For Fast Company’s Restaurant Diaries, 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 Marcus Samuelsson went from operating 30 restaurants in Canada, Sweden, New York, and Miami to closing them all within a single week in March. The Ethiopian Swedish chef, whose Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem is a neighborhood anchor, quickly partnered with Chef José Andrés’s food-relief organization World Central Kitchen to turn his outposts in New York and Miami into community kitchens that serve free food to essential workers. He managed to re-employ about 10% of his staff at those restaurants. Samuelsson is now working with World Central Kitchen and Audible to turn hard-hit Newark restaurants, including his own Marcus B&P, into community kitchens. The effort, called Newark Working Kitchens, is helping keep 12 of the city’s restaurants in operation while feeding thousands of meals a day to local workers.
Restaurants are the soul of American neighborhoods, and coronavirus is going to impact our restaurants for the next 20 years.
In Newark, we’re delivering free meals to residents who need them, while also helping independent restaurants reopen as community kitchens. It is important to bring restaurants on board to help them rehire employees and help the supply chain. When a restaurant closes, the whole food chain is interrupted, from delivery people to suppliers and farmers. You have farmers throwing food away because they can’t sell it right now. But if restaurants stay open and scale up what they sell or provide, that food is not wasted.
Audible seeded us with $1 million to make 100,000 meals through Newark Working Kitchens. The $10 from each meal [which is paid by organizations funding the project] goes back to the restaurants so they can pay their employees. After Audible provided the initial funds, I looked at who else we could reach out to. Michael B. Jordan grew up in Newark and was one of the first people to ask, “How can I help?” So he has donated money too. And many suppliers have donated food to us, because they were worried about it going to waste. [Food distributor] US Foods is even sending us ovens to help.
This effort is important because the virus will have an especially big effect on urban America, where it’s twice as difficult to operate restaurants. I speak to black chefs and immigrant chefs, and they are really really scared right now. Many of them have less to begin with, and many did not receive the small business loans they needed to survive.
We converted our business into a community kitchen in the hope that we would get money from the Paycheck Protection Program. The fact that we didn’t get anything—even though we applied on the day the applications opened—but Ruth’s Chris Steak House did is frustrating. They have $86 million in cash reserves and are a publicly traded company.
Eleven million people in this country work in restaurants. Right now, 80% to 90% of them are unemployed. Restaurants in America look like Jackson Heights in Queens: The people who work in them are diverse. The people appointed to the White House’s food and beverage economic revival industry group are not.
Am I surprised that it is a boys’ club and that it’s all white? No, I’m not. At least [the Trump administration is] consistent in that. They go back to their club and use their contacts. They call their billionaire friends and then they recommend their friends and [everyone on] the advisory committee ends up looking very similar.
I hope this is not the final lineup of this coalition. I hope that the committee either changes or expands to be a reflection of the hospitality community. Currently, it does not include any women or people of color. I also wonder whether there should be two or three committees, because independent restaurants are very different: Red Rooster has very little in common with McDonald’s. They are completely different, aside from the fact that we both want to serve customers with something that they enjoy. To me there’s two options: Either we make a new committee or add people to the current one. We are back-channeling that information with a lot of passion.
Some good things have come out of the crisis, like the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which has united all of us. We are asking Congress to change the CARES act so that we can reopen when this is over. As we wait for the government to help, which is a long and large process, the private sector can work more quickly and help now. In Newark and at our kitchens in Harlem and Miami, we were able to get started because someone gave us some money to get going, and we raised more money from there. Because we’ve been serving people for a long time—and helping the community for so long—we’ve been able to call in favors.
Ruth’s Chris Steak House has since announced that it will return the $20 million coronavirus small-business loan it received from the Paycheck Protection Program.
More from Fast Company’s Restaurant Diaries:
- Restaurateur Nick Kokonas has a plan to save restaurants—and it doesn’t involve Uber Eats.
- Chef Kwame Onwuachi of Washington, D.C.’s Kith/Kin on his decision to close his restaurant and lay off his employees.
- ‘I’m at risk’: What it’s like to work at McDonald’s during the pandemic.
- How Panda Express is fighting COVID-19 racism.
- Chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park isn’t sure fine dining can survive the pandemic.