Kwame Onwuachi spent the better part of Tuesday sitting at a conference table with tears in his eyes. Kith/Kin, his waterfront Afro-Caribbean restaurant that’s been cheered on by just about every major outlet in food media, was shutting down, another necessary casualty of a D.C. mandate to close dining rooms to sit-down customers while the new coronavirus spreads. A staff of about 60 people trickled in to meet with the celebrity chef and author, who told them it was best for everybody if they stayed home. They asked him when they could return to work. Not having an answer felt gutting.
“I think I cried 10 times today sitting down with each employee telling them I don’t know when we’re going to come back,” Onwuachi says.
By D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s decree, bars and restaurants across the city are still allowed to operate as takeout and delivery establishments during the dine-in ban. Those restrictions, in place in many other major cities and states nationwide, present operators with a disturbing dilemma. Should they stay open, attempt to recoup some cash for hourly workers, and follow a natural instinct to nourish their communities? Or should they close, protect laborers who rarely have health insurance, and heed the advice of politicians and scientists who say isolating is the fastest way to defeat COVID-19?
Well over 100 restaurants in the area have decided to maintain or introduce takeout and delivery operations to keep cash flowing in. A handful of high-profile places, however, have opted to abstain, convinced that the only way to halt the spread of the virus and get back to normal anytime soon is to take social distancing as far as possible.
Onwuachi is one of the few choosing caution. He knew some staff members faced hour-long commutes to get to D.C.’s rich Wharf development, all the more time to be exposed to the coronavirus on public transportation. Kith/Kin ran one day of takeout, but more as a public service than a business play. For $25, Onwuachi and his staff were giving away at-cost boxes of jerk chicken with tamarind barbecue sauce, braised oxtails, spicy Brussels sprouts, beer-braised cabbage, a carrot and cucumber salad, cocoa bread, and rum cake.
While sending the staff home with dairy products and produce from the kitchen, Onwuachi tried to put up a stoic front, but he faltered when he thought about his employees sitting at home, wondering how they would afford next month’s rent.
“I’m heartbroken for them all,” Onwuachi says. “I’m heartbroken for our industry.”
Takeout and delivery might help soften the blow and maintain a smidge of morale for workers, but independent restaurants may be doomed if they’re not included in a federal stimulus package. Even powerhouse companies like Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, which laid off some 2,000 workers this week, are vulnerable right now. Restaurateur and Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio estimates that 75 percent of America’s restaurants won’t come back from this.
Meanwhile, a huge swath of restaurants have thrown a bone to a city full of dining obsessives with the novelty of new takeout and delivery options. Komi, a Michelin-starred tasting room that typically serves a $165 prix fixe of Greek and Mediterranean dishes, has rebooted Happy Gyro, a vegetarian diner pop-up that’s selling $13 takeout pitas full of tofu skins. Gravitas, another pricey place that received its first Michelin star in October, is having employees deliver pupusas, pozole, spaghetti and meatballs, and other a la carte dishes that nod to its diverse staff.
When D.C.’s early dining restrictions went into place late last week, one of the most buzzed-about novelties to appear was a short-lived takeout offering at Bad Saint, the shoebox-sized Filipino restaurant in Columbia Heights that garnered chef Tom Cunanan a James Beard award last year and was deemed one of the most important restaurants of the decade by Esquire and Food & Wine. For a few days, customers could get sisig — crispy chopped pork typically served on a sizzling platter — to go, along with purple rice tacos and empanadas.
Bad Saint moved through phases of adapting, first reducing capacity in its cozy dining room, adding carryout, and then moving to to-go only over the weekend. By Wednesday, the restaurant closed completely.
“The reason we decided to stop was because the staff were really scared,” co-owner Genevieve Villamora says.
Villamora and Cunanan were at an event in Oregon when the city implemented its first emergency gathering restrictions, which complicated matters even more. She credits manager Amanda Carpenter with relaying the staff’s concerns about being exposed to COVID-19 while running the takeout operation. All Bad Saint gift card sales through April 18 will go to an emergency support fund for its staff. For now, Villamora is isolating in her home.
“If we don’t make the right decisions in the short term, it’s like, who are we going to be saving restaurants for?” Villamora asks.
