Over the past week, I have received more and more notices that restaurants that were offering take-out, are now closing entirely. Here is a detailed reason by Andy Ricker of Pok Pok:
Today I made the decision to close all Pok Pok Restaurants for the duration of the Covid19 crisis. I did not make this decision with heavy heart; I made it with determination and a sense of urgency and with regret I did not have the strength to do so more quickly.
Yesterday my compatriot of the kitchen, Chef Floyd Cardoz, passed away from the virus. Floyd was a groundbreaking chef, an inspiration and mentor to many chefs and a kind human being. His loss should be a wake-up call to the restaurant community. We are all vulnerable.
The fact is, there is no way to 100% safely deploy a crew of workers to operate a restaurant kitchen for delivery and to go as we have been doing for the last week. By nature, kitchens are close-quarter operations and though we are trained to work cleanly and with great care to follow health code and have instituted a strict protocol around the pandemic, we are not trained to keep a workspace protected from a deadly virus; that is some trained medical professional shit. I simply cannot bear the thought of one of our team becoming ill for the sake of preparing some chicken wings.
Keeping our kitchens open is a microcosm of the tension between the economy and public health that is playing out on the world stage. The fact is, we all need to stay at home to stop the spread of Covid19, all of us, now. Pok Pok is a restaurant, not a hospital, not a fire station, not a police station, not a vital food delivery service. Though it is nice to have familiar food available during this time of isolation people do not need fish sauce wings to survive.
I have no idea when we will open again, or in what capacity, but I do know that we must close now for the good of our team and the community. I urge others to consider doing the same thing. Congress has approved a relief bill that will take care of our workers at least for a few months and if we all stay at home, this will pass more quickly than if we go to our kitchens. No non-vital business is worth keeping open at the risk of life. Please stay safe, please stay home. See you on the other side.
Here is an excerpt from an email by Vince Nguyen at Berlu restaurant:
We, along with every other bar/restaurant, were faced with a problem and, as chefs, when presented with a problem we are taught to come up with a solution. The instinctual side of cooking kicks in and an immediate response is necessary. Often, it’s as simple as lowering the heat of a pan or adding more salt. In this case, however, the problem was much more severe.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, dine-in restaurants were forced to close but were given the option to offer take-out and/or delivery. To me, part of problem-solving is the ability to adapt, so full closure of Berlu was not even a consideration. As a restaurant owner I have a responsibility for the safety of my guests but, just as importantly, I feel a responsibility for the livelihood of my staff. This was the driving force that led me to adapt and to change our tasting menus to a take-out concept, instead of simply closing. If the concept was able to support the payroll of my staff during this time, it would be deemed a success.
Weeks before any order to close was instated, we were already feeling the effects of the virus. Many of our guests are tourists so reservations made months in advance were postponed due to travel bans. Soon after, local diners were becoming fearful of exposure and they began requesting confirmation of the necessary precautions that were recommended to restaurants by the Center of Disease Control (CDC). Inevitably, their concerns outweighed the risks and we started seeing more and more cancellations. Our policy typically safeguards against last-minute cancellations, but compassion and leniency were necessary for this situation as many were fearful for their health. So, nights that had been fully booked for weeks were slowly reaching break-even points, as we had allowed many of our guests to reschedule those reservations. A change was necessary.
One late night, I got together with a good friend and we discussed my options for the coming weeks. Many states had already issued dine-in closures, so we anticipated that that was to come. A few ideas were bounced around and I ultimately decided to create a bento box to-go. It was manageable for us to execute, easy to be eaten as take-out, and it was something I was still proud to serve as it shared the same ethos as Berlu. The next morning I reached out to the press to make it official and three days later we were serving bento boxes as take-out. Word got out and the bento boxes were a hit, as we sold more than twice the amount expected. Guests were happy, the staff was happy, and I was grateful for the support. Even so, after the first day, I began to feel uncertainty and I questioned morally whether it was the correct decision to stay open.
The necessary measures were taken to ensure the take-out concept would be safe, but what I came to realize was that there were many other variables involved that we could not control.
None of us had been quarantined at that point, as the transition to the bento box concept was immediate. We couldn’t honestly know if we had had contact with the virus and if we could potentially be spreading to others. Cleaning measures were taken, but what we hadn’t taken into account were the variables involved in the staff’s commute to the restaurant, as many relied on public transportation. Pre-paid/curbside pickup may seem like the safest solution for diners because there is little to no human interaction, but with the increased trips in one’s car, comes an increased level of exposure to other variables e.g. the need for gasoline. From what I’ve seen, gas attendants don’t wear gloves or masks nor have I seen them sanitize between pumps.
Realistically, human exposure is inevitable as food & household supplies need to be purchased. The ideal situation is to plan ahead of time and to go to the grocery store 1-2 times per week. This a more efficient trip as it will sustain a person or family for multiple days rather for one meal that I was providing as a bento box.
In the end, I felt as if I was luring diners into unnecessary exposure and uncontrollable variables that could potentially affect them as well as my staff. These became my greatest concerns and the reasons why I ended take-out.
I don’t blame others for staying open nor do I look down on them for not sharing my beliefs. It’s a difficult decision to make, especially since we’ve been given an ambiguous directive from our government leaders. Furthermore, as chefs it’s in our nature overcome, to solve, and to provide sustenance. The ambiguity is also unfair for the diners as they are given mixed messages, being told to stay in while also being told to support small businesses and to help keep restaurants alive.
You can read Vince’s entire letter here.
Finally, a statement from Salt & Straw which hit me hard, when, after a week of craving, I drove to Portland Tuesday to find them closed:
With a heavy heart we have decided that the best way to ensure the safety of our teams and those around us is to temporarliy close our scoop shops and kitchens. Although we cannot be together physically, our combined spirits can live on as a force for good. This is not goodbye. We look forward to the day when our teams, customers, and incredible commuinities can come together again. See you soon.