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Charlie Bird in Manhattan, one of Delicious Hospitality Group’s restaurants

Is it responsible to keep a restaurant open during a pandemic?

Takeout and delivery only is the new mandate, but operators are grappling with the ethical and economic realities of running restaurants at all during the time of coronavirus

Ryan Hardy is the chef and owner at Delicious Hospitality Group, and his restaurants are some of the buzziest restaurants in New York City. Or they were. Hardy is one of many restaurant operators around the country who have chosen to close up shop completely during the coronavirus pandemic, rather than focus on takeout. It’s a decision that seems the antithesis of who Hardy is. It’s the antithesis of the dedication and persistence seen in so many operators across the country. But, some operators argue, it’s the right thing to do for business and for staff in these uncertain times.

Under normal circumstances, Hardy and his team find creative solutions every day. In the past, they’ve built a stage outside their Soho restaurant Charlie Bird so Beyoncé and her friends could watch New York City’s Halloween Parade. They created a wine store and delivery service to diversify their business. They’ve developed a cocktail school and opened up their staff wine lessons to the public. So at first, they came up with plans — four plans in as many days — for surviving COVID-19-related restrictions.

As the coronavirus took over the news, diners got a first-hand look at the solutions Hardy’s team was coming up with on the fly. Starting on March 13, Delicious Hospitality restaurants advertised extended takeout and delivery options. There were three-course meals of fan favorites from Hardy’s restaurants Pasquale Jones, Legacy Records and Charlie Bird. Then the restaurants offered two-course comfort food menus with wine pairings available through reservation partner turned takeout partner Resy. But by March 17, as restaurants in New York and across the country were forced to close or pivot to takeout and delivery, the restaurant group reported it would close its restaurants completely. At that time they also announced a partnership with Baldor Specialty Foods, purveyor of goods for restaurants all over New York City, to offer meal kits for customers. “We're committed to finding ways to continue working with and serving our community safely,” an email to customers read.   

But “we never got it going,” Hardy says of those meal kits. They tried a few runs, but delivery all over Manhattan took about six hours. His partner was running around in ski goggles and rubber gloves, he said. They quickly started to ask: “What am I doing this for? What's the end game? How does this work?”

It didn’t work, he said. 

“It was about health and safety and logistics,” Hardy said. “I have two young children; each one of our team members has a family they are concerned about. They were getting pressure to be home.”

So he sent them home.

“We laid people off,” he said, about 260 staffers in all. “We had to make sure they were taken care of in some capacity (through unemployment benefits). We kept a core group of people so we could be prepared to open when we can.”

Parcelle, Delicious Hospitality’s wine shop and delivery service, is still running in limited operation and recently announced a wine bundle with proceeds going to the Independent Restaurant Coalition. The restaurant group has also set up an employee relief fund

Hardy isn’t alone in his decision to close his restaurants. Operators across the country have shuttered temporarily for the health of their employees and their business. While much attention has been paid to restaurants’ off-premise options, with national events like #TheGreatAmericanTakeout, it’s hardly a sustainable business for many restaurants. Operators also question how they can have staff working in tight kitchen quarters while maintaining social distancing. 

In Portland, Ore., Andy Ricker, who helms Pok Pok and a handful of other Thai restaurants in the region, was a week into a delivery and takeout only when he ceased operations completely. On March 25, in an Instagram post, Ricker expressed regret for not closing sooner and said he was moved by chef Floyd Cardoz, who died of complications from COVID-19

“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,” Ricker wrote. “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.”

He continued, “Pok Pok is a restaurant, not a hospital, not a fire station, not a police station, not a vital food delivery service.”

In St. Louis, Gerard Craft of Niche Food Group also closed his restaurants, which include Brasserie, Taste, Sardella, Pastaria and Brasswel.

“After seeing nights of very crowded dining rooms, I found myself more terrified than relieved. While we want to be open for you, as a place to restore, we know that we are putting you and our employees in harm’s way,” he said in a video posted on social media sites. 

“At this time all experts are telling us that bringing people to work everyday for non-essential services is continuing to make the spread of coronavirus worse, so we are going to shut down completely and we will not be offering food to-go at this time.”

For chef Tom Colicchio, the Top Chef judge, food activist and owner of Crafted Hospitality, with restaurants like Craft in New York and Los Angeles, closing restaurants is an economic and ethical decision. For the relatively small return many restaurants make on off-premise dining, they’re taking a big risk, he argues. But he admits that his opinion is an unpopular one.

“My feeling is takeout, right now — and people are going to get mad at me — but I think it’s irresponsible,” he told the Daily Beast.

Of course, these restaurant group operators are in a different place than most. These owners had operated successful restaurant groups in a notoriously difficult industry. For restaurant owners with one location or a new or struggling location, the decision to move to takeout might look different. 

Not to mention, closing a restaurant seems to go against who restaurant owners are. 

“I've spent 25 years of my life getting to that day,” Hardy said. “It's hard for me to hit pause.”

For our most up-to-date coverage, visit the coronavirus homepage.

Contact Gloria Dawson at gloria.dawson@informa.com

Follow her on Twitter: @GloriaDawson

TAGS: Coronavirus
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