A year ago, Minneapolis chef JD Fratzke was at the top of the culinary ladder, with his latest restaurant garnering accolades in the national press. Weeks later, he was in the unemployment line.
As COVID-19 shut down bars and restaurants statewide, Fratzke lost not only his job, but his industry, community and identity.
"For 30 years, this is where I felt I belonged," Fratzke said. "I tried rock 'n' roll, and I tried writing, and art, and all of these other things, and then I landed in a kitchen and I was like, 'Wow, these are my people.' "
Along with its devastating health implications, the coronavirus has upended the economy, ruptured relationships, and changed where and how we live. It scrambled familiar routines and spurred major life transitions, from moves, to breakups, to career changes.
But while Fratzke calls the pandemic "a season in hell," he remains hopeful — that he can rebuild his career and help make his industry more equitable and humane.
That's also the case for others whose life trajectory was altered by COVID's collateral impact.
When the pandemic shrank Kirsten Eickenberg's world, the Hopkins mother found herself reassessing her 20-year marriage. And Cassie Smiley found herself back in her parents' basement in Mound.
None of these three would be where they are today if not for COVID-19. Yet they are embracing the new directions their lives are taking.
After decades in the restaurant industry, Fratzke, best known for the late, great Strip Club, was running a mod new supper club in Cannon Falls that earned raves from Food & Wine.
But when in-person dining shut down last March, and Fratzke pivoted operations, the small town's demand for takeout pizza couldn't keep things afloat. The restaurant soon was shuttered, along with its sister pub and market/deli.
Fratzke joined the ranks of nearly half of Minnesota's roughly 200,000 food and beverage workers who lost their jobs. His hard-won culinary career — one he considered a "spiritually rewarding" vocation — had cratered, at least for the foreseeable future.
Entire industry impacted
The current economic downturn is unique in how it devastated certain sectors of the economy, said Julie Brekke, executive director of Hired, a local nonprofit offering career training and employment services.
"So many of the jobs that have been lost have been in the hospitality and retail and service industries," she explained. "And some of those jobs are coming back, but there's also a prediction that about half of those jobs will never come back."
Fratzke filled his unexpected free time by giving away meals from food trucks and helping to establish a free weekly grocery market. This winter, just as his unemployment benefits ran out, he picked up a part-time consulting gig with St. Paul Public Schools to create a culinary curriculum for a middle school home-ec class. Using Fratzke's recipes and meal kits, the distance-learners are cooking everything from scratch mac 'n' cheese to Caribbean beans and rice.
"It was super fun like to channel my inner 14-year-old and think, 'What did I want to eat when I was riding a skateboard in Winona in 1988?' " he said.
Meanwhile, Fratzke has been reflecting on the issues that an industry known for operating on a meal-to-meal basis is overdue in addressing. For many in the hospitality community, the chance to take a breath from the usual sprint has prompted conversations about how to move forward thoughtfully and advocate for change that fosters equity and mental health.
The contributions that immigrants and people of color make to the hospitality industry needs to be acknowledged, he said. As does the toll of the industry's hard-driving and hard-partying culture.
"I am going to be an evangelist for people in the hospitality industry to get outside, to find a way to let Mother Nature love you back, and let that be a lot more of a release than heading to the bottle or the bar," he said.
Fratzke might end up back in a restaurant, but his horizons have broadened. For brand-name chefs like himself, food-service jobs at hospitals and retirement communities they once derided now look appealing.
And as difficult as the past year has been, Fratzke said he and his peers are focusing on rebooting their industry to come back stronger.
"We have this opportunity to really look down the road here and make the right decision, rather than just do whatever we can from moment to moment," he said.
The courage to change
Kirsten Eickenberg was two years into college when she met the man she thought was the love of her life. She married him right after she graduated. Last October, the couple marked their 20th anniversary. But in November, Eickenberg asked for a divorce.
Before the pandemic, Eickenberg led a busy life, active in her career, raising two teenagers, and seeing friends. Though she had long felt that parts of her relationship weren't great, Eickenberg had always considered her difficulties among those inherent to any marriage.
When COVID-19 cleared her schedule, the extra time and lack of other outlets exposed the lack of connection she felt.
"It stripped away so much and it really made me think about the core of my life and am I happy with it or not?" she said. "I had this relationship that under normal circumstances I could deal with if I was busy enough and had my own life, but without those things, I was dead in the water."
The pandemic has clearly strained relationships, said Amy Wolff, who founded Edina-based AJW Financial, a financial and divorce-planning service, and leads seminars for Daisy Camp, a nonprofit that helps women facing the end of their marriages.
"COVID-19 is just bringing out stress for people in so many different ways: money stress, mental health, the boundaries and roles in marriage," Wolff said.
Close quarters and shifting duties that came from bringing work and school home frayed nerves. And many social and wellness outlets that typically help soothe these feelings were gone, Wolff said.
While Eickenberg and her ex-husband have been sharing their home until he buys a new one, she feels hopeful about beginning anew and paving her own path.
"If it wasn't for COVID, I'd still be married, I'm convinced," she said. "But it's not a bad thing. I think if nothing else, I'm looking at COVID as a time that I'm going to get through and emerge as a butterfly. ... It is an opportunity for new beginning."
Moving back and forward
In her early 30s, Cassi Smiley cultivated a strong sense of community in her high-rise apartment in Denver. She also felt a sense of camaraderie with her colleagues at the office of a large real estate company.
Though Smiley had grown up in the Twin Cities, she assumed Colorado was where she'd plant her roots. But that thinking changed soon after coronavirus cramped her urban-living lifestyle. With her building's common spaces closed, living there felt less communal and more constricting.
"My apartment was pretty small, so I was working out of my living room or my kitchen, which were the same room," she said.
The energy she drew from large gatherings — at concerts or parties, where she often played the role of connector — was gone. "I'm a very social person, so I'm always at events, I love hosting events," she explained. "That just kind of disappeared … and that was a huge part of my identity."
When Smiley's job went remote indefinitely and her lease came due, her parents posed the idea of coming to live with them in Mound.
She jumped at the chance, joining several million other young adults nationwide who recently moved in with their parents. A July Pew Research study showed that a majority of adults under 30 now live with their parents — more than even during the Great Depression.
Though she has her own suite in the basement, Smiley said she and her parents are very involved in each other's daily activities, deepening their relationship in ways that short visits can't match.
"We make breakfast together and I have coffee with my dad while he's listening to the news and we chitchat and then I go downstairs for my 9-to-5," she said. "We're very close in general, but this has made us even closer and strengthened that bond."
Since she's been on her own for more than a decade, living with her parents was a bit of an adjustment, Smiley said — especially since her move also led to a new romantic relationship. ("It's definitely like you're back in high school," she joked. "There wasn't any waiting to meet the parents.")
After moving back to Minnesota, Smiley earned her real estate license and is transitioning to a new career selling homes. Helping clients with their searches, Smiley said, has the extra benefit of helping her think about where she'd like to live next, since she's decided to make Minnesota her permanent home.
"At 33, I never thought I would be back with my parents, but I'm enjoying it," she said. "I'm grateful for more time with them and I'm just embracing this chapter."