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Ron Hsu: How much more can the restaurant industry take?

Restaurants were already clinging to life — and then omicron hit.

(Cristobal Olivares for The New York Times)

Since February 2019, I have been the chef-owner of Lazy Betty, an upscale restaurant in Atlanta. Like so many who work in our industry, I have been in survival mode since March 2020, weathering the chaos wrought by COVID-19.

We’ve been making it work. But with omicron’s arrival, we’ve been forced to rethink what it will take to keep the business alive each day while keeping both our staff and our diners safe. Without more help — both from the government and from guests — we won’t make it, nor will countless other independently owned restaurants around the country. To understand why, let me take you behind the scenes of the last two years at Lazy Betty.

When we closed our doors on March 11, 2020, before Atlanta’s citywide shutdown, we had just been named a James Beard semifinalist for best new restaurant. Closing meant furloughing our staff, which included high schoolers and longtime industry vets with résumés that included names like Per Se and Le Bernardin. When we gave our team the news, they asked: “When do you plan on reopening?” “When will my health insurance kick back in?” “What can I do to earn a paycheck?” I had no answers. All I could do was give them the food in our walk-in refrigerator and say goodbye, not knowing if I’d see them inside the restaurant ever again.

As I locked up, I felt an overwhelming sadness. I’d named the restaurant for my late mother, who had died just a few months before. Now, I feared for its fate.

About a week later, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced that restaurants with in-person dining could stay open for takeout. So we shifted from our tasting menus to family-style meals that could survive 40 minutes in a foil box. Line cooks who used to carefully smoke crab legs now roasted whole chickens. Everyone washed dishes. I delivered some takeout orders. Servers became launderers.

When Gov. Brian Kemp lifted the dining-room closure weeks later, we were in dire need of revenue. We also had a host of safety measures to put in place. We bought touchless soap and sanitizer dispensers, masks for the staff, additional cleaning materials and plastic barriers for our chef’s counter. We also purchased masks for the guests (and still do) as well as digital thermometers.

We created a four-course menu for guests too anxious to sit in a dining room for the duration of our standard 10-course meals. After we reopened, some nights we only served 10 diners — less than half of what we needed to break even. Prepandemic, we averaged about $42,000 a week in revenue, but that week we barely broke $13,000.

The biggest cost was an outdoor patio to make up for our reduced indoor seating capacity and provide an alternative for anxious guests. The quote for a roofed patio with proper heaters, fans and a window system for fresh air circulation: around $85,000. But as a young restaurant, we still had a lot of debt to pay off. So in June 2020 we put up a makeshift tent that cost us $6,300. We were dinged with the occasional complaint on Yelp that our patio wasn’t up to par with the rest of our dining experience.

After the pandemic began, the federal government provided some temporary relief to small businesses in the form of Paycheck Protection Program loans. But that money dried up. Congress created a $28.6 billion grant program for restaurants — far short of the roughly $100 billion industry groups estimated that we needed to weather the storm.

And then came omicron. The week before Christmas, one member of our 41-person staff tested positive for COVID, forcing us to close for the weekend. Over two days, our restaurant lost over $38,000 in revenue. Inspecting our walk-in fridge, I saw thousands of dollars worth of foie gras, white truffles and ducks that had been dry aging for two weeks. I felt a sickeningly familiar sense of uncertainty and fear. I was one of many chefs and owners who felt that old angry exhaustion once again as restaurants big and small confronted yet another challenge.

Lazy Betty is primarily a reservation-only restaurant — so when we were hit with a slew of cancellations in that pre-Christmas week, we feared the worst. Every caller said they had an emergency COVID case. Many asked if we could waive our cancellation fee.

On the one hand, we risked the inevitable nasty review on Yelp. On the other hand, there was the lost revenue and the cost of ingredients we had to throw out — a classic lose-lose situation, brought to us by the pandemic. In the end, we tried to sway these diners to reschedule their reservations to a future date, delaying the possibility of the cancellation charge.

The biggest challenge has been deciding when to reopen, which hinges on the health of our team. On that recent weekend we closed because of the positive COVID case, only five of our employees could secure an appointment for a COVID test. After a long search, I wound up with a cart full of at-home tests and a new membership to Sam’s Club. All told, my chef-partner Aaron Phillips and I spent just shy of $800 on 106 tests. My staff burned through half of them by the following Wednesday, allowing us to safely reopen.

Lazy Betty has been lucky. We made smart investments at the start of the pandemic and our reservation policy allowed us to closely manage our food and labor costs. We share our service charges with the front- and back-of-house, which has helped us retain staff. We’ve also delayed paying back our investors and distributing profits to owners to increase our operating capital by roughly 50 percent, which we’ve spent on pandemic-related upgrades.

Others haven’t been so lucky. Some chef friends tell me they are considering another career. No one would fault them.

Our industry needs more support from the government. That means supplemental health insurance for employees or rent abatement programs for landlords of restaurant properties. Easy access to free rapid testing would also help us catch infections early. President Biden has announced plans to expand free at-home testing. Restaurant employees and other essential workers who can do their work only in person should be prioritized.

But it’s not all on the government. Supply-chain lapses, the rising price of goods and the labor shortage have driven up costs — yet diners still expect prepandemic prices. We need them to continue coming in to eat with the understanding that higher prices are necessary if our industry is to survive.

All I’ve ever done is work in kitchens. It’s what I love to do. As a chef, I’m used to thinking on my feet to solve the next new problem. Until now, it’s kept Lazy Betty alive. But how much longer can we go on?

Ron Hsu is the culinary director and a co-founder of Lazy Betty, Juniper Cafe and the forthcoming Humble Pie in Atlanta. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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