In a fascinating online discussion (find the video at tinyurl.com/ycd6mu7m), four top Twin Cities chefs — Gavin Kaysen, Ann Kim, Jamie Malone and Justin Sutherland — shared their fears and hopes for their businesses, the Twin Cities dining scene and their industry. Here’s a summary (edited for brevity) of some of their primary talking points.
On running a restaurant during the pandemic
Justin Sutherland: It has been a crazy busy last few months. A constant pivot, reinventing every day, trying to figure out how we navigate this world that’s new every day.
We closed some restaurants, relocated the Handsome Hog [in St. Paul] in order to build an outdoor space and go from 66 seats to 300 seats so we can properly distance.
Our biggest effort was doing a lot of community and charity efforts, trying to keep as much of our staff employed [as possible].
Jamie Malone: We started at Grand Cafe [in Minneapolis] with takeaway food, and it started to become clear to me that if we increased our business in that way we would have to increase the people in our space. That would have meant cramming too many of our staff members together, when so much was unknown.
Essentially we decided to make meal kits that we could create with just our core people on the team, with staggered shifts, and keeping people spaced out. We also wanted to focus on keeping the group together.
Working in restaurants is a very challenging job, but we receive so much gratification from other parts of what we do: making people happy, making things beautiful. So we really wanted to focus on making things that fulfilled ourselves.
Gavin Kaysen: Bellecour [in Wayzata] has only been open for a week, so I don’t have a ton of data. In the summertime we would normally do 300 to 400 people on a Saturday night. Now we’re doing 100 to 120. That won’t fly for long.
I’m asking myself, “Does the brand stay open to stay open?” I don’t have a great answer just because I don’t have enough data yet, but in the next three weeks I will have that data to really understand what sort of pivots we need to take.
What happens when it’s cold? What do we do when we can’t sit outside anymore? That changes the game for everybody.
Ann Kim: I feel a little crazy for even saying that I’m opening up a new restaurant [Sooki & Mimi in Minneapolis] in the middle of a global pandemic. To be honest, a couple weeks into the closure of restaurants we did think about walking away from it.
There are lots of challenges in this profession, but then to try and do it in the middle of a pandemic, when every day is uncertain and unknown — you try to accommodate everyone. People are looking to you for answers, and deep inside, you don’t have any. Your guess is as good as anybody else’s.
Yes, we thought about it, but we realized the missings that would come from walking away from it were far greater than actually forging ahead. I decided to put on my big girl pants and just say, “We’re going to do this. We’re going to make this happen.”
Instead of feeling sorry for myself and scared, I decided to look at this as an opportunity for some great change, and to look at this as a new restaurant not in a middle of a pandemic but in a new renaissance for restaurants.
We’re really exploring how we can lean into these challenges in uncertain times to really create something beautiful, joyous, special and surprising, because that’s why I got into it and I don’t want to lose touch with that. This industry is too dang hard to not have that at the end. I’m in the business of making people happy and to bring some joy and beauty into people’s lives, and I’m committed to doing that with the new restaurant and the existing restaurants. I’m not going to quit yet. But I’ve been tempted. Many times.
Looking to the future
Sutherland on the restaurant industry’s racial and gender diversity: I think the gender inequality and race inequality in restaurant staffing has been prevalent for forever, and it’s just been very unspoken.
I think COVID compounded the George Floyd incidents. Then George Floyd kind of compounded COVID. It all just kind of exploded into this social unrest that things needed to change on many levels, from the way restaurants were run, from our business plans, to our hiring practices, to discrimination in gender, sexual orientation and race.
We get to choose how we deal with it and what our new role is going to be in the new beginnings. I think we’re all taking it very seriously and trying to be as active and vocal as we can, whether it’s making changes in our own restaurants, to being out there marching on the street.
Whatever your role is, I think everybody realizes the restaurant industry is a very big part of it. We are a social gathering place, and that place needs to be equal for everybody.
Malone on a flat service fee instead of tipping: It’s been something that has needed to happen for a long time and this really nudges it along and gives us an opportunity to have fresh conversations with guests about why we are making these changes. We’re able to be vulnerable with our guests and say, “Yeah, our businesses are really teetering — and it wasn’t exactly great before, either.”
[The service charge] evens out the disparities among our staff. As business owners, [it] just gives us a little bit more control of being able to run our business in a sustainable way.
Kaysen on the industry’s next generation: The consumer is not 100 percent safe and ready to go out to eat. I respect that, but I can’t tell my landlords that.
Restaurants won’t ever look the same again, they will never look the way they looked on March 15th.
We’re realizing that our generation now has a responsibility, more than anything else, to change the way that we have been able to do business, to make it better for the future generation.
We might not necessarily see what that looks like, but that’s going to have to be OK. We’re still going to have to make the sacrifice to do it and to do it right and to make sure that it lives, frankly, beyond any of our restaurants.
