Restaurants: Canaries in America's Coal Mine
To own an independent restaurant in the Mid-Atlantic during a global pandemic, in winter’s grip, and not reside in a state of panic requires living in the moment. That’s been the case for my wife and me, anyway, as we operate our South Philly trattoria, Le Virtú. We take on each day, heads down, not daring to hope too much or look too far ahead. Any prolonged consideration of the factors that will determine our joint’s life or death, factors mostly beyond our control, lead to despair. Any glance at the horizon promises a view of the abyss. Many in our situation know that this is just a grotesque exaggeration of “normal.” In the best of times, this is a fraught biz.
One surreal aspect of the situation is getting to watch as industry commentators and critics muse on our condition and proffer their diagnoses and prognoses. While some betray their affection and romantic attachments, the analysis has gotten steadily more dispassionate, which is probably for the best. It’s sometimes like being a patient in hospice and having your medical team discuss the terminal nature of your disease bedside. Not only are you suffering from a constellation of potentially fatal pre-existing conditions, your even being alive defies logic. And recently, there’s also been a moral component to the discussion: maybe you don’t deserve to be alive at all.
It’s doubly surreal to be such a patient and find yourself in general agreement. And we do agree with many of the criticisms now being, to borrow a phrase, “less leveled than sprayed” at the industry. The biz often seems, for those toiling in its mines, exploitative, callous, and bottom-line obsessed. In the best of circumstances, its morality is complex and contingent on individual actors and circumstances. My only problem with the commentary is that it doesn’t follow its logic far enough, oversimplifies, or evades the obvious. The problem with the American restaurant industry is America itself. And asking restaurants to solve the industry’s issues is asking the canary to fix the coal mine. Few Americans know what a restaurant meal costs. And I’m not just talking dollars. Fewer still would be willing or able to pay the actual price.
Restaurants exist at the nexus of much that is intrinsically important and rewarding but also cruel, unjust, and plain crazy in our culture. Most notably, we’re located precisely where our society’s refusal to deal seriously with income inequality, health care, and immigration reform, or support sustainable, responsible farming all meet.
Much is justifiably made about the $2.83 tipped hourly wage for servers/bartenders. On its face, and for many in the industry, it’s cause for chronic anxiety and economic fragility. What’s often omitted from the conversation or brushed aside, is that some servers resist changing their current wage to a universal $15 hourly rate. Because they’re regularly earning much more — up to or more than three times this amount — in gratuities. Many of these servers, some with lengthy careers in hospitality, have built financially stable lives with mortgages, children, vacations, etc. They’ve mastered their craft, put in their time, and are loath to risk a reduction in earnings. That’s cold comfort, of course, to those struggling in chain restaurants or places that can’t guarantee a certain level of business or the check averages needed to create a certain standard of living. These workers walk on thin ice and live hand-to-mouth, week-to-week. This shames all of us, both inside and outside the industry, and demands redress. But this condition isn’t exclusively a restaurant issue: it’s a crime demanding a federal response.
Mandating a national $15 (or higher) minimum wage would be a first step. It would likely force independent restaurants to raise prices in order to enable paying such a wage. But, if every working person received at least $15 per hour, dining “experiences” might be more accessible, which could mean more business and mitigated risk. And the difficult conversation with higher-end servers about instituting a new base wage would become irrelevant. It’d then be incumbent on higher-end restaurateurs to figure out how they were going to help their servers maintain their previous standard of living. Higher prices on dishes? An automatic 20% service fee? Good guests are already tipping at this rate. As long as certain levels of business are maintained, this is all possible and less risky if most places are doing it. Trouble is, it won’t completely fix wage disparities inside the restaurant. Though they receive an hourly or weekly pay rate higher than front- of-house (FOH) workers, non-tipped back-of-house (BOH) employees often earn considerably less. Without asking FOH to take a hit — say, having part of the 20% fee dedicated to BOH wages — it’s hard to address that disparity. So, higher prices AND a 20% service fee? How expensive and exclusive will some dining experiences become?
