The restaurant industry suffered mightily in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Restaurant workers faced risks by simply showing up to work. In purely economic terms, 100,000 restaurants temporarily or permanently closed in the United States, and sales were down $240 billion from what was expected, according to the National Restaurant Association. Some 400,000 restaurant jobs were lost in December 2020 alone.
That’s the bad news. Let’s talk about some good news.
Restaurants across the country have been instrumental in getting food to those who need it most, from hospitality workers to families to first responders. These critical charity initiatives often make headlines, and for good reason. Yet when we asked restaurant owners and managers about the best things that happened to them over the past year, we heard about small, heartwarming moments that you’ll rarely read about or see on TV, but that are still worth spotlighting.
We hope that in reading these, you’ll be inspired to continue to support your local restaurants and appreciate the integral part they play in our communities.
A Kind Note Changes Everything
“A couple weeks after indoor dining was shut down in New York, I received a card in the mail from a couple who come to Roots Cafe regularly. It was a beautiful card expressing their concern for us being able to survive the shutdown and their wish to help in some way. In the card was a check for $1,000 made out to me personally. I immediately burst into tears. I had been so worried about so many things: What was going to happen to our staff who just lost their job? How was I going to keep the lights on? What was I going to do about all the bills that were still coming due? How was I going to pay rent? The world was falling down around me, and out of the blue, a card with a note ― and a check ― from two people who had no idea how lost I was picked me up and changed that way I was looking at everything.
“I knew at that exact moment that we were going to ride this thing out no matter what and come back stronger. If someone else had that much faith in me, I had to find that much faith in myself. I stopped crying, wrote a heartfelt note and made a plan. I shared $1,000 with the staff, since they were my biggest concern, and worked on the rest. When we opened again, I sent another note of thanks to the couple and included a $1,000 check. I explained that they were my inspiration to keep moving forward. I received a letter back explaining that they loved the note but ripped the check up! They said a gift was a gift and they would have spent it here anyway. They came two weeks ago. It was their first time they’ve been out since COVID and they came here. I was crying all over again.” ― Mandy Gorton, owner, Roots Cafe (Naples, New York)
Above: a view of Roots Cafe in the fall, with social distancing measures in place for outdoor diners.
The Whiskey Bottle That Changed Lives
“In the earliest days of the pandemic, we took desperate measures to make payroll by putting our prized whiskey vintages up for auction. An anonymous donor purchased a $20,000 bottle of Pappy Van Winkle for double our asking price ($40,000) to help us stay afloat. I promised the buyer I would find a way to pay them back when they took care of us in our darkest days.
“A year later, I was able to make good on that promise. Our team participated in the Shaq Bowl during Super Bowl weekend this year, where we were awarded a grant that allowed us to make a donation to Quantum Leap Farm to honor our anonymous donor, who is an Iraq War veteran. The Farm provides equine-assisted therapy for veterans as a part of their ‘Warrior Mission: At Ease’ program. Charities across the board are suffering decreased donations due to the pandemic, and we hope to be Quantum Leap Farm’s light in the dark as they were ours.” ― Suzanne Perry, co-owner, Datz Restaurant Group (Tampa, Florida)
A Post-Vaccine Meal To Remember
“I was so excited that a post-vaccine guest wanted to have their first meal at Nakato, I agreed to comp the whole meal. He came in the very next day!” ― Sachi Nakato Takahara, owner, Nakato Japanese Restaurant (Atlanta)
Editor’s note: If you’re curious, it was a chef’s choice sashimi platter, nasu degaku (miso glazed eggplant), soba noodle salad, and a negi toro roll (yellowtail and green onions).
Picking Up A To-Go Order With A Side Of Engagement Ring
“Anna and Lev have been regulars at Concord Hill for two years. Pre-pandemic, they would come in at least once a week and we became friendly; they’ve been very supportive during the pandemic, too, ordering takeout as they live nearby. One day I heard from Lev, who wanted to discuss something important. It turned out that he wanted to propose to Anna and make it a surprise, and as special as possible, considering the pandemic.
“This was in mid-May during the initial lockdown, so there was no outdoor dining allowed ― not even a bench outside ― we just had a window open for orders. Over the course of a week or so, we came up with a ruse. They would come to pick up brunch and his friend would hide nearby with a camera to take photos when the moment came. I didn’t want Anna to feel under-dressed on such a special occasion (thinking that she was just going to get some takeout), so we told her that promotional photos were being taken for our social media that day and they agreed to be in them. Once they got there, we had an X taped on the pavement where he was going to kneel to pop the question and his friend would take photos from a distance.
“Anna was completely taken by surprise and said yes! We had some celebratory drinks on hand and I wrote ‘You’re Engaged!’ on a board that I brought out after she accepted. The friend took photos, people in the street cheered and drivers honked. It was just a beautiful moment, and it was so special to be a part of during such dark times.” ― Gina Buck, GM, Concord Hill (Brooklyn, New York)
Lugging Suitcases Of Food Down Pennsylvania Avenue
“As a casual restaurant located steps away from the White House, we were inside D.C.’s ‘red zone’ during the post-insurrection inauguration. The National Guard, D.C. Police and Secret Service impeded almost all traffic. Nearly all the restaurants on our block chose to close during inauguration, especially after what happened at the Capitol a week earlier. Due to street blockades on our road, trucks were unable to get through; deliveries came to an abrupt halt, including our food supply.
“We were determined to stay open for our customers. What happened next was something most restaurateurs would never have to deal with! Our kitchen gave us a ‘wish list’ of different ingredients needed to make our dishes and bowls. We bought everything from various markets in Virginia, drove them back to D.C., and packed them into massive suitcases (with wheels!) and large Ikea bags. The wife of one of our partners dropped a number of us off at the National Guard post seven blocks from our restaurant. We then ‘walked the food in’ down the middle of a deserted Pennsylvania Avenue, past three separate checkpoints of the National Guard, the D.C. Police and finally the Secret Service. It was a 14-minute trek to the restaurant lugging suitcases and bags filled with produce, fruits and poultry.
“We prepared enough food to feed our lunchtime crowd and remain open during the inauguration and the rest of the week. It’s a story we look back on and laugh about because we can’t believe we did something like that!” ― Peter Schechter, co-owner, Immigrant Food (Washington, D.C.)
Gratitude And Hope Got Them Through
“The world now knows how special restaurants and its workers are. We are God’s hidden angels. When the world needed us, we showed up. We provided food when access was scarce. We provided toilet paper and paper towels when people strangely picked up an affinity for it and began hoarding (who knew!). Even though we were hit the hardest and we lost a lot of good restaurants, the pandemic brought out the best in us. We were more human than we had been in a long time.
“I know for us here at Poppy + Rose, it put us in a position of gratitude. We were grateful every day we remained open and healthy. And in that we found our voice of giving. We began to be grateful for being spared and understood we needed to pay it forward. And we will continue to do so far after the pandemic has ended. It might sound crazy, but the pandemic provided us the space to rely on hope. And that’s what got us through.” ― Kwini Reed, owner, Poppy + Rose (Los Angeles)