How Chefs Are Working to Make More Resilient Restaurants
Staff, safety, and infrastructure build a better cultureLayla Khoury-Hanold
December 16, 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 move from re-opening to returning to restrictions on dining and the industry continues to try to adapt, we're sharing stories from the front lines of businesses reacting to this new landscape. Below, Layla Khoury-Hanold explores how chefs and owners are strengthening their businesses by redefining hospitality, prioritizing their employees, and finding ways to keep guests and staff safe.
La Palapa in New York City’s East Village personifies resilience—the restaurant has survived floods, blackouts, and 9/11. “In 20 years, there are so many things that [become] part of tradition and ‘untouchable,’” says chef/owner Barbara Sibley. “[Crises] give you a chance to reinvent, [to say], ‘well you know what, we didn’t need it.’” By embracing flexibility, she’s seen how creativity can flourish under the most difficult circumstances.
We often think of chefs as “resilient.” Each service they face unexpected challenges—staffing issues, repairs, and more. These days, chef/owners describe the landscape as “like opening a new restaurant every day,” meaning a daily exercise in navigating operational viability amid extra-tight margins and shifting mandates. It’s not enough to be a resilient leader: COVID-19 is proving that organizations must show resilience, too.
The theory of organizational resilience refers to an organization’s ability to “anticipate, prepare for, respond, and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper.”1 Since March, restaurants have demonstrated resilience by integrating takeout, meal kits, and outdoor dining. But as the pandemic wears on and restaurants face new restrictions, reduced revenue, and no sign of federal aid, the outlook looks bleak.
Still, several chef/owners are employing tactics that researchers associate with resilient organizations, including adopting progressive and flexible strategies,2 investing in resources,3 and embodying resilient leadership.4 By filtering operational decisions through an employee-first lens, these chefs are cultivating a culture of organizational resilience centered on employee well-being.
“The comfort and safety of the staff comes before the safety of the guest,” Sibley explains. “One of the reasons I stayed open is because I have a responsibility for [my] employees.”
Take La Palapa’s bottomless boozy brunch: to reduce servers’ visits to refill glasses—when diners are likely unmasked—each diner instead gets a pitcher. Servers initially found it difficult to assuage guests’ fears that they were getting less to drink. Instead of explaining that they were getting more, Sibley simplified servers’ script: “Just say, ‘that’s what the owner is doing.’” When Sibley implemented disposable cups to reduce dishwashing needs and maintain social distancing in the kitchen, she also reevaluated the value proposition for mixed drinks. To neutralize potential diner pushback, Sibley upped the 12-ounce margarita to 16 ounces. “It’s a higher liquor cost, but it’s much more streamlined, so we’re saving other places,” Sibley explains.
Charleen Badman, 2019 Best Chef: Southwest winner and chef/owner of FnB in Scottsdale, Arizona, is reconsidering FnB’s six-nights-per-week dinner service. Although 50-percent capacity indoor dining was introduced in Arizona in mid-May, Badman continued with takeout-only four days per week to protect employees and limit staff interaction. (Arizona’s summer temperatures made outdoor dining unfeasible.) Winter is typically FnB’s busy season, but on October 1, Badman re-opened for outdoor dining only, five days per week.
“We all need a couple days off,” Badman says. “I don’t know if we’ll ever go back to six. In a business where we care for others, it’s time to figure out how to take care of ourselves.”
Restaurants also exemplify organizational resilience by investing in resources that foster employee trust and well-being, including training, communication, and technology. Christina Nguyen, 2020 Best Chef: Midwest nominee and chef/owner of Hai Hai and Hola Arepa in Minneapolis, created a 30-page COVID playbook outlining safety protocols and responses. She also redefined hospitality as “creating comfort through distance.” Diners cue servers with laminated, color-coded flip cards indicating “server please” or “just chilling.” Some guests have requested it be part of future service.
Joann Makovitzky, managing partner of Community Table Restaurant and Bar in Washington, Connecticut, bolstered communication. Staff line-up includes reminders on handwashing, mask-wearing, and table service practices. Training the staff to use nonverbal gestures, like placing a hand on heart, helps convey hospitality while reducing the burden of enforcing social distancing. Diners have adopted these cues, too.