It’s here that in some pieces (and invariably in online comment threads), the restaurateur’s presumed greed takes center stage: we refuse to pay higher wages; our obligation to do so gets passed onto the customer; we care only about profits. Somewhere in the article, our razor-thin operating margins will be mentioned, but they seldom seem to be seriously considered. I’ve no doubt that some (and maybe many) restaurateurs are greedy and bottom-line obsessed. There’s no reason why they wouldn’t reflect a society where, for decades and in ways both conscious and un-, we’ve been told to desire material things, see the world as a zero-sum game, and judge ourselves by economic metrics. But, like most Americans, few restaurateurs get rich or even thrive. Something like 60% of restaurants bite it in the first year, and 80% join the choir invisible before their fifth. For many of us who last, our Sisyphean reality alternates between harrowing and hale periods. You’re flush one week, but skint the next. There isn’t extra money set aside, and precious little of it migrates into your personal bank account. I’m not complaining; we knew this going in. Or thought we did. What we had was an abstract understanding of this reality. Okay, we’d no idea.
We’ve lived through some shit. Allow me to get personal (but I don’t think my story is very unusual):
Days after Philly’s March 16, 2020 mandatory shutdown, which came only after the surrounding counties had closed up and business in the city evaporated, we buried our heads in SBA forms (notably the Payroll Protection Program, or PPP), that would allow us to rehire our staff. Not knowing how long the process would take, our staff filed for unemployment and we started a GoFundMe for those members most at risk. It then dawned on us that we were on the hook for forty hours of sick leave for the entire staff (per the city’s 2019 Paid Sick Leave act). We’d no intention of letting down the people who’d been with us for years, but — after a typically sleepy February that saw the reliable-but-always-”unexpected” equipment failures and repairs — there was fuck-all in the restaurant’s bank account. And we had other non-deferrable payments to make. Any SBA monies would be a long time coming. If they came at all. The bank threw up its hands. Enter a private lender, offering a 17% interest rate that would DOUBLE if we couldn’t pay it off in three months. But we were grateful and bit on the offer, even with no business and no idea when we’d be able to reopen. No one else was coming to our aid. The PPP eventually arrived, but that was for staff payroll. Then, just before our June reopening and in the nick of time, another SBA loan came through. We paid off the private lender before the ninety-day period. And we were able to pay our health insurance bill (one of those non-deferrable payments on which we’d deferred, so our coverage had been temporarily cancelled).
For us, that was grimly familiar: Cathy and I had previously dropped our own coverage in 2010. The economy was still in the shitter from the 2008 crash. We’d hired a new, more costly chef, but business still wasn’t where it needed to be, so belts got tightened. I was a cancer survivor (a bout of Hodgkin’s in 1999). After ten years in remission, we bet that the cancer was in our rearview. We bet we could survive the gap until the Affordable Care Act took effect, giving folks with preexisting conditions the right to coverage, and our business slowly took a positive turn. We bet wrong: my Hodgkin’s returned like a gorilla on meth. Though I couldn’t get to my oncologist for testing, I knew what was up. A few months passed, during which the ACA thankfully went live, but biz wasn’t picking up. It was a 3-Bell review from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Craig LaBan in Spring 2011 that changed that last metric. We got back on our insurance (thanks, Obama!), I got my positive Hodgkin’s diagnosis and started months of chemotherapy that ended with a month-long stay at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for a stem-cell transplant. All of the above is batshit and uniquely American, but not a one-of-a-kind story. Parts or all of it would be familiar to a lot of American small-business owners, and not just restaurateurs. I hope it answers some questions about small restaurants offering healthcare to employees. Contrary to what some might opine, many more of us would like to. But It’s simply beyond most of our abilities. And only in America is healthcare — which should be a human right — a for-profit business cruelly tied to employment. We’re the only first-world nation (putatively the world’s wealthiest) that doesn’t provide its citizens with care. The ACA saved my life. But it’s a bridge to something better, so make not-for-profit healthcare available to everyone. Problem solved.
Cards on the table: my wife and I pay ourselves enough to put us a bit over Philadelphia’s 2020 average household income. On paper, anyway. We’re not always able to pay ourselves. From that, we cover our household bills and mortgage (our house was paid off until we remortgaged it to fund Le Virtú’s buildout). We’ve no 401K, no real savings account, no substantial retirement monies. We’ll make our money whenever we sell the bricks and the liquor license, presuming those things will be worth anything after this national shitshow. Again, no complaints. We’ve got no kids. We do better than more than half of the city (whose income/wealth disparity is a whole other grim topic). And we get to eat and drink at the restaurant when we like, write off a yearly trip to southern Italy (back when that was possible, often with a staff member in tow), and express our passion for Abruzzo, a region we love and where we hope to land whenever this restaurant road ends. We get to support causes we care about, use the joint to fight for what we think is right. We also get to help nearly twenty people, most of whom have been with us for years, support their families. We’re beholden to them, and we wouldn’t have lasted for fourteen years without them treating the place as their own. We pay all of them what we can, but by no means all that they deserve. That’s a shitty feeling. But not as unique a feeling among our peers as some might think.
