Our industry is in crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered restaurants, forced millions into unemployment, and left us with a future that is uncertain at best. Efforts are happening on the ground nationwide, from communities rallying around their local businesses, to national calls on Congress and our own relief fund. But behind the sobering statistics in those calls to action are individual industry professionals who are making hard decisions and watching their livelihoods skirt the edge of disaster. With that in mind, we're sharing stories from the front lines. Below, Molly Irani, co-founder and hospitality director of Chai Pani Restaurant Group in Asheville, North Carolina, explains how a scarred and bent tree in her backyard has come to symbolize hope for her in the face of all the fear and apprehension she feels today.
There’s a tree in my backyard that leans a bit now and looks pretty haggard when its leaves fall in winter. It was struck by lightning last year in the middle of a thunderstorm, with a crash unlike anything I had ever heard before. My dog and I looked to each other for reassurance. Was that lightning? Were we hit by a meteor? I had no point of reference for the sound that shook my world. After several firemen checked everything out, they found the fresh wound on the tree. It was raw and new—you could see the path the lightning took through the thick, scraggly old bark. I didn’t know if the tree would survive. But, after shedding some bark and losing some branches from the impact of the bolt, it was still standing tall.
After the storm passed, I called a tree expert out to examine the damage. He looked it over, and said: “It’s wounded. That fresh, raw wound will change color over time, and eventually, it will form a scar that will be there forever. But that just gives it even more character! Its roots are strong, interconnected with all of the roots around it, which help it stay standing up. See that big gnarly scar on the tree next to it? That one was hit by lightning years ago and was probably kept alive because of the deep roots that are entwined with these other strong trees. This breed is built to survive. They weather storms and lightning strikes. They shed heavy limbs and old bark and lean toward the sun—their roots are strong and built to hold them up.”
His words have stuck with me, and they come to mind today, as my industry weathers a lightning strike unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. We are all shaken. Our hearts have been broken and our livelihoods ripped out from under us in a flash so sudden and extreme that we haven’t had time to even catch our breath, let alone assess the damage. We’re still in the thunderstorm, and the hail is falling all around us.
Here’s what I know to be true: we were built for this. Our roots are strong and deeply entwined in our communities. We have a network of resilient, hardworking teams who know about adapting to change and weathering storms. We show up for work in blizzards and floods to feed our communities, and we get the job done with grit and tenacity. We sometimes look pretty scraggly when our leaves drop in winter, but through it all we stand tall and provide shelter and do our job. We have been there in good times and bad, feeding and nourishing our cities, honoring their celebrations, and showing up for their challenges and charities. We’re interconnected in ways we cannot even see—beneath the surface, entwined deep in the bedrock of each of our towns—pulsing in its very heartbeat.
In the midst of the hailstorm, I see the strength of my people shine through their fear. Everyone who’s currently working in our quickly adapted, take-out-only restaurants (for as long as it is feasible and safe to operate this way) and behind the scenes has taken a huge pay cut and is working way more hours than they used to. But they are doing it with love and grace. They do it so that we can all have a restaurant to return to when the hailstorm passes. They do it so that we are able to offer a free meal every day to everyone on our team who has temporarily lost their job. They support each other and have each other’s backs. Some have asked for us to anonymously give their paychecks to others who may need it more. If our industry survives, it will be because of these heroes: those who lost their shifts and are barely scraping by on unemployment and those who have kept the lights on by working endless hours for not enough money.
My heart has broken countless times this week as I’ve had to make the hardest decisions in my career as a restaurateur. But my team is mending my heart with every act of generosity, tenacity, love, and dedication that they have demonstrated. I am eternally grateful to be a part of this tribe. My people are strong and hilarious and they know a thing or two about hard work and survival. They have hearts that shine boundless light so bright that it dispels the darkness that surrounds us now. And when we re-open, it will be because of them.
We were built to weather storms. We have a raw wound that cut through our thick, scraggly bark—so we are relying on our communities all around the world now to help us stay standing. We need them to see just how entwined our roots are, and that we cannot survive without each other.
Molly Irani is the co-founder and hospitality director of Chai Pani Restaurant Group in Asheville, North Carolina. She manages a team of more than 250 across five restaurants and a spice company and is responsible for Chai Pani's groundbreaking culture, management style and “mindblasting” hospitality.