‘The Fact That I Can’t Fix Things Now Is Breaking My Heart’

In the restaurant industry, how to get cash to out-of-work servers—and food to gig workers suddenly without income—is the question on everyone’s mind.

Owner and chef Anthony Caldwell looks out from 50Kitchen in the Field's Corner neighborhood of Boston on March 18. His grand opening of the restaurant was three weeks ago, but because of the coronavirus, the restaurant has switched to takeout-only.
Owner and chef Anthony Caldwell looks out from 50Kitchen in the Field's Corner neighborhood of Boston on March 18. His grand opening of the restaurant was three weeks ago, but because of the coronavirus, the restaurant has switched to takeout-only. (Craig F. Walker / The Boston Globe / Getty)

“I’m well,” Rose Previte said when I reached her on the phone, in answer to my standard  “How are you?” Then she caught herself. “Why did I say that? Let’s be honest. We’re fucking terrible.”

Like many independent restaurant owners—all the ones I talked with, and thousands more—Previte had had the worst week of her professional life. She and three fellow managers at her two Washington, D.C.–based restaurants, Compass Rose and Maydan, had called each of her 80 or so employees to tell them to apply for unemployment right away. They were being technically laid off so that they could file for cash relief, Previte said, but she didn’t think of these as layoffs. More like furloughs during a government shutdown. “I told them I wanted each one of them back,” she said. She and her business partners would also pay 100 percent of every worker’s health insurance at least through April. The decision to protect her workers’ health care even if she couldn’t pay them, she told me, “makes me feel 1 percent better.”

She needed to do anything to make herself feel better. “This is so wildly out of control,” she said. “We’re fixers. In restaurants you have to fix things in a minute’s time. We make game-time decisions to make people happy. The fact that I can’t fix things now is breaking my heart.”

Previte turned Maydan into a takeout restaurant overnight—an option she had worked “so hard” to avoid, she said, because she wanted to join people together at the same table—as a way to give hourly work to her kitchen staff. If it goes well, she’ll add delivery as an option, to give some work back to laid-off servers. When I told her I’d order my dinner that night from her new site, I thought I heard Previte, who had kept up her usual rapid-fire, I’ve got this tone, choke up as she thanked me.

How to get cash into servers’ pockets—and food onto the plates of the many thousands more gig workers suddenly without income—is the key question for restaurant owners across the industry. For workers, the shock was equally sudden. Lillian DeVane, a bar manager in Brooklyn, “felt unsafe” as the coronavirus started its incursion but restaurants stayed open. Closing was the only way to protect both workers and customers from infection: “You don’t really take sick days,” she told me matter-of-factly, “even if you have them. We’ve been working sick for years. That’s just how it goes.” As brunch crowds continued to sweep in last weekend, she worried about not being able to “keep up sanitation standards the way I wanted to.” Then, Sunday evening, she and her colleagues received an email telling them to file for unemployment.

“When we realized we were on our own,” DeVane said, Kelly Sullivan, a fellow service worker and DeVane’s co-host of a podcast called FOH (for “front of the house”), helped launch a worker-relief fund called the Service Worker’s Coalition. The fund primarily raises money to purchase gift cards for undocumented workers to buy groceries and medical supplies to help tend to ill family members.

The sudden shock has made workers around the country assess their financial health, and might prompt a national reassessment of the controversial “tipped minimum” wage, which allows numerous states to pay a very low hourly wage ($2 to $3) to servers who stand to make much more with tips. The workers go home with their tips; the restaurant reports to the IRS that its employees were paid the regular minimum wage, and is required to make good on any shortfall between what workers actually take home in tips and what they would have taken home if they received the non-tipped minimum wage. When workers go to collect unemployment, though, their claims are based only on the number of hours they worked at the state’s minimum wage—not on what they took home with tips.

This reality was sobering for Carlos Salazar, also a Brooklyn bartender, who picked up shifts to supplement his arts career. When he realized his sources of income had vanished, he calculated that even if his take-home hourly income were three times the regular minimum wage, he would be eligible for $200 at most in unemployment a week—“and I live in fuckin’ New York City.” He did plan to file for unemployment, he told me, but was waiting to hear that even one friend had been able to “ring the bell and say I filed and it ran through”—the constant texts he was receiving from other servers reported only online snafus. In the meantime, he would rely on “some checks I haven't deposited and some envelopes of cash and whatnot.”

