- Fine dining is no longer on the table during the pandemic, meaning that America’s top chefs and restaurants have had to get creative with their resources.
- We talked to three top fine dining restaurant owners about what they’re doing to get their businesses through the pandemic, and each perspective was vastly different.
- Naomi Pomeroy, Hugh Acheson, and Mark Canlis share what they did when the pandemic hit, what they’re doing with their staff, what they’re doing with their time now, and what they think the future will be like for the restaurant industry.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Fine dining is no longer on the table. Sometimes it’s at your doorstep, and sometimes it’s on a curb in Atlanta. Sometimes it’s just unavailable.
For fine dining restaurants, which often rely on in-house meals that span multiple courses, the pandemic has presented a host of new and often devastating challenges. Business Insider spoke with three of fine-dining’s biggest stars on how they’re each approaching those challenges: Naomi Pomeroy, Hugh Acheson, and Mark Canlis.
Naomi Pomeroy is a James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur based in Portland, Oregon, and previously appeared on “Iron Chef”. Pomeroy is a co-founder of the newly-created Independent Restaurant Coalition, which advocates for the interests of independent restaurants in Congress. Hugh Acheson is a Georgia-based chef and restaurateur who’s also known for judging seasons nine through 12 of “Top Chef”. He is also a member of the IRC. His restaurant group includes By George, Empire State South, and 5&10. And Mark Canlis is the owner of Canlis in Seattle, Washington, long considered one of the most upscale and exclusive restaurants in the Northwest.
Business Insider: What did you do when the pandemic hit?
Pomeroy: My restaurant is called Beast, and it’s a 26-seat fine dining tasting menu restaurant. Our last day open was March 15. My cocktail bar, Expatriate, is an award-winning cocktail bar that’s about 30 seats, and we have between the two businesses 30 employees. Our last day open was March 15. We furloughed everybody on March 15th. And then everyone went out and attempted to collect unemployment.
Acheson: By George in Atlanta is completely shut down. Empire State South has been doing weekend to-go, but Monday to Friday we feed medical and first responders and in-need communities. So we do 750 meals a day delivered in batch drops, safe locations, and then 5&10 is doing the same thing as well, which is 500 to 700 meals a day to food banks and shelters and hospitals and first responders.
We’re funded by who I believe is our modern-day Jesus, José Andrés, and the World Central Kitchen. Some of the funding in Atlanta is coming from the most wonderful guy named Arthur Blank and the Blank Family Foundation.
Canlis: Our first idea when this thing hit was, “Oh great, everyone’s going to be doing pickup and we’re on a freeway. Why not just open up and serve everybody a bunch of burgers?” It was quite popular. But once we got into it a little further we were working as hard as we can to serve burgers. One night we had 1800 people on a wait list.
So it was like, okay, what would be a segment that is a much more sustainable model for our company, that is a much safer way to operate, that isn’t going to cause traffic? That’s why we shut down the drive-thru and focused all of our energy on home-delivered meals and CSA (community-supported agriculture) boxes.
I think that’s a really important thing that other restaurants can be doing. And we’ve seen that idea of popping up all over the country now, just these incredible restaurants that have connections to the best farms in the region. And these are tiny farmers. So if we don’t keep buying from them, that severely impacts their livelihoods.
Business Insider: What are you doing with your staff?
Pomeroy: It’s been a pretty heavy process in terms of wanting to make sure my staff is well taken care of. And that was obviously behind taking care of the community and closing down to save lives and flatten the curve.
At the time when we issued the last check, we also paid everybody all of the sick leave that they were qualified for, which for most people was like receiving another paycheck. So that took care of them for a little while. And then, also just paying out of pocket, actually going into debt personally to pay people’s insurance benefits.
Acheson: We furloughed pretty much everybody. I’ve got some salary people still on board and I’ve got some employees — just their heart hurt them wanting to help — and they’re volunteering. But that’s about it. The amount of money that it takes to keep restaurants open is not where we’re getting. But we feel the need to give back and support the community and do everything we can do. So, the philanthropy side is helping us keep the lights on and pay the bills. We have enough money to cover the healthcare of all of our other people.
Canlis: We have about 95% of our staff still working. We had a few employees who it just doesn’t make sense for them to be working. They have dual-income and, or they have children at home and they’re trying to take care of them. But every employee who has wanted to work, [we’ve been able to retain].
