For Fast Company’s new Restaurant Diaries series, we’re asking chefs, restaurateurs, and food-world employees to take readers inside their businesses and lives at this critical moment for the industry.
Chef Kwame Onwuachi’s 120-seat Afro-Caribbean restaurant Kith/Kin, in Washington, D.C., was thriving a month ago, with tables booked weeks in advance. But the James Beard Award-winning chef’s fortunes quickly changed as COVID-19 hit the United States, forcing restaurant closures throughout the country. Onwuachi, whose recent memoir, Notes From a Young Black Chef, details his journey from growing up in the Bronx to becoming a rising food-world talent (it’s being adapted into an A24 film starring Lakeith Stanfield), made the decision to close his restaurant and lay off his 60-person staff. Onwuachi described to us what happened over the past month and how he is now campaigning to save local restaurants and protect their employees.
I started getting concerned about how coronavirus was going to affect my restaurant when South by Southwest was canceled [on March 6]. That brought it home. It’s when I realized, this is real. After that everything started moving really fast. The number of occupants you could have inside a restaurant was reduced by half, which obviously impacted our business. But our reservations were holding strong, so I was less worried about whether we were going to have customers and more worried about the health and safety of our staff. They were saying that to curb the virus you have to stay indoors and away from people, but my staff was serving 120 people. I was wondering at what point we just close for the safety of our families. My staff was coming to me with questions; they were looking for leadership; they wanted me to communicate with them. But I didn’t have much for them because I was going day-by-day. We were all going into work wondering if that day was our last day.
When [D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser] decided that restaurants could only do takeout, we looked at the schedule and tried to figure out how it would work. It was only giving people, like, one shift. We have 60 employees. We’re not a small restaurant. I wanted a solution that was going to work for everybody; delivery was only going to help a couple of people.
Ultimately, we pulled the plug. I’ve never cried so much as I did that day talking to my staff. I told them that they had probably heard the ordinance from the mayor, and we were going to have to lay them off. I said I would be in touch when we reopened to hire them back. A lot of them had seen it coming. They were asking me, “When are we coming back?” I [still] don’t know. It was a tough conversation to have. If you’re a line cook who is let go, you can’t make money at this time. I still talk to them and check in with them. We organized a GoFundMe page to raise money for them as well.
I also talked to my suppliers. It wasn’t so bad for some of them—those that supply grocery stores and markets. It’s tougher for the smaller suppliers that rely on us. There are thousands of people who work at restaurants and along the supply chain, like growers, fishermen, and packers. They’re affected by all of this. Together, we contribute $1 trillion to the economy. Our communities can’t afford for us to fail.
Someone reached out to me about joining the Independent Restaurant Coalition shortly after the layoffs. It’s a group of restaurants formed to help local restaurants affected by coronavirus. Joining was an easy decision for me because I wanted to stand for something. I want to help the 11 million workers employed by independently owned restaurants. We’re pushing for legislative change. We’ve only been around for a couple of weeks, but politicians like Nancy Pelosi have helped us out. We’ve managed to get four months of unemployment payments for workers [as part of the stimulus bill], and we’re trying to expand loan availability and loan forgiveness for local restaurants so that they can cover expenses, and payroll coverage for independent restaurants with up to 500 employees that began closing and laying workers off as early as February 16.
I want to be optimistic. But a lot of small restaurants are uncertain about their future.”
Now we need to get answers when it comes to timing requirements for loan forgiveness. Many independent restaurants need assistance, but they would have to rehire their employees immediately to qualify for loan forgiveness, and that’s not possible because in some states they are legally required to close their doors. We’re also going to need answers from insurance companies: Even though we’ve paid for disaster insurance for years, many of us are not getting the assistance we need because we closed our doors before the government forced us to, in order to protect our employees. They are saying, “You proclaimed [coronavirus] to be a disaster before the government,” so it’s a gray area.
I want to be optimistic. I think Kith and Kin is going to be all right. But a lot of small restaurants are uncertain about their future. My whole family is in the restaurant industry. My mother is a personal chef, and my sister is a chef at a bar in New Orleans. Right now, she’s out of work. [The bar] is not on any high-end best restaurant list. They’re struggling. They rely on customers coming in on weekend nights, and they may or may not reopen.
Up-and-coming chefs look to [the Independent Restaurants Coalition] for hope. We are beacons for small independent farmers that really care about agricultural practices and how they treat their produce and their livestock. Other industries like tourism, travel, and hospitality benefit from independent restaurants opening. I’m hopeful that we will get through this—we just need help from the government at this point.
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