When chef Jessica Benefield and her partners made the decision to reopen Two Ten Jack two weeks ago, it wasn’t without trepidation. While other restaurants had embraced the concept of takeout pretty quickly, Benefield held off, worried in part about working conditions for her staff.
The problem? Economics and geometry.
Restaurant economics is an exercise in maximizing square footage, and every inch devoted to a kitchen is an inch that can’t make money as part of bar or table space for customers. Of Two Ten Jack’s approximately 3,000 square feet of space, less than 750 of that is devoted to the kitchen and dry storage.
When you throw in social distancing guidelines on top of that, the geometry of safety begins to get difficult.
Benefield has changed her layout, changed her menu and tried to set reasonable expectations for her customers. But in the end, the thing that worries her the most is that none of it might matter when it comes to a contagious virus.
“The main problem is that we are all inside a building together with recirculating air for hours at a time,” she says. “So ultimately, it’s a moot point. We wear masks and gloves and have a staff member totally dedicated to sanitization throughout the shift — your computer, phone, every surface, pens, staplers, et cetera, will be wiped down multiple times an hour. We take everyone’s temperatures upon arrival each day, but the recirculating air makes it impossible for us to truly stay away from each other.”
In conversations with a dozen chefs around the city, as restaurants began to reopen for either takeout or dining in, similar concerns cropped up again and again.
“I’m 38 years old, and I thought I had been through everything in the restaurant industry already,” says Trey Cioccia, who runs The Farm House and Black Rabbit. He and his staff completely rebuilt The Farm House’s kitchen over the past two months. When his restaurants reopened on May 10, he paired his line staff to limit interaction with other employees — each of those cooks will work only with their partner and will share days off. In the dining room at Black Rabbit, distancing guidelines mean he’s down to just six tables.
Customer expectations are a wild card. What will patrons think when their server arrives wearing a mask? Will they expect the same menu even though the restaurant is taking in half of its pre-virus revenue? One chef relays an anecdote about a regular customer demanding to order off the full menu — even though his restaurant was only serving a limited number of dishes for takeout. And will diners react poorly if they see a line cook raise their mask?
“The cooks still need to taste the food before we serve it,” says Bastion’s Josh Habiger. “I hope our loyal friends and guests understand.” The typical experience at his highly regarded, intimate restaurant is a lot of sharing between diners in front of an open kitchen. Will it change who comes in?
“It’s great if you’re sharing with someone you’re isolating with,” Habiger says. “Not so good if it’s a Tinder date.”
Henrietta Red’s Julia Sullivan says having mainly locals as customers may cut down on some of the expectation problems — her biggest “challenges,” as she calls them, often come from tourists — but that’s a double-edged sword. Like Cioccia, she points to the tourism that has fueled the city’s dining renaissance. She knows that many restaurants won’t make it through this downturn.
“The two things that are stressing me out the most are the purgatory we’re in, both with restaurants and public-health-wise,” Sullivan says. “You hear about restaurants staying open, with or without public help, but the big question is, will we be able to sustain a cashflow beyond the government [infusion of PPP funds]? And then, we can control what’s going on in our spaces, but we can’t control what customers do within those spaces.”
Ultimately, Benefield’s anxiety comes down to what’s best for her staff.
“I feel they need to stop focusing on pushing restaurants to open so quickly,” says Benefield. “Guests can’t wear masks and eat, drink, converse freely, which puts our teams’ lives at risk. The way it’s set up now, a lot of hospitality-industry folks are getting shamed for making so much on unemployment and not ‘wanting’ to come back to work, when that isn’t the case at all. The reality is, most are faced with coming back, beginning work, coming off unemployment, and risking getting ill, not having insurance, so potentially acquiring major medical bills, having to stay home for two to three weeks or more to recover, all the while not making any money.
“The unemployment benefits are providing a sense of care and safety,” she continues. “Something most in our industry never feel. As we offer jobs back to our staff, if they don’t feel safe, they technically have refused work and have to come off unemployment.
“How is that fair if they don’t feel safe?”