Maybe we just suck at our jobs. Maybe we shouldn’t run a place if we can’t do better for ourselves and our employees. Don’t think we haven’t mulled that over (which WOULD put us in the company of many small restaurant owners). And our people have stayed with us through thick and thin. Is it more reasonable to believe that most restaurateurs are dipshits and assholes or that, just maybe, America’s economy and dream are part of a scam promising rewards for hard slog but actually serving indifferent gods living lives beyond our common imaginations? Maybe it’s the latter. Because, even if you mandate a living wage for all and provide universal healthcare, this industry’s still not out of the woods.
Toiling within the biz and making much of it work are immigrants, often brown ones, once willfully ignored but more recently — under the last administration — maligned and targeted. Their work ethic, skills, and willingness to learn make them indispensable. Very often these folks lack status, though they provide some form of documentation that passes muster with the payroll company. They pay taxes but, of course, can’t avail themselves of the services their taxes make possible. At any decent place, they’re respected and, within the confines of industry standards, well-compensated. Good places don’t value these workers for their cheapness. They’ve got leverage, are in high demand, and will move on if mistreated. Poli Sanchez, our executive chef, came undocumented from Mexico to this country at the age of seventeen. He started at the bottom of the restaurant-kitchen totem pole and worked his way up, becoming an essential worker at several Philly joints. He risked deportation to testify against armed thugs who’d been preying on the immigrant community at the request of the Philadelphia Police Department, who in turn helped offer him a path to status. After almost ten years in limbo, Poli earned his Green Card, and we were able to play a small but proud role in that. He’d been living here undocumented — but, in every important sense, as a “solid citizen” — for seventeen years. Half of his life when he achieved status. But Poli was lucky. Most of these people have to work in the shadows, under assumed names, unable to advance, get the credit they deserve, or partake of the culture and society to which they contribute so much. And even that contribution is muted. Not only restaurants, but the entire American culture deprives itself of the enormous boon that would be their complete participation in our society. It’s thoughtless, cruel, and stupid. We hurt ourselves.
Do I have to state how ridiculous this is? We’ve advocated, along with some (but not enough) of our fellow restaurateurs, for paths to status and rights for the undocumented, refugees, and asylum seekers. And we’ve been targeted for it. Most significantly by a Trump clone, Republican mayoral candidate and his supporters. We wouldn’t have had to sweat it, however, if America and the restaurant industry had had our backs.
Immigration reform would also help fix things where the chain of restaurant crimes begins, down on the farm. We’re all used to artificially low food prices. Given what many Americans earn, they might not seem low, but if you’re an independent family farm trying to do things the right and sustainable way, you’re getting screwed coming and going. Most large corporate farms don’t think much about sustainability and responsible custodianship of the environment. They don’t save heirloom varietals, focus on local/seasonal, or even concern themselves much with flavor. What they do is grow and pick a shitload of produce on the cheap. Beyond economies of scale, one way they’re able to do this is through subsidies which, according to farmers we’ve talked with, don’t find their way to smaller operations. So, our government undercuts the responsible farmer — the wholesome, iconic, community pillar we celebrate in the oft-cited but little understood farm-to-table equation — and rewards the big producers. Another way large, industrial farms undercut their more traditional competition is through the mass use of migrant workers. Whole armies of often-undocumented workers — who, though vilified, were deemed essential during this pandemic by the administration that persecuted them — roam the country, showing up when the shittiest part of the job needs getting done and doing it for next to nothing. These large concerns don’t advocate for real immigration reform, reform that would give workers choices and leverage. They want more workers, not empowered ones. They bet that our dependence on cheap food will enable us to continue looking the other way, regardless of immigration laws. The shortage of such labor during the pandemic should’ve been a wake-up call for industrial farming, but don’t count on it.
