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The emails are coming more frequently. Some customers write, “Love to get a table for our anniversary,” or, “When you all open we want to be the first table — hope to see you soon.”
Cafe Juanita misses its guests, too. I personally miss the connection to customers, staff, and suppliers, the buzz of a dining room and kitchen line, the look on someone’s face when they are surprised by a dish. So I respond with a concise, friendly email that notes, “At this time, I do not plan to reopen for in-house service until we are post-vaccine.” Then I sheepishly add a link to the online store, write another salutation, and press send.
In early March, Cafe Juanita was near the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak. The first documented death and many more occurred at a nursing home in Kirkland, less than four minutes from my 20-year-old restaurant. The fire department station down the road locked down in quarantine after EMTs and firefighters had repeated exposure at that facility, which was eventually fined more than $600,000 for its negligence. The situation was dire, illustrating for the first time in the U.S. how quickly COVID-19 spreads — and the vulnerability of frontline workers.
Given the proximity and enormity of this situation, what initially felt like an isolated case quickly became a real concern. While I had been warning my staff to prepare for a future closure, I thought such a measure might be months away. But it was getting real.
As a restaurant owner and small-business employer, I reacted to developments as the pandemic rapidly unfolded. Customers were concerned — and I was concerned that we were part of the problem. We chose to close on March 13, ahead of Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandated closure a few days later. We reopened for takeout service (Cafe Juanita at Home) not long after Inslee’s stay-at-home order was implemented, but the dining room remains closed, even to people who regularly deliver our supplies.
I am in the hospitality business, and have learned over many years that a well-reasoned “no” is as beneficial to my guests as all the “yeses” we can facilitate — but this feels different. We need to be honest about the reality that small, medium, and large table-service restaurants face today. As I told my customers who emailed, we will not open for in-house service at Cafe Juanita until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19.
Plenty of kind guests have emailed back to say they “completely agree” with the decision. I feel better for a moment, but as this pandemic continues, and as an object as benign as a face mask confers a political message and creates such a dangerous divide, I imagine the eye rolls and head shakes as people hear we are closed for dining indefinitely.
There is nothing political about my decision, though. My experience operating my business for 20 years, and my own need to care for my staff while being responsible as a member of my community, led me to this way of thinking.
I opened Cafe Juanita in April of 2000 and have seen economic downturns and 9/11. Throughout my 20 years, we have focused on creating and maintaining a team that has grown together and improved every year. We have been recognized by the James Beard Foundation and have received other honors. I had a very robust business going into the coronavirus-related closures, with the last year the best ever in just over two decades. But Cafe Juanita is not insulated from the issues at hand, and we needed to adjust.
For the past four months, my restaurant has operated a no-contact, pickup-only model, offering meal kits with select items that guests finish quickly at home, as well as filled frozen pastas and an array of hand-cut pasta, vegetable dishes, and desserts. We have learned more than I could have ever imagined. We are still helping our guests celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, or just providing a connection to our food. We are even sharing our wild sourdough starter and local organic flour. Guests have sent great bread pictures to me.
Sadly, not all of the staff are with us at this time. We had 28 staff members on March 13, before we shut down. Money received from the federal Payroll Protection Program (PPP) let us retain most of our staff through June, while still allowing them to stay home. Those who weren’t helping with takeout attended online wine education classes led by our wine director, and we checked up on each other daily or weekly, discussing their concerns and discomfort in coming back to business, as well as my own. The team felt very much together, but in limbo. In June, the PPP loan ran out, and we needed to lay off people. Today, we have nine full-time workers, plus one part time.
One reason why the staff is small is to keep our “bubble” as consistent and controllable as possible. My goal is to break even during this time, continuing to pay 100 percent for staff medical and dental insurance and offer supplemental insurance on top, as well as a 401k program. Of course, if we are profitable, that is great, but being profitable is not the focus for me at this time. We had just finished 13 record-breaking months in a row, so suffice it to say we are doing far less in sales than this time last year, and we need to be mindful and continue to learn and evolve.
There are many reasons why I’m choosing not to open during the COVID-19 pandemic for seated, in-house dining, and some aren’t necessarily unique to Cafe Juanita. The primary concern is the public health risks to staff and customers. My employees cannot socially distance themselves from guests and fellow workers inside. Period. End of story. No restaurant can.
