On a typical day, I wake up to a volley of reports from the managers of my three restaurants about how the previous day went and photos of what they are walking into that morning. Managing a crew of 52 people resembles a sports event: these reports usually cover who got injured last night, who is subbing for who, anything especially good that happened (high score in sales figures) or especially bad (the electric range shocked the sauté cook).
Most of my day is spent directing traffic – borrowing staff from one restaurant and sending them to one of the others, paying vendors or signing orders, getting up on roofs and fixing broken plumbing, and driving around picking up the various supplies that make the restaurants go.
On March 18, the night that San Antonio’s dining rooms and bars were shuttered, that all changed. In a single moment, more than 40 of my 50 staff lost their work.
Restaurants are one of the most volatile business models there are. We can prepare tons of food and staff in expectation for a busy Saturday night, then a pouring rainstorm that nobody counted leaves us with an empty dining room. Even in the best of times we exist at the whim of a market and its downturns: a presidential vote, or even a big basketball game can knock the wind out of us.
What evens out the bumps is that people need to eat and be near each other, and they come flocking back. It’s rocky, but restaurant workers find the money to live somewhere in this ebb and flow. But when something major happens to entire regions of our industry, it’s as if the ocean suddenly drained away. No one knows what to do.
At Kimura last night, I washed dishes through a shoulder injury. There wasn’t anybody else. Normally a team of about eight people set up the restaurant. Dishwashers, servers and bartenders bustle around getting the space ready, cooks prepare the meats and delicate knife cuts, the stocks and sauces that will be required to run a business day—and eight more shut it down at night. But today, relegated to to-go service only, one manager is doing the work of those eight people. It’s like trying to operate a three-masted ship by yourself. Right now we are struggling just to maintain some sense of sanity.
We have frozen anything we could think of, meting out our ingredients in the smallest quantities we’ve ever seen. The chairs have been in the same stacks for ten days. In the absence of diners, it’s hard to prioritize what you should be doing first, or at all—should I be polishing glasses behind the bar, or clean the restroom…again? Go water the plants?
We count toilet paper rolls and measure our dwindling stores of bleach. We change the music from The Bangles to The Cure to System of a Down, trying to hit the right spot in our aching souls. We wait for the phone to ring. It doesn’t.
These are trying times. I’ve cashed in all the stocks in my retirement account, and I try to stare down that murky hallway of our collective understanding of our economy; how without fail we continue to build physically and financially, with a permanent and inconceivable expectation that values and growth will continue up and up and up but never down, in some quasi-religious ascent.
But things do come down.
I think, then, of my grandmother coming up out of the Great Depression. Of bread lines, of “three-way” chicken recipes, of highway projects, the swinging of the hammer. And how in some ways it was this great loss and suffering that tempered that generation into a nation of resilient, patient, humble people.
I think about my staff, most of them between the ages of 20 and 30, who are all sitting at home, waiting like the rest of us. For what we don’t exactly know. I think about how we older employers bewail the character of the young folks, that they’re soft, that they quit at the drop of a hat, that they don’t know how good they’ve got it.
But honestly, I never saw what my grandmother saw. I am more of the youngster’s generation than of hers. I sit and watch this new paradigm unfold not above them, but beside them.
And not all of me is sad about it. For it was that hardship that gave our grandparents an appreciation for the simple things: a warm bed, someone to talk to, a decent cup of coffee. That, in the words of M.F.K. Fisher in How To Cook A Wolf, if the wine or beer or water is good, it is surely a feast.
For if one thing is certain in these uncertain times, it is that this suffering puts a sledge hammer through the stained glass window of our hubris: our boastfulness, our feelings of invincibility. That yes, this thing can happen to you. And you should be thankful for what you have, no matter how small.
That feeling is invaluable. Humility is a vitamin of which our generation has grown absurdly impoverished.
If there is any glimmer of light in these dark times, it is this: that we are knocked down a few pegs, rendered capable of perceiving that there are subtle blessings in a simple walk in the sun, or a glass of water. Or a job.
Better times lay ahead. We too will be better when we meet them.