Early in the pandemic, I sat down at Le Virtú with Ian Brendle of Lancaster County’s Green Meadow Farm, commiserating through masks. The Brendle family has been farming the right, sustainable way for decades, supplying many of Philly’s restaurants where that and quality matter. Green Meadow delivers stuff that’s fresh, flavorful, expresses the terroir (yeah, I hate that word, too) of some of the world’s richest farmland, still miraculously existing within two hours of the city. He’s got traditional seasonal and “heirloom” produce, but also innovative products, including varietals from Italy. The farm eschews excessive use of plastics, collects rainwater, and runs on generators powered by used cooking oil. This is stuff that could be essential to whether or not the human race survives. And it costs Brendle more to do things this way. But he’s resigned to never, ever getting a price that’s commensurate with his labor and outlay. Not even close. “Why do you do it, Ian?” “Pride. Passion. Because it’s what’s best for our land, the place I love and where I live. Because I get to work for myself, be my own boss.”
It costs more to buy some of our produce from people like Ian, even if they’re not making real money in the exchange. So, our prices are a little higher at Le Virtú than at some other Italian eateries in the city, and especially in our South Philly neighborhood. But we can’t pass the entirety of that cost on to you. Or the cost of the artisanal Abruzzese cheeses, olive oils, saffron, and other ingredients we source to make our food authentic. Our prices would be prohibitive. We’ve got a good reputation but don’t dwell in that anointed country patronized by those for whom money is no object. And it wouldn’t fit our mission, anyway: we prepare the food of Abruzzo’s working people, its shepherds and farmers. We’ve always wanted to be a neighborhood trattoria like one you’d find in Abruzzo. Nothing more. But I know we’re not cheap for people who earn their money. Even if the price of dinner still isn’t commensurate with what it costs to prepare.
Admit it: you’ve complained. If not at our restaurant, at another: “Expensive for what it was,” “Overpriced.” Those words cut through restaurateurs like knives. Because you’ve probably no idea. Because the only way any of this works in the end is if somebody gets screwed. This is the truth of Late-Stage Capitalism: somebody has to get the shaft if somebody along the chain is going to make a buck. The responsible farmer gets screwed, no doubt. So, too, do many restaurant workers. Though a few owners seem to have hacked the system, many struggle mightily, fail, and end up buried in debt. And while a restaurant meal is expensive for many Americans, it’s seldom a rip-off in the financial sense (obviously, there are some meals not worth any amount of coin). The customer isn’t the victim here, but not really the beneficiary, either.
The people making out on this complicated exchange are the same ones making out in American capitalism’s big grift. They are the beneficiaries of the absurdities and indignities that make the machine run and make fixing anything so difficult. Unless you’re a member of a few select families or professions it’s a solid bet that your income hasn’t kept pace with inflation. We’ve spent the last four decades undermining unions, abandoning our own communities in search of cheap labor, downsizing, valuing the stock market and shareholders above workers, broader society, actual product, anything that would sustain our neighborhoods, and relentlessly funneling profits to a tiny, over-privileged percentage of our population. Like the restaurant industry, it only “works” if someone’s getting screwed. And that someone is you. We need to charge more for dinner so farmers, workers, and even specimens like us, can earn a real living. But you can’t afford to pay more. And that’s because this economy isn’t about you. Or us, for that matter. We’re fuel for a furnace of commerce that creates lives for the very few that are as beyond our imaginations as the internet and space travel would’ve been, in 1909, to my rural Abruzzese grandfather as he stepped onto an America-bound ship in Napoli. And we don’t count for a hell of a lot more than kindling, judging by the way this scam works (hell, they won’t even give us the health care the rest of the world takes for granted. Instead, they keep trying to take away the health care we DO have). But, of course, we peasants argue amongst ourselves, fighting over scraps while trying to eke out another day, some of us dreaming about becoming one of them.
And these inequities and absurdities have never been so apparent as during this pandemic. For months after the initial wave of SBA relief, particularly the first wave of PPP funding essential to rehiring staff, we did squat nationally to address both the health and economic crises. We didn’t nationally shut down nonessential elements of the economy, shelter in place long enough to flatten the curve, make rapid testing accessible or perform comprehensive contact tracing. We didn’t reliably provide PPE for healthcare and other essential workers. We didn’t ensure that small businesses and their employees were financially protected. We ensured, instead, that many of these businesses would die and the jobs they provided would be lost. And that the virus would spread and neighbors would die. Our response laid bare our priorities: a shortsighted value of commerce over community and human life. For almost a year, there was no real national response. Just disinformation and indifference from the White House and half-assed, confused responses that varied from state to state and were rolled out and often back prematurely. The national curve never flattened, and cases and deaths accelerated to grim levels. Winter arrived, along with flu season (increasing the burden on our healthcare system), and thousands of Americans were dying each day, and tens of thousands more becoming infected.
