“We’re just in pure survival mode,” says longtime friend of UPROXX, Jason Quinn — chef and founder of Playground DTSA in Santa Ana, CA. “We don’t want to fire or furlough people so we’re just… we’re making it happen however we can.”
Those words embody the painful truth facing our nation. No one is having an easy go of it right now. We’re all just muddling through. Especially people in the service industry. Grocery store employees, gig economy workers, food servers, chefs — they’re risking their health every day to keep a sliver of our society functioning while doctors on the frontline grapple with COVID-19.
In many cases, economic survival depends on staying operational. For Quinn and many small business owners like him, remaining open in some form is the only way to keep employees afloat.
“We were a day from shuttering,” Quinn continues. “But my staff has to eat and our guests have to eat. In the end, closing felt like the easy way out; trying to unlock how to stay open, that felt like the impossible challenge.”
On March 13th, Playground DTSA was assessing the severity of the outbreak in real-time and upping their sanitization practices, as well as relaxing their hours. By March 16th, faced with a state-wide stay-at-home directive, Quinn started going live on Instagram daily — asking his customer-base for feedback about how best to serve them. A few days later, he was floating to-go and delivery models, and selling wagyu beef and fresh fish to home cooks.
Almost immediately, Playground had to temporarily suspend protein sales because the response was so rabid. That facet is back up and running now — with steak, pork, and fish available through a new webstore. The restaurant has also launched take home ramen kits.
Quinn isn’t the only chef throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks. Head chef and founder of Los Angeles’ Guerrilla Tacos, Wesley Avila, has put together what he’s calling an Emergency Taco Kit — which includes five pounds of roasted chicken and carne asada, a quart of red and green salsa, tortillas, onion, cilantro, rice, beans, 30 eggs, and probably the most coveted of all goods: four rolls of toilet paper.
But for every ripple of success, there’s a tsunami of restaurants collapsing altogether or having to furlough their whole teams. According to the Los Angeles Times, Bon Temps, a popular LA Art’s District restaurant headed by Chef Lincoln Carson, closed its doors indefinitely on the evening of March 16th — just a few days into trying to make it as a take-out only establishment. Los Feliz eatery Kismet also closed after its take-out service and take-home broth and labneh didn’t pull in enough funds to cover expenses. Another Kind Cafe in Laguna Beach, which was featured in a previous UPROXX piece as an example of a restaurant succeeding with takeout business during the quarantine, has since halted operations indefinitely. And famed chef Danny Myer’s hospitality group laid off 2,000 employees just a few days into the shutdown.
Deborah VanTrece, the executive chef of Atlanta Georgia’s Twisted Soul, broke down some of the real-world struggles restaurants are facing to Bon Appétit, “Our insurance is doing nothing. Our landlords have offered no rent abatement, even though most of the retailers in this complex have been forced to close completely. And that stimulus package sounds cute on paper, but in real-time it don’t mean shit.”
The restaurant industry is used to adapting to the changing tastes of the dining public, but there isn’t a single independent restaurant on earth equipped to survive a global pandemic without sustaining major losses. The business model just isn’t built for it. The margins are far too thin and the costs never really stop.
Right now, living to fight another day is the name of the game. For some chefs that means crowdfunding for their teams. For others, it means “pay what you can” menus. For Quinn, it means going back on his famous policy of making absolutely no tweaks or adjustments to his dishes.
“We spent eight years only doing things our way,” he says. “If you had asked me what it would take to have me change that, I would have said ‘the end of the world.’ Well, here you go. Now someone calls and our staff says, ‘No peanuts? Steak well done? We got you!’ For us, that’s a huge change in operations, but we have to monetize any phone call that comes our way. My staff needs to eat. So whether you want dry-aged beef or rolls of paper towels, it’s all about ‘what can we do for you?’!”