Business Insider: What are your thoughts on delivery as a means to continue operating during the pandemic?
Acheson: We’re not doing delivery. I don’t have a kinship or a cool bone in my body for many of the delivery services. I think they’re charging exorbitant fees and not really putting their best foot forward. And I can’t put my own people in harm’s way. I’ve got one crew at Empire State South. They go in, they go home.
I think that it’s silly and dangerous — and for a sandwich — to put your frontline people into that role. All of my people have the choice to say, I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t feel comfortable doing it. We’re all doing it by proxy and as an allied unit and they have as big of voices as I do and I’m not ordering them to do anything. They want to do it.
Canlis: For us, it’s all about delivery. And the reason being is that it allows me to employ our entire staff.
If I was doing takeout, I’m only using my kitchen employees. But the minute I can take that dinner to your home, I’m employing a server that would otherwise not have a job, or food runner or an expediter or even our host staff or our piano players. There’s so many people in this restaurant that aren’t cooking. So the magic of delivery is that it equals the playing field.
Everyone pretty much has a driver’s license and a car and a will to work and then we can put them to work safely. To me, it’s one of the safest ways to keep the economy going, to have a dinner put in the back of your car and you drive to someone’s home and leave it on the doorstep.
Business Insider: How are you optimizing your time now?
Pomeroy: When we were all closing our restaurants, we needed to talk about it as a community. There are about a hundred restaurants in Portland that are part of Portland Independent Restaurant Association, that formed right before the IRC, the Independent Restaurant Coalition. I manage a Slack channel for that and kind of go through and try to answer people’s questions about applying for the Paycheck Protection Program and what to do about their unemployment claims being rejected.
My restaurant is 12 and a half years old and I started working in cooking in Portland 20-some years ago. I’m kind of like an old person here now and I feel somewhat responsible for helping some of the younger restaurants navigate through this really scary time. And I hope that I’m doing right by them. So I spend a lot of time on the phone. And I also do other things like organize my spice rack and bake bread and feed my family of four every day, three meals a day.
Acheson: I’m not worried about getting back up and we’ll figure it out. A lot of people won’t. We will.
It’s not like we’re made of cash. We don’t have a ton of reserves. We’ve just been smart in the last few weeks on how to sell what we have, like future catering and gift certificates and merch and stuff like that to kind of give us a little bit of a buffer.
Canlis: It’s definitely taken us a couple of weeks to figure this thing out cause it’s a brand new business for us. But the first week we were a couple more hours and we’re not quite enough hours this week. We’ll hopefully get it just right.
But by and large, everyone has been able to keep enough hours to pay their bills, and we’ve done a few other things to help out. Canlis pays all of our employees’ healthcare right now so that they don’t have to worry about it.
Business Insider: What does the future hold for you and fine dining in America?
Pomeroy: What I want is someone to tell us when it’s really safe. And then at that time, that’s when we need things like the Paycheck Protection Program. We need to use that money to rehire our workers.
I think it’s really important to realize we’re a cash flow business. We don’t have a bunch of subsidies, we don’t have a bunch of tax breaks that help us. I mean, we pay pretty high-level taxes compared to some other kinds of large businesses. And restaurants really only make money when they’re 75% full or more. Our margins are so tight that when we’re not full, we’re not making money.
We need acknowledgment that everybody understands that when we open our doors back up again, there’s probably not going to be lines out the door.
Acheson: I’ve never really understood why Boeing, who builds planes that crash, can continually get bailed out. I’m just a guy who’s trying to employ 150 people, and I’ve done it for 23 years of my life and I’ve put my heart and soul into it.
It’s not just me, it’s everybody around me. Because what we do every day is we keep the lights on and we employ people and we feed people. When you shut down the lights of a restaurant, you shut down the lights of plumbers and food delivery and vineyards and distillers and the people who deliver linen.
Canlis: The restaurant industry will be different on the other side of this. And maybe one beautiful thing that comes out of this is Canlis gets in the habit of serving meatballs to Americans.
What we’re thinking about now is, how do we take what we’ve been given and be creative and be optimistic and be hopeful and build the business model that can work for tomorrow. No, I don’t mean like capital “T” tomorrow, like the grand future. I mean like what can we do today that keeps us in business tomorrow as in Tuesday. And tomorrow we’ll say the same thing and we’ll just keep doing that until we can see a little further down the road.