To its credit, the Biden administration is trying to address all this. But we — as a society and as an industry — seem loathe to accept realities and responsibilities and do the right thing. For example, we’re still trying to make indoor dining work here and across the country. Without universal access to testing, vaccinations, or safety nets for uninsured workers who’ll get sick. And with new, more communicable and potentially more lethal variants already here.
Yes, we know COVID spreads more efficiently indoors. No, we don’t have great data to dispel any link between infection spikes and indoor dining. In fact, we’ve got studies suggesting the opposite. No, restaurants can’t survive at 25% occupancy. And restaurants sure as hell can’t retain their staffs. At 50% occupancy, survival might be possible, but many jobs will be lost. Among the employees who’ve been with us for a decade or more, how do we decide who stays and who goes? What right do we have to ask — let alone expect — our staff to risk their health and lives to serve food so we can maybe scrape by and they can…what, exactly? Bravely subsist? Gradually fall into crushing debt? And then possibly fall ill and die, martyrs to “The Economy”? What kind of Darwinian experiment is this?
“The US isn’t a country,” Massimo, our consulting chef from Abruzzo, mused the other day. “It’s not for the people. It’s a bank. A machine for making money.” I didn’t disagree.
The US money-making machine is also rife with racism — sometimes unconscious, sometimes deliberate and systematic, but endemic. So, of course, is the restaurant biz. Just as COVID and the Trump presidency made more plain the gaping cracks in our societal and economic frameworks, the fundamental injustices and absurdities, they also stressed everything past the breaking point. There’d better be a reckoning. You can’t put what was, that farce of equality, back together. While a lot of what has to change needs to happen inside the minds, souls, and hearts of white Americans (restaurateurs included), there are structural things we’d do if we really wanted a more equitable society and opportunities for people of color. And one of the particularly important things in our biz is access to capital: restaurants don’t happen without money. And lots of it — for construction, equipment, staff, mortgages/rent, and the first year, when more money goes out than comes in. As a nation, we need to invest in neighborhoods and entrepreneurs of color. And it can’t just be initiatives from local, state, and federal governments — we need local banks to support these communities. Mandate this. Compel banks to do the right thing. Maybe make their charters conditional on the percentage of loans they make to these communities and their denizens, as part of broader, significant reparations. Our Constitution is an aspirational document, but it also once quantified the worth of a black man in bondage as 3/5ths that of a white man. We’ve not delivered on our promises; we’ve only paid it a lot of lip service. The arc of the universe might bend toward justice, but four hundred years is too long to wait. It’s time to put up or shut up.
Irony attends a lot of the media criticism, now achieving critical mass, of the chef culture dominating many celebrated establishments. It’s at once infuriating and comical to have a tribe of suddenly repentant Victor Frankensteins slap their heads and say “Hey, this elevation of the ego above the purer, wholesome aspects of cuisine might lead to the creation of tyrants or insufferable pricks who believe their own press.” D’ya think? The culinary media played a pivotal role in creating this reality. Restaurateurs promote what they believe will bring them business. It’s about survival. The media are their megaphone to the customer. If what the media wants is a charismatic figure flaunting his or her skills, occasionally proclaiming new directions or what’s essential, restaurateurs will comply. And this, of course, posits power in one person. Not usually a good idea.
Again, we find ourselves in agreement. And also somewhat culpable.
At its origins, cuisine is offered with love. It can be a window on culture, an entry point to knowing other peoples and catching them in the act of being themselves. It builds bridges and knocks down barriers. But, too often, its celebrated focal points are performative and ultimately empty. Restaurants can serve as a hub for a community, places where conviviality is created and nurtured. But they’re too often temples dedicated to ego. And through our televisual culture, we’ve made cuisine zero-sum, kind of soulless, and amputated it from the communities where it began. In this context, the chef is posited as a culinary warrior. TV shows like “Iron Chef,” “Top Chef,” “Chopped,” etc., might not be intrinsically bad, but they encourage the notion of chef as a locus of creation, the hero. And cooking becomes competitive sport. Which is horse shit. Any chef worth her salt is going to have roots in some culinary tradition, whether the food she makes hews to that tradition or not. And what’s exciting, good, and nourishing really depends on context and, yes, execution. For some of us, the simplest and least manipulated dishes deliver the most in terms of satisfaction. Purity of intention, generosity, and connection to community and culture feed the soul. They shout “us” and not “me.” It’s not that all kitchens that are vehicles for one person’s vision are shallow and can’t contribute something meaningful (in fact, there are a few we admire). It’s that they too often are and so seldom do.
