Restaurants were already clinging to life – then omicron struck.
Since February 2019, I have been the chef-owner of Lazy Betty, an upscale restaurant in Atlanta. Like so many who work in our industry, I have been in survival mode since March 2020, resisting the chaos caused by COVID-19.
We made it work. But with the arrival of omicron, we were forced to rethink what it would take to keep the business alive every day while ensuring the safety of our staff and diners. Without more help – both from government and guests – we won’t make it, and neither will countless other independent restaurants across the country. To understand why, let me take you behind the scenes of the past two years at Lazy Betty.
When we closed our doors on March 11, 2020, before the entire city of Atlanta closed, we had just been named a James Beard semi-finalist for Best New Restaurant. The shutdown meant putting our staff on leave, which included high school students and longtime industry veterans with resumes that included names like Per Se and Le Bernardin. When we broke the news to our team, they asked, âWhen do you plan to reopen? “” When will my health insurance resume? “What can I do to earn a salary? I had no answers. All I could do was give them the food in our walk-in fridge and say goodbye, not knowing if I would ever see them inside the restaurant again.
As I locked myself in, I felt immense sadness. I had named the restaurant in honor of my late mother, who died a few months earlier. Now I feared for his fate.
About a week later, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announcement that restaurants offering in-person meals could remain open for take-out. So we went from our tasting menus to family style meals that could last 40 minutes in an aluminum tin. Line cooks who carefully smoked crab legs were now roasting whole chickens. Everyone did the dishes. I delivered a few take out orders. The waiters have become launderers.
When Governor Brian Kemp lifted the closure of the dining hall a few weeks later, we were in dire need of the revenue. We also had a host of security measures to put in place. We purchased touchless soap and sanitizer dispensers, staff masks, additional cleaning supplies, and plastic barriers for our chef’s counter. We also bought masks for the guests (and still do) as well as digital thermometers.
We’ve created a four-course menu for those guests who are too eager to sit in a dining room for the duration of our standard 10-course meals. After we reopened, some nights we only served 10 guests, less than half of what we needed to break even. Before the pandemic, we averaged $ 42,000 in income per week, but that week we were barely over $ 13,000.
The highest cost was an outdoor patio to offset our reduced indoor seating capacity and provide an alternative for anxious guests. The estimate for a covered patio with appropriate heaters, fans and a window system for the circulation of fresh air: approximately $ 85,000. But as a young restaurant we still had a lot of debt to pay. So in June 2020, we pitched a makeshift tent that cost us $ 6,300. We were stunned by occasional complaints on Yelp that our patio was not up to par with the rest of our dining experience.
After the pandemic began, the federal government provided temporary relief to small businesses in the form of Paycheck Protection Program loans. But that money has dried up. Congress created a $ 28.6 billion restaurant subsidy program – well below the roughly $ 100 billion that industry groups estimated we needed to weather the storm.
And then came omicron. The week before Christmas, a member of our staff of 41 tested positive for COVID, forcing us to close for the weekend. In two days, our restaurant lost more than $ 38,000 in revenue. Inspecting our walk-in refrigerator, I saw thousands of dollars worth of foie gras, white truffles and ducks dry-aged for two weeks. I had a sickening and familiar feeling of uncertainty and fear. I was one of many chefs and owners who felt that angry old exhaustion again as restaurants large and small faced yet another challenge.
Lazy Betty is first and foremost a restaurant reserved only for reservations. So when we were faced with many cancellations during this week leading up to Christmas, we feared the worst. Each caller said he had a COVID emergency. Many have asked if we could waive our cancellation fees.
On the one hand, we risked the inevitable obnoxious review on Yelp. On the other hand, there was the loss of revenue and the cost of ingredients that we had to throw away – a classic loss-lose situation brought on by the pandemic. In the end, we tried to convince these diners to postpone their reservations to a later date, thus delaying the possibility of cancellation fees.
The biggest challenge has been deciding when to reopen, which depends on the health of our team. During this recent weekend we closed due to the positive COVID case, only five of our employees were able to get an appointment for a COVID test. After a long search I found myself with a basket full of home tests and a new Sam’s Club membership. All in all, my chef-partner Aaron Phillips and I spent just under $ 800 on 106 tests. My staff burned half of them the following Wednesday, allowing us to safely reopen.
Lazy Betty was lucky. We made smart investments early in the pandemic and our reservation policy allowed us to closely manage our food and labor costs. We share our service charge with the front-of-house, which has helped us retain staff. We also delayed repaying our investors and distributing profits to owners to increase our working capital by roughly 50%, which we spent on pandemic-related upgrades.
Others were not so lucky. Chef friends tell me they are considering another career. Nobody would blame them.
Our industry needs more support from government. This means supplemental health insurance for employees or rent reduction programs for restaurant owners. Easy access to free rapid tests would also help us catch infections early. President Biden has announced plans to expand free home testing. Restaurant workers and other essential workers who can only do their jobs in person should be given priority.
But not everything depends on the government. Supply chain failures, rising commodity prices, and labor shortages have driven costs up, but diners still expect pre-pandemic prices. We need them to continue to come and eat knowing that higher prices are necessary for the survival of our industry.
All I did was work in the kitchens. This is what I love to do. As a chef, I am used to thinking on my feet to solve the next new problem. So far, he has kept Lazy Betty alive. But how long can we go on?
Ron hsu is the Culinary Director and Co-Founder of Lazy Betty, Juniper Cafe, and The Upcoming Humble Pie in Atlanta. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.