Time spent inside matters. The duration guests are in a restaurant has correlated to an increase in the risk of novel coronavirus transmission from airborne droplets. And we are a special-occasion restaurant, with birthdays, anniversaries, and work celebrations all a cause to linger at the table. Masks are mandatory across Washington inside restaurants, but guests will remove their masks to eat, all while servers and cooks spend seven to 12 hours inside with upward of 100 people, depending on a restaurant’s capacity. How does that jive with statewide and CDC guidance to spend time with no more than five people outside your household a week?
In the past, my servers have spent two to three hours with every table over the course of a meal, whether that’s a tasting menu or multiple courses. If cough droplets go as far as nine to 13 feet, those aerosols would travel around multiple tables, including our server stations. And our layout is not unique. With the asymptomatic transmission and politicizing of responsible best practices, the staff has no way to feel safe or in control of their well-being.
On the economics side, there are other peripheral issues in a business with highly perishable items served in intimate contact with consumers. And that includes insurance. Shortly after SARS, in 2002 to 2003, there were huge payouts, including one for $16 million to one hotel chain.
Not again. After SARS, insurance companies added exclusions to standard commercial policies for bacteria and viruses. The realization that I had no insurance coverage for such contingencies felt as surreal as the pandemic itself. I knew the exclusion existed — it was out of my control, but that didn’t matter until it did.
Let me lay out what this means in my world. I have insurance to protect myself, my business, and my staff. Heck, it even covers you when you’re in my space. It is universal, a part of our social contract that I will take care of my universe, and you as well. It is what I pay for, and it makes the risks we take — opening the doors to the public — a bit less risky.
Insurance is helpful for me in two ways when closure occurs. I have business interruption and spoilage insurance; one covers a loss for shutting the doors and the other pays for all the lost food already purchased. But, because of those aforementioned exclusions, neither applies due to COVID-19. Trust me, I tried. We were closed by the governor’s mandate, but there was no recourse to recoup losses. My insurance was a no-show. There was no coverage for the food in the walk-in for a busy weekend, or for the months of reservations I had to cancel.
Every restaurant is different, but food in a fine dining restaurant is one of our most significant expenses. On any given day, the total amount of food at Cafe Juanita can cost well over $20,000, the bulk of which is highly perishable. Without protection for those financial hits, we are in a tenuous position. Not to mention that business will be slower until we have a vaccine. I am grateful that restrictions were applied to in-house dining by the state at 50 percent in phase two of the reopening plan, but those illustrate the limitations on occupancy and therefore revenue, before we take into account the large number of guests who are not ready to return to indoor dining. That means the staff would get fewer hours than in the past, and receive less revenue from gratuities. None of this is rocket science: The risks of reopenings simply do not outweigh the benefits.
Many areas in the U.S. have either reclosed restaurants or are getting close to that point after a rise in COVID-19 cases, and the same goes for Washington; Inslee recently reinstituted some restrictions on restaurants, such as only allowing people from the same household to eat at the same table inside. During this time of uncertainty, supporting restaurants with a model that keeps the business and staff safest is imperative.
As I think about the landscape in a year, I hope that restaurants and small businesses will shift and stand in our maturity and expertise. The usual mantras of “the guest won’t do x, y, or z” and “we cannot charge what we need to” have to stop. Restaurateurs and owners need to focus on running healthy businesses. To do that, we have to pay our staff well enough to live well, and we have to create structures that can be reasonably profitable.
The old adage “don’t buy yourself a job” bears some meditation. Too often, restaurants make too many compromises in the name of hospitality. Taking care of ourselves is the best way to be able to take care of others. I will do my best to let Cafe Juanita be true to itself, even under the circumstances, and it feels like that will get us to the other side of the pandemic.
And, consumers, please consider what you are paying for. Yes, the meal is expensive in my restaurant, but the staff has always had a 401k plan; medical, dental and supplemental insurance; paid vacations; and ongoing professional training. I believe these expenses are as important as my food or my rent.
I know that everyone is missing “normal activities,” and I hope that when a restaurant says it needs to stay closed or chooses not to reopen after saying it will, you consider all the factors its proprietors are weighing — professional, personal, financial, and emotional — and support the services they offer. The restaurant industry needs your help, but encouraging us to take on more risk in a tumultuous time is not that.