Help for restaurants
Kaysen on assistance for the hospitality industry: They [the federal government] have not done enough. Period. They have failed tremendously, and they continue to fail on a daily basis.
At the end of the day, there’s really no way that restaurants will be saved unless the federal government steps in and helps us out. At saverestaurants.com is an amazing report that basically breaks down what a stimulus fund would mean for restaurants. One in four jobs lost were in the restaurant and hospitality industries, and those jobs are not coming back.
This is not us going out and saying, “Put money into our hands because we need it.” It’s pure survival. We will not be around. The restaurant community as you know it will be gone. Everything about the vibrant hospitality scene will literally be wiped away in less than 10 months if that doesn’t happen. It’s not an exaggeration. I’m not trying to scare people. It’s just an extinction that will happen.
Sutherland on the need for a federal stimulus: Remember how many other industries are so closely tied into the restaurant industry. The supply chain that is attached to it is insane — from farming to trucking — there are so many jobs that are reliant on restaurants to survive. If we go away, a lot is going to fall down with it.
Kim on supporting your favorite restaurants: One thing that humans are capable of right now is to be compassionate. Please, I know we’re all scared, but if you are making judgments before you really have full understanding of what we’re going through, it’s just the adage that your grandma told you: Think before you speak.
If people are making statements, or reacting toward business decisions that we’re making, I try and flip it around and say, “Their fear must be greater than mine,” and mine is really great right now. I try to respond with compassion, and I ask the same from our guests.
Kaysen on gift cards: The gift card idea is a really great idea, but it’s also sort of a deferment of bankruptcy. All of that money is going into the bank accounts at that time, but when we actually need it is when we don’t want you to necessarily use it.
That was a tough message for any restaurateur to get a hold of and say, “Slow down, don’t buy $5,000 worth of gift cards right now, buy $5,000 worth of takeout food.” Let’s do the transaction today, and be done with it versus in the future.
The emotional side
Kim on managing fear: In March we thought, “OK, I can deal with a couple of weeks, maybe I can deal with a couple of months.” Now we’re at four months, and there is really no end in sight.
We’re trying to manage fear because everybody is so scared. I’m scared. Being a leader and being strong, the only time I can break down is in the corner of my bedroom, and crying on the shoulder of my business partner and husband, and he understands.
A mentor of mine asked, “Ann, how much of your day, in percentages, is ruled by fear, and what percentage is ruled by love?” And I said, “90 percent fear, and 10 percent love.”
That’s a horrible place to be, because when you live and work in fear, you limit yourself to possibility. I didn’t come into this business 10 years ago, having never been in it, by saying, “Oh, yeah, the possibilities are 10 percent.” I came into it thinking, “The possibilities are 110 percent. I can do anything.”
So I’m really trying hard to change that percentage around, to make decisions based in love and possibility and not fear.
Malone on adapting to uncertainty: In the same way that we all wake up not knowing, our guests are feeling the same. Every day is emotionally different.
You have different data about how you want to decide to live your life. There’s no way for us to anticipate what the demand is, so you can’t decide, “Does staying closed give me a slower burn rate of the money I have left in the bank?” or “Do I have a lower burn rate if stay open?”
If you’re open and have to close and then reopen and close, there’s a point where you can’t keep doing that. You also can’t do that to your staff. You can’t give them that up and down and back and forth.
Sutherland on vulnerability: It’s been ingrained in our industry to always project success, to always make people think that our restaurants are doing great or we were doing great personally, when a lot of times that wasn’t the case. That comes from competitiveness and the built-in egos that come with the industry.
[The pandemic] has allowed us to be more vulnerable, to be open and honest, to ask for help and say, “We’re all kind of screwed right now.” But in all of us being screwed, it allows us to all come together, and realize that we’re all experiencing the same thing, and it gives us the opportunity to — hopefully together — build something better.
The vulnerability, it’s been refreshing to see that, to be like, “Oh, I’m not the only one who has cried myself to sleep because I don’t know if I’m going to open my restaurant tomorrow.”
Kim on how she starts her day: One thing that my husband and I started every morning is a ritual of just starting the day with positivity.
Usually we’d start off the day with the paper — the Star Tribune, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times — but it was all the same regurgitated bad news in a different way.
We just said, “We can’t do this anymore. We have to start with the positive.” So each of us says five things that we’re really grateful for, and then we meditate together. That’s actually helped quite a bit.
Sutherland on reducing stress: We’ve all been so deeply rooted in our careers and our restaurants, which we all still are; we love them. But it’s been a good opportunity to realize there’s more — and there has always been more — and just reconnecting with the things around me that are important. Taking walks, going to the gym, taking vitamins, allowing yourself some room to breathe and just taking a little pressure off yourself. Because none of this we can control, and everybody is going through it together. So it allows you to take a deep breath, and roll with the punches, while trying to do better.