Last Thursday and Friday were the most difficult days of my career. I decided to shut my four restaurants and was forced to tell 300 people that we were closed. I still can’t get over it. I wasn’t the first operator to close, but I was one of them, and I was only comforted when I saw the list getting longer and longer because it was good to see people make the right decision. The one thing that made me feel better was knowing that this was happening to all of us.
On Thursday, there was a rumor going around that Mayor de Blasio would shut the city. I’d heard it, and honestly I was praying it was true because it would have taken the choice out of our hands. Instead, the decision to stay open was hoisted onto the shoulders of operators.
How can you ask business owners to make that decision? And do you really think everyone will make the right choice? How can I, as an owner, ask an employee to go clean a bathroom — that’s part of running a restaurant — when they’re reading the news, too, and I can see that they’re scared? Unless you run a business, you have no idea how many other choices are baked into the decision to close. It’s very human. It’s very complicated. It’s very personal.
I don’t think the move to delivery and takeout only is the way to fix this, either. Cooks still need to go into work. Purveyors still need to go into work. We’re forcing people into, honestly, a potentially lethal environment, and you can see that many of them are scared.
There is the sense among some operators that they will be the last man standing; they will stay in business until they absolutely cannot do so any longer. But the sooner our response gets to what Italy has done — closing all nonessential businesses, enforcing a curfew, staying home — the sooner we can contain this, and the sooner we can get through it to return to normal. For now, all I can do is hope that “normal” will be better than ever.
Right now, the choice to close is not being mandated down. It’s trickling up. All the service industries are crushed. We can’t pay staff. We can’t pay rent. We can’t pay our portion of property taxes. How can we pay any taxes when we have no taxable transactions left? I’m thankful to have great landlords, tremendous relationships with people who understand what’s really happening, but my predicament shouldn’t be contingent on whether my landlords are good people.
This won’t be limited to Seattle or New York. The sense of unified solidarity in this industry has never been higher, but a lot of the chefs reaching out to me are from other cities, and they may not realize that this is coming for them, too. It’s not a matter of if, it’s when.
We need help. Restaurants are pass-through businesses. They do not hold a million-dollar float — these businesses are just not set up that way. At Empellón, we went from a little money in the bank to bled dry. It was not a slow, steady decline — it was a straight drop.
The next stage for me is to sort through everything to find out the bare minimum amount of money I need to make sure there’s an Empellón on the other end of this. There is business-interruption insurance, but it does not cover global disasters, which this, by definition, is. So we are all facing the same thing right now: How much money do we need to cover last week’s payroll, and what will the cost be just to keep us in hibernation mode? And how long will this last?
Everyone has to be reasonable; everyone has to help. And the government needs to get involved, severely. Restaurants around the country, and the people who rely on them for their livelihoods, are going to need millions and millions and millions of dollars.
We’re consumer-facing businesses, but think of the business-facing businesses. It’s not like the purveyors can just go sell their food to grocery stores.
I’m so thankful that New York is a food-driven city, a place filled with restaurants and our opinions about which ones we love — what does a New York without that look like?
I’m not, by nature, an optimistic person. I’ve been crushed, so I have to keep trying to find the potential good in this. Maybe the biggest hope is that this exposes the cracks in the system, and it makes us stronger. Right now, the discussion is how do we make sure we come out on the other side? And then we can ask ourselves how we use this as an inflection point to make things better than ever.
Alex Stupak is the chef and owner of the Empellón restaurant group.
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