This Is Our Chance to Build a Better System
Rebooting the restaurant industry with resilience and respectDeborah VanTrece as told to Maggie Borden
June 17, 2020
Our industry is in crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has already permanently shuttered more than one percent of restaurants, forced millions into unemployment, and left chefs, owners, and workers struggling to imagine what the future looks like in the near and long-term. As states re-open and the industry looks to rebuild, we're sharing stories from the front lines of businesses reacting and adapting to this new landscape.
Below, Atlanta chef and Boot Camp alum Deborah VanTrece explains the challenges her team at Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours faced over the past few months, as they pivoted to cope with lockdown and weighed conflicting information around when and what re-opening would look like. VanTrece, who recently received one of the grants from our Industry Relief Fund, will be returning to dine-in seating at the restaurant this coming Friday, June 19.
The atmosphere [at Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours] prior to its closure was somewhat surreal. Our guests seemed to be in denial and unwilling to accept the fact that something had changed. We were getting consistent news reports of the deaths and havoc this disease was causing, but those in our dining room showed no indication that this could possibly affect them.
It was the first weekend in March when the cancellations began rolling in and we watched our oversold reservation list diminish by 50 percent within hours. To try to stave off the inevitable as long as we could, we attempted to practice social distancing and purchased massive amounts of hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, gloves, etc., to prepare to make our space as safe as possible. We had hoped that these changes would help to keep us safe and somewhat ease the minds of our guests.
By Sunday, we realized our efforts were no match for a public that was being complacent and not willing to adhere to the [bare minimum] recommendations from health officials. On Sunday evening, days after I had told my staff we would be okay, I had to admit to them that I was wrong. I could not guarantee our safety or the safety of our guests. We all made the difficult decision that it was best to close indefinitely and give more thought to next steps.
The next few days consisted of sitting down with my family and having tough conversations on how to move forward. What were our options? What were the consequences of closing down as other restaurants remained open? How best to help our now unemployed staff? Where to access the funds for our immediate needs—payroll, taxes, and rent? How to best serve our community?
Our first course of action was to utilize the products we had on-hand to provide food for our staff. Then we met with our staff and collectively decided that our next step would be to offer prepped reheatable meals to customers with a "pay-what-you-can model." That gave us the opportunity to help our community and to basically fire-sale all our inventory so it would not go to waste. We continued our community efforts by partnering with other business to provide meals for frontline healthcare workers and food industry employees.
As the [weeks went by and] reality set in that this was truly a fluid situation, we decided to go into our files and pull from a business plan we had created years ago for a carry-out restaurant called “A Different Kind of Chick.” With the absence of dining in, we thought this would be a good way to pivot and introduce a new concept that could also be easily transitioned into another space in the future.
"A Different Kind of Chick" was formulated about seven years ago. It was my idea to merge the convenience of quick food and wholesome options. Present-day, typical fast food needs a complete redo, and I think the trend of future quick-food eateries will put more focus on creative, healthy options with well-sourced and local ingredients. That’s what our concept is all about. I chose chicken because it is one of the most broadly eaten proteins in the world. [And] I chose Springer Mountain Chicken for its commitment to providing a great product—their chickens are locally raised, have no antibiotics, hormones or steroids, are fed a vegetarian diet, and the meat has great taste and texture. The company is also very involved with the community, so many of their values are aligned with ours.
Georgia has re-opened, but we felt it was too soon. We have now started cautiously preparing our dining room to re-open. We have removed seating, installed partitions, installed filtration systems, and put many other precautions in place. We are paying close attention to other restaurateurs that have already re-opened to mirror some of their best practices and policies. I think it is helpful to share information so the industry can establish universal guidelines. The future success of food service depends on us working together with common goals.
I would be lying if I said I have no concerns about how well the public will adjust to the new safeguards that each restaurant is putting in place. We just hope they keep in mind that they are meant to protect all of us. I, for one, am high-risk for COVID-19, and my staff and family have been very protective of me and respectful of my space. We all have made extreme sacrifices in the last few months to keep ourselves healthy. We have zero tolerance for any person who does not want to comply with the rules we have in place. We want all guests to remember that, as always, we are trying to provide a safe space, we are trying to stay in business, and we are doing the best we can!
The JBF Relief Fund grant was, first and foremost, the encouragement we needed to move forward. We spent hours upon hours researching and filling out forms for various loans and grants in the hope that some type of relief would finally be awarded to us. When JBF's grant came through, it was the first assistance we received. Prior to that, we were fighting every day to make do with what we had on hand. We had used the last of our funds to pay all our employees, our taxes, and a portion of our rent. We were struggling, growing hungry for funds. My mother would always say, "you can't think clearly if you're hungry," and she was so right. Receiving the funds enabled us to clear our heads and make more calculated decisions around what was necessary to continue to move forward.
The future of food has forever changed. We now know first-hand our vulnerabilities as well as our strengths and resilience. Every restaurant, bar, food industry worker, in the world was knocked to their knees by this pandemic.
Our business model now includes delivery and more menu flexibility. We have scaled back our menus and our staff. We have instituted what we hope will be a more equitable pay system. We are vigorously cross training. We are working to secure affordable insurance, sick leave, financial literacy classes, and additional benefits. This is our chance to reboot and build a better system that is not so fragile.