Saru Jayaraman, a co-founder of the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Center, hopes this might be the moment to finally abolish the tipped minimum wage for workers. Her group has started a relief fund to send servers immediate checks for $213, symbolic of the $2.13 tipped minimum wage that still applies in some states. Within 24 hours, she told me, 10,000 service workers had signed up for checks—and she wants particularly to get help to the thousands unable or afraid to try to get governmental help. Maybe this will be the time, Jayaraman said, to stop workers from having to live “tip to mouth.”

Bartender Andy Bechtol makes cocktails to go at Caffe Dante bar and restaurant in Manhattan. Bars and restaurants were closed by the city days ago but are allowed to sell food and now alcohol to go. (Victor J. Blue / Getty)

Pretty much every member of the restaurant industry has looked for a way to jump in. In the hard-hit city of Seattle, Edouardo Jordan, the chef of Junebaby, turned his restaurant Salare into a soup kitchen to feed unemployed service workers, using a seed grant from the Louisville-based LEE Initiative, founded by the chef Edward Lee to promote diversity in the restaurant community. That small foundation is already funding 13 such centers around the country, including one at the Los Angeles chef Nancy Silverton’s Chi Spacca. Daniel Humm, the chef at Eleven Madison Park in New York City, told me via text that he is raising money to start a soup kitchen in the restaurant to employ 20 of his restaurant workers to produce 40,000 meals over the next six weeks for shelters throughout the city. Chef José Andrés, whose World Central Kitchen has taken the lead in disaster areas, including Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, has converted some of his D.C. restaurants into “community kitchens” serving meals for those out of work.

The James Beard Foundation sent out a survey to assess restaurants’ short-term losses and immediate needs, and, with a $1 million founding grant from San Pellegrino, launched a food and beverage relief fund. Websites such as Rally for Restaurants are collecting and making searchable the hundreds of different businesses raising revenue to tide themselves over and help out-of-work staff by selling merchandise and gift certificates for when they reopen. Samuel Adams Brewery gave $100,000 (and $100,000 more in matching funds) to Restaurant Strong, a relief fund for Boston-area restaurant workers that has partnered with prominent local chefs. Within a week, thousands of GoFundMe campaigns popped up to help restaurants and workers get through the crisis.

On Instagram, the Mad feed, from the international activist-chef organization that is an outgrowth of the Copenhagen restaurant Noma, is collating a comprehensive list of the creative ways chefs and businesses are helping their workers and others. Prominent chefs including Tom Colicchio, Marcus Samuelsson, and the former White House chef Sam Kass have called for a federal policy to provide $440 billion in income replacement over six months in order to keep workers employed, landlords paid, and debt serviced.

When news broke early Wednesday morning of the Senate’s agreement on a $2 trillion coronavirus spending bill, I called Colicchio to ask whether his Independent Restaurant Coalition thought that the relief package would help the 300,000 independent restaurants employing 13 million people. No one had seen the full text yet, he told me, so they had no official reaction. But he applauded the bipartisanship behind the effort, which he heard had been stronger than the press had reported. His first hope, he said, was that jobless workers could see they were about to receive a check, “take a deep breath, say, ‘I can pay the bills’—and say, ‘I can stay home.’” Then he hoped restaurant owners would be able to access loans to pay their suppliers so they could take care of staff affected by restaurant closings.

He was hopeful that the deal would mark the beginning of real change. The first provisions, as the coalition summarized in an email to its members a few hours later, bore out Colicchio’s optimism: four months of unemployment pay for restaurant-service workers, up from the original three; loan forgiveness for restaurant owners, including mortgage and rent and utility payments, and a rollback for forgiveness to February 15, when business declines started forcing layoffs; and special provisions for owners of several restaurants to be considered for loans by location.

“For 30 years, we’ve heard government is bad,” Colicchio said. “No—dumb government is bad. Good, smart government that responds to the needs of its constituents is where we need to go. You don’t charity your way into systemic change. The ground is fertile now.”

Beyond restaurant owners and chefs, the companies profiting from them either lent a hand or were called on to help. Yelp, long seen as a necessary evil in the food business, last week announced a $25 million relief effort, mostly in the form of waived advertising and Yelp-page-access fees. On Tuesday, it announced a partnership with GoFundMe that enables anyone to make a direct donation to a small-business owner directly from the business’s Yelp listing. Yelp’s government-relations head, Luther Lowe, told me that the site (with its partner Grubhub) will offer a “contact-free delivery” option on its checkout page and make it easy for businesses to announce that they’ve gone takeout only or that they’re offering online cooking classes or other services.