Many food writers buy into what’s called in history studies the “Great Man Theory,” the notion that exceptional individuals, through the impact of their talents or inspiration, drive events. As a former history major, I’ve always felt queasy about this idea. While not dismissing the role of the singular talent, I cotton more to the idea that “great” figures and the arc of history are products of social movements and cultures. And this is also true in kitchens. Anyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant knows that consistently producing good food requires the work of many people, most of them unheralded (often undocumented), and a meaningful mission. These facts don’t inspire nearly enough ink. Talented tyrants do exist, but anyone who’s worked in a restaurant also knows that while a tyrannical state might produce remarkable things and have commercial success, it’s often a toxic and soul-crushing place to spend one’s waking hours. Even for the tyrant.
We started out wanting to be a no-frills trattoria that honored Abruzzo, nailed its food, and offered the kind of feel that would engender the community we’d found in the region and which suited our South Philly address. By our own metrics, we stuck that landing. We developed a loyal clientele, including many native-born Italians jonesing for what we served. But our simple fare left some critics — who wanted more flair, more “wow” — well, wanting. For these writers, our original Abruzzo-born-and-raised chef’s plates hewed too closely to the artless preparations and compositions native to her region. And these columnists can impact levels of business. Not so much about guaranteeing the quality or authenticity of a place, they can push agendas regarding culinary direction. Certain types of service, chefs, and design are rewarded. Generally, the unvarnished hospitality and unpretentious fare typical to a southern Italian trattoria (as well as many immigrant-run places in America, places dedicated to a specific community, neighborhood joints, etc) might garner kind words, but won’t inspire the effusive praise the public seems to expect in order to perform selection triage.
So, after our first chef departed, we hired someone who better met the prevailing criteria. And it worked. Though we continued to focus on traditional rustic fare, the chef’s flourishes attracted the praise and attention needed to move the economic needle. And attention begets attention. We basked a bit in the spotlight and for a time lost our way, moving the mission to the back burner (though we never admitted to it, not even to ourselves) to focus on presenting a persona. We took ourselves too seriously as well. We quickly became a more economically successful but less Abruzzese restaurant. I’m not really talking about food. Ultimately, it wasn’t sustainable, enjoyable, or healthy. Behind the scenes, our restaurant wasn’t always a happy place to work. Not for the chef, not for the staff, not for us. But we’d invested a lot of time and money and, so, held on too long. Commerce doth make cowards of us all. We eventually cut the cord, but not before stressing some of our relationships with the staff who’d quietly made our success possible. The place found its center again, and also instantly became less relevant to some writers. Personality and not culture, drove the click engine.
This one’s an easy fix. But that ball is in the media’s court.
So much of what’s “normal” about this country needs to change before we can fix what’s wrong in our industry. Will it happen? It’d better, and not just for restaurants. Will we survive to see that new world or whatever else is on the other side of COVID? Right now, it doesn’t look great. Not for us or for a lot of places like ours. Not unless the government comes to our rescue. I’ll leave it to others to ponder whether we deserve that or not. But when I think of our restaurant, the neighborhood folks who treated our bar like their local, the community that gathered there regularly, the friendships forged there, the laughter, warm exchanges, comfort given and received, the weddings, the memorials, that’s not nothing. When I think of the causes we supported, the people we helped, the way we used the place to take a stand, I’m proud and grateful to have had such a meaningful tool in such a time. And when I think of the March 2020 shutdown, the day after the city finally and rightly ordered us to close, when our staff and their extended families came to take our perishable foods, the looks on the faces of people we’ve known for years and who gave so much of themselves to make it all possible, people with whom we’ve celebrated, cried, and everything in between, the words “staff” and “business” don’t capture it. All those people returned when we first reopened for outdoor dining. We hope they will again this spring. We don’t want to survive without them. This might not be what inspires most food writers or excites most diners. But it’s a hell of a lot more important.