped asking questions, like how to connect people "when that's the last thing we need right now." In Denver, where Death & Co is open in the Ramble Hotel, they've kept open DC/AM, which serves coffee throughout the day. It's an accommodation to the owner to maintain some sense of normalcy for hotel guests, and he also sees it as an opportunity to show support to the community.
He asked himself, "Can we use that team to cook and prep freezer meals? To help dissuade any fears that people are having? To show that our supply chain is adequate?" The solutions to riddles and moral dilemmas are the last thing anyone expects attorneys or politicians to resolve.
However, a moment of thoughtful reflection—for those who can afford that much—does have the potential to turn a business around, even in the current environment. Washington DC bagel spot Call Your Mother saw its perpetual line down the block dissipate in recent days, and a day after introducing takeout service, they decided to close shop. Now they're weighing their options about reopening in the near future.
"Our accountant wants us to at least do delivery and take out, but we want to really take a deep look at whether it's safe before we agree to that," co-owner Andrew Dana tells me. "It feels like we are on a speeding bullet train, and we felt it was best to step off and look at everything before making further decisions."
In the meantime, the industry leaders that Dana and partner Daniela Moriera are most keen to follow aren't the big guns lobbying for a bailout, but those taking immediate action to help people suffering just as much as so many small businesses owners may soon be. Before considering reopening, Dana says, "We're following what José Andrés is doing and currently chatting with his team to help feed those in need."