Since very early in my career, I have always believed that in my restaurants – where my friends eat, where my children eat, where my team eats – we had to be vigilant in our health and safety practices if we were to provide true hospitality. Workplace safety is a paramount obligation in this industry. It has to be. The public trusts the meals they eat in restaurants are safe to consume. Employees deserve an environment that is safe for them physically, mentally, and spiritually.
So, while it might look like I built a career on hospitality, I really built my career on caring about people. For me and my business partner, Mike V., caring for people and hospitality are inseparable.
As COVID-19 hit our area and intensifies daily, we have decided to continue serving our guests and communities, adapting as needed to the changing recommendations and regulations from health and government officials. We already had a company culture and commitment to health and safety, with extensive protocols (in English and Spanish) and two full time health & safety employees. Our operational and training systems, as well as talented and driven team, also gave us a unique capacity to adjust and evolve, so much so that we are now operating 4, soon to be 5, online grocery stores in addition to our restaurants.
Serving Our People, Our Customers, Our Communities
We believed then and now that what we are doing is vital for our people, our guests, and our communities. Foodservice providers are essential infrastructure. Communities need food. Grocery stores can’t do it alone if restaurants aren’t meeting some percentage of the demand. So here we are, faced with the decision to continue to provide food and to figure out how to do it as safely as possible. We made a commitment to give free daily family meals for everyone still working and those we had to lay off. We know in some cases we are the only source of food for folks who aren’t earning and aren’t able to get unemployment funds. We believe that to have jobs and benefits in the long-term, we need to continue to have a company operating in the short-term. With a potential deep recession or depression coming, we know jobs are a literal lifeline.
The Work & the Worry
Throughout my career, I’ve taught myself to focus on the work not the worry. I’ve always found that diligent planning followed by intense implementation allows me to channel my thoughts about what I can control rather than being consumed by the worry of what I can’t.
So, we have been planning and grinding since the beginning of March, and the struggle is real. We have supply chain issues daily with the food, staples, and essentials – just like everyone who can’t find toilet paper and flour. Luckily, we have built vital relationships with our suppliers and farmers to get what our customers need and are able to continue to trace where our food comes from. We have new operational challenges, as we try to maintain social distancing measures, wear our PPE, and provide contact-free service. Of course there are hiccups as we strive to channel our hospitality to the curbside or your front door, in masks and gloves. In a matter of weeks, we are now grocers, serving our customers in an entirely new way, and every day, we are learning and working, adapting and staying in the fight.
We have always known it was a matter of when, not if, a team member, customer, friend, or member of my family would test positive. In our restaurants, we’ve been preparing for that inevitability. We put proactive protocols in place with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for the staff, virus-killing fogging, and employee screening. We continually seek advice from experts in the medical community and use the CDC as a resource, along with our local health departments. We have internal written processes and ensure that we have team members focused on determining what to do proactively and reactively. We’ve been diligent to keep anyone with symptoms out of work and we’ve encouraged employees to get tested. Now that we've received our first positive test result, we moved immediately to implement our response plan. This is now the reality of every workplace that operates safely in this “new” world.
I don’t like this reality, or many of the choices we have to make. On March 16th, we laid off 1,100 team members. That was awful. I still get a pit in my stomach just typing the words. As of today, we’ve re-hired 265 employees. We’ve donated thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of meals, and we now make hand sanitizer in our distillery. We’ve fed health care workers and first responders and those who can’t afford or access fresh food. This is what I constantly remind myself. We have a plan. We have a mission. We are working and making a difference. We have to lean into the worry and focus on the plan.
Our plan is about caring for people. It is about safety and the food supply. People need food, people need jobs, and people deserve to trust what they eat, and feel safe in the place they produce it.
I can’t stop the virus. On our own, we fail. But together, we can make progress. With my partner, with our team, we can slow the virus. We can serve our communities by providing contact-free provisions to help people #stayhome, practice social distancing, and stay safe. We can help our people with our internal protocols and by magnifying our culture of workplace safety. When we have people with symptoms, we can pay them to stay home while they recover. We can create jobs, serve food safely, and do our part in the community.
Even with the extensive efforts we are taking (including efforts that are beyond reach for many establishments), this can’t be left only to us. We need help from the Government. We need more testing, rapid testing, with availability to everyone who wants a test. We need antibody testing, so people can know if they already have the antibodies that may prevent additional infection. We need contact tracing and effective quarantining. We need scientists, emergency response experts, and medical professionals setting the direction. We need access to and funding for PPE, which should be covered by the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). I’ve become good at navigating the supply chain from China, and in the US, to ensure my team has gloves, masks, and shields – but it shouldn’t be this difficult or this expensive.
My team is amazing. My team is doing their part. We are staying in the fight to feed and serve. We are trying to focus on the work, not the worry. We want to model how to get through this until we can get to a more normal time when restaurants can open.
Together, with transparency, support, and leadership, I know we can get there. Our work may be more difficult than ever. But it is more important than ever.
Also check out: A Restaurant Question: #ShutUsDown or #StayInTheFight?