While she’s stuck at home, Villamora has been consulting with Jill Tyler, the co-owner and service director of Michelin-starred Mediterranean restaurant Tail Up Goat and recently opened Reveler’s Hour in Adams Morgan. Tyler promoted a #shutusdown hashtag before the city implemented its dine-in ban. She has worked to disseminate information to other restaurants about how workers can apply for unemployment and food stamps.
One day of curbside service at Reveler’s Hour and Tail Up Goat gave staff a last hurrah while catering to customers who had booked tough-to-land reservations. On Monday, managers came in to prepare all the remaining food for the staff. Tyler and her partners have had to lay off 99 people between the two restaurants. All the sales from gift cards and (soon-to-launch) merchandise will go to employees.
“I think the hardest and worst days of my life have been in the last week,” she says.
Although Tyler is not judging restaurants that are still operating — “Everyone is making impossible decisions,” she says — she’s adamant that the only way to stop a drawn-out public health catastrophe is to move to a “shelter in place” philosophy, where people only leave their homes for absolute essentials. That policy is already in effect in San Francisco.
“Takeout and delivery is not social distancing,” Tyler says.
Tyler has spread the message to owners and workers to reach out to the the D.C. Council and ask for its members to raise the unemployment benefits from the current maximum of $444 per week to $1,000. On the federal level, Tyler would like to see a federal stimulus package leave room for the independent operators responsible for attracting tourists and building D.C.’s reputation as a restaurant hub.
Onwuachi would like to see rents freeze and rent forgiveness policies go into effect. An emergency relief bill the D.C. Council passed this week at least stops evictions and utility cut-offs.
Jeffrey DeWitt, the city’s chief financial officer, said recently that in a normal year, D.C.’s hospitality industry produces $787 million in sales tax, about half of the city’s total. Tyler hopes officials keep that in mind now that restaurants are reeling — DeWitt expects D.C. unemployment to grow from 4.9 percent to 20 percent.
“If small businesses don’t come back from this, I don’t think anyone will come back from this,” Tyler says.
Just up 11th Street NW from Bad Saint, fledgling Queen’s English has followed the example of its more established peers.
In its first 11 months, Queen’s English has become a destination for inventive, Hong Kong-style small plates like a beef tartare with XO sauce, cashews, and burnt, whipped beef tallow. Lines and weekday crowds have become the norm there. Owners Henji Cheung and Sarah Thompson, who act as chef and general manager, spent the past week experimenting with takeout and — when it was still allowed — filling every seat they could. Wednesday, they made the call to close altogether, laying off their staff of 12 and using remaining ingredients to send them home with food.
Cheung and Thompson had already received flak from Instagram commenters on a post that showed off a packed dining room Saturday night, when larger events had been canceled but no major restrictions had been imposed on restaurants. They felt people knew the risks, and they were okay with that.
Even after the dine-in ban went into effect late Monday night, Queen’s English tried a day of takeout. Known for Thompson’s lineup of natural wines, the restaurant used a loophole to sell takeout bottles before that practice was allowed in an emergency bill. They gave customers a sip on-site and offered instant corkage. Cheung says they made about $770 dollars over 10 orders — not a bad haul, but not enough to convince them to risk getting or spreading the novel coronavirus. As the severity of the pandemic came into focus, they kept thinking about how they don’t have health insurance.
“If we do work, and we get sick, there will be no more Queen’s English,” Cheung says.
The couple opened a Venmo account for customers donations Thursday and says they have already raised about $1,000 in contributions, all of which will go to their staff. They’re selling gift cards, too.
Thompson says if they don’t pay themselves and don’t pay any bills, they can probably hold on for a couple months. They pay unemployment insurance premiums, and business interruption insurance that does not (yet) cover the pandemic.
Cheung and Thompson know the most responsible thing to do is to isolate themselves. But they’re also determined to get their restaurant to its one-year anniversary next month, and the financial realities are grim. Because the restaurant is small, they can run a bare-bones operation without risking the health of their staff.
They spent Wednesday and Thursday mulling over whether to get back in the kitchen, bag up set menus for two, and serve a mostly homebound customer base hungry for takeout.