Simon Kim, owner/operator of New York City’s COTE, admits that restaurants have been late adopters of technology. But investing in SevenRooms’ digital restaurant management platform has proven essential for streamlining operations and staff safety. Before employees sign into the system, they must answer a symptoms questionnaire. “It’s a subtle gesture,” Kim says, “but it shows the precautions that our restaurant is taking every time: your safety and health is our first priority.”
These kinds of platforms also support contact tracing. If a diner notifies the restaurant that they’ve tested positive for COVID-19, their data can be referenced to confirm when they dined, who served them, and what table they were sitting at; staff and diners can then be alerted.
Beyond incorporating progressive strategies and resources, chefs also sustain resilience by modelling attributes of resilient leaders—including decisiveness, integrity, open communications, and optimism5—which creates a culture of organizational resilience.6
The pressures of running a restaurant in a pandemic have forced chefs to consider work-life balance and how self-care impacts leadership. For Nguyen, the stress of navigating operational viability has been compounded with the stigma of restaurants being high-risk COVID-19 transmission sites. She exercises to “make sure I’m in a good space to give the people around me the support they need.” Makovitzky does yoga to re-center and plays calming music for staff.
For Sibley, recognizing her role as gatekeeper has made communication paramount. “My biggest fear is that too much knowledge resides in me. What if I get sick?” she says. “I have to make sure I have enough systems [in place]. That’s the responsible thing I can do.”
Operational sustainability is driven by the bottom line, but often, chef/owners’ optimism stems from their passion for hospitality. “[It’s been] important not only to provide nourishment but also a dose of excitement and joy,” Kim says. “We are part of Frontline Foods, too, and provided delicious meals to uplift the spirits of hospital workers. It gave the entire team a bigger purpose: helping community.”
Sibley is also propelled by serving community: “Are we making a difference? Are people able to keep their jobs? Are we able to make people happy?”
Layla Khoury-Hanold is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on Food Network, Saveur, and Refinery29, and in the Chicago Tribune. Follow her on Instagram @words_with_layla or on Twitter @words_withlayla.
1. “Organizational resilience is “the ability of an organization to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper.” (Denver, 2017).” (CQ Net Dossier: Organizational resilience: What is it and why does it matter during a crisis?, April 12, 2020)
2. “Research on organizational resilience has focused on behaviors that are either defensive or progressive. When organizations adopt defensive strategies, they are attempting to stop negative events from occurring (Denver, 2017). Contrastingly, organizations that are progressive in their strategies try to make positive events occur through their actions.”
“There has been debate on which types of strategies work best (Denver, 2017). Although still contentious, a more adaptive approach has emerged from this debate through a focus on adaptive innovation. Several scholars and practitioners propose that organizational resilience occurs when organizations create, invent and discover unknown markets. Organizations can be competitive in the marketplace through being both progressive and flexible (Denver, 2017).” (CQ Net Dossier: Organizational resilience: What is it and why does it matter during a crisis?, April 12, 2020)
3. “Overall, organizational science suggests that resilient organizations do not restrict resources when dealing with threats to their existence (Gittell, Cameron, Lim & Rivas, 2006). Rather they deploy internal resources so they are able to continue operations after a crisis.” (CQ Net Dossier: Organizational resilience: What is it and why does it matter during a crisis?, April 12, 2020)
4. “Our observations have led us to believe that, just as individuals can learn to develop personal traits of resilience, so too can organizations develop a culture of resilience. We would argue that a culture of organizational resilience is built largely upon leadership, what we refer to as 'resilient leadership.' Consistent with the 'Law of the Few' described in Malcom Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, we believe key leadership personnel, often frontline leadership, appear to have the ability to 'tip' the organization in the direction of resilience and to serve as a catalyst to increase group cohesion and dedication to the 'mission.'” (Harvard Business Review: Building a Resilient Organizational Culture, June 24, 2011)
5. “They do this, we argue, by demonstrating four core attributes of optimism, decisiveness, integrity, and open communications while serving as conduits and gatekeepers of formal and informal information flows throughout the organization and enjoying high source credibility (ethos). All of these can be learned.” (Harvard Business Review: Building a Resilient Organizational Culture, June 24, 2011)
6. “Simply said, when a small number of high credibility individuals who serve as visible informational channels demonstrate, or “model” the behaviors associated with resilience, we believe they have the ability to change an entire culture of an organization as others replicate the resilient characteristics that they have observed.” (Harvard Business Review: Building a Resilient Organizational Culture, June 24, 2011)