Ayr Muir, the founder of Clover Food Labs, a Boston-area chain of organic-food restaurants, wrote an open letter to tech companies asking them to extend three months of credit to businesses like his so they would not lose all of their online customer data. And he is looking for other buyers for the New England farmers growing produce under contract for him.

Nick Kokonas, of Chicago’s Alinea Group, adapted his popular Tock software—a way for restaurants to sell meals as if they were theater tickets (priced according to demand and availability)—to help places such as the usually ultra-elegant Canlis, in Seattle, shift to takeout. Like Canlis, many restaurants are streamlining their menus to offer much simpler, lower-priced offerings like burgers and stews. In 15 years of running businesses together, Kokonas said, he and his business partner, the chef Grant Achatz, had survived a great deal, including Achatz’s treatment for tongue cancer. But nothing had been more meaningful than watching people, separated by six feet, line up for to-go orders. Like many other owners, the Alinea Group is giving all the money that the takeout service earns straight to workers. “I believe this is a multi-month crisis,” Kokonas tweeted. “Many nodes of food distribution are important. But so is joy.”

Meal programs are a form of food distribution that is also facing pressure, as the need to deliver food to vulnerable populations grows. Unlike restaurants, these programs are not being required to close. But according to David Waters, the CEO of Community Servings in Boston, where I am a founding board member, these services are changing their meals to include shelf-stable ingredients, and are building in precautions for their drivers. “Gloves, we have in spades,” Waters said, because they’ve long been required of kitchen workers. But sanitizer and masks are impossible to obtain and more urgently needed elsewhere. He has asked board members to write their dentists to request any extra masks they won’t be using while their offices are closed. Worst of all, Waters said, has been the uncertainty. “We’re out there all by ourselves,” he told me. “The government isn’t giving us guidelines or asking how they can help. We’re only getting calls asking if we can feed more people.”

Emma Lawes, a server at Salare in Seattle, or​ganizes to-go meals for service-industry workers who have been​ laid off because of the coronavir​us pandemic. (Grant Hindsley / T​he New York Times / Redux)

Customers and diners will need to play their part. And the time is now. Just ask Devita Davison, the executive director of FoodLab Detroit, a group that supports small-food-business owners, mostly women and people of color, and aims to make food systems more equitable. Davison, who speaks like the preacher’s daughter she proudly calls herself, returned to her home city in 2011, after losing her New York City home and business to Hurricane Sandy; two years later, Detroit filed for a historic municipal bankruptcy. “You’re talking to people who have lived through disasters,” she told me. But she came back to the joy Kokonas talked about, too.

Where to help first? Think, she said, “Where did I go for conviviality? For my children’s birthday? When I was down, who was that bartender I talked to?” Find them and write checks. “Now is the time to help people who gave so much in the service industry. One thing is crystal clear: This industry has been built off the backs of workers who are underpaid, who have to depend on your benefaction.”

Davison reminded me of the Giving Kitchen, a group that was founded in Atlanta to help chefs pay the health bills of their loved ones and provide resources for addressing substance abuse, sexual abuse, and the many problems confronting food-service workers. The Giving Kitchen has now mounted a COVID-19 fund. Davison said, “They’re going to be helping food-service workers before corona, during, and after.”

Her longer-term fear is the loss of the quirky, loving, now terribly vulnerable people who make up local businesses. “I never want to wake up without being able to go to my favorite coffee shop, owned by people I know and love,” she said. “I never want to wake up and see that my community in Brooklyn or Mobile looks the same as everywhere else because the only people who were able to survive were McDonald’s and Olive Garden.”

“Don’t just love us in times of crisis,” she said. “Love us when we come out of this.”

After I spoke with Previte, I put in an order that evening for many of the dishes I remembered from dining at Maydan, at a long table lit by the open fires that are the physical heart of the restaurant. I ordered too much and doubled the tip, which the order form said would go entirely to the workers cooking the food. My spouse and I took our place at the appointed time with one other couple, at a safe but convivial distance. A World Central Kitchen truck was parked in the same alley, perhaps picking up leftover food to turn into some of the many meals it would be distributing. When the restaurant’s back door opened and a black-gloved worker called their names, the hipster couple waiting with us merrily held up the bottle of wine they had bought as part of their online order—important when ordering takeout, because liquor is where the margins are—and paper shopping bag, and sauntered off.

When we opened the takeout boxes, the bright-orange carrots striped with lustrous black char, the Lebanese-spiced yogurt sauces, the skewers, the rounds of soft pita—they were almost as lush and warming as we remembered them. But truth be told, they weren’t quite as good. We missed the hearth.