On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
When the pandemic struck, the thriving food scene in the D.C. region was hit hard. Initially, many restaurants and bars were forced to close or lay off staff. Over the past year, restaurants navigated various phases of reopening and a slew of dining restrictions. Many pivoted successfully to focus on takeout and delivery options. Others struggled to stay afloat, and some were forced to close their doors permanently.
For this final Kojo In Your Community event, we discuss the ways the local restaurant industry has been affected by the pandemic, what changes could be permanent, and what the region’s restaurant landscape might look like in the future.
This is a broadcast of the audio from our Kojo In Your Community event on March 16, 2021. Kojo will not be taking live calls or social media questions during this show.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- José Andrés Chef; Owner, Think Food Group (Jaleo, Oyamel, Zaytinya, minibar); Founder, World Central Kitchen; @chefjoseandres
- Ruth Tam Co-host of Dish City; @ruthetam; @DishCity
- Tom Sietsema Food Critic, Washington Post; Author of "The Washington Post Dining Guide"
- Julie Verratti Associate Administrator of Field Operations, Small Business Administration; Founder, Denizens Brewing Company
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Earlier this week we held our latest Kojo In Your Community event via Zoom. The topic was how the local restaurant industry has fared during the pandemic and what the future looks like. This is the final broadcast in our Kojo Connects series, this month focused on arts, culture and food. WAMU's Arts and Culture Reporter Mikaela Lefrak assisted me by moderating and sharing the questions from the attendees. And I just want to mention, this is Mikaela's last week with WAMU. We wish her well up north. We will miss her.
KOJO NNAMDIReminder today's show is pre-taped so we won't be taking calls during the broadcast. For this final Kojo Connects event we're discussing the ways the local restaurant industry has been affected by the pandemic, what changes might be permanent and what the region's restaurant landscape might look like in the future. Joining us now to discuss this is José Andrés, Restaurateur and Founder of the World Central Kitchen. José Andrés, welcome and how are you doing my friend?
JOSÉ ANDRÉSWell, now that I am with you, Kojo, I feel amazingly well, because, my friend, I miss you and every time I listen to your voice it's kind of a voice that reminds me that I belong to Washington D.C. And I thank you, I thank you for that.
NNAMDIHow has the pandemic affected the restaurant industry? What has the past year been like starting with your restaurants?
ANDRÉSWell, it's been obviously one of the most difficult moments of our life. I still remember around the 13th, 14th of March of 2020 that I was announcing on a video that there was closing my restaurants in front of Jaleo, the first restaurant I opened in 1993. So imagine. We've all been trying to survive, obviously taking care of our families, but more important at the same time taking care of our teams who are like family, taking care of our restaurants, trying to forecast a future that quite frankly nobody could imagine, because every week was changing.
ANDRÉSSo here we are and we can say I look forward for the future of the restaurant industry. But still I'm very worried that over the next few months many, many, many restaurants in D.C. and across America and around the world we're going to have to be there supporting them, because it still going to be a few weeks, few months very hard.
NNAMDIYou were just 23 years old when you opened Jaleo restaurant. Is this period now the most difficult period you've experienced in the industry since you first got started?
ANDRÉSTotally, I mean, we are talking people that their whole livelihoods is very much destroyed, people that had to close the restaurants, because they couldn't negotiate the lease, the rent with their landlord or with the banks, and quite frankly we're talking about hundreds of thousands of restaurants across United States alone. So this has been without the doubt -- everybody always kind of dreams to be part of movie. Unfortunately this is the time that every single human in Washington, in America, in planet Earth has been part of a movie. Hopefully, we're going to get ahead together. Together I think we're going to come out stronger, but it's been a very long road. It's been very dark months.
NNAMDIThe organization you founded World Central Kitchen cooks, packages and delivers meals to communities in need wherever there is need. In Haiti after the earthquake, Puerto Rico after the hurricane and most recently in Texas after a winter storm brought record cold temperatures and power outages. To date you have provided over 36 million meals in 400 cities. How have you shifted operations this past year during the pandemic?
ANDRÉSWell, we so very early on figured that this was going to be a major pandemic. I began following this in 1999 on December 31st. We began kind of thinking, What happened if this is the pandemic that everybody was talking, President Obama, Bill Gates? And since we began serving people in the cruise ship in Yokohama at the beginning of February, and then we followed doing the same with the second cruise ship with COVID cases in Oakland, California. In that moment we never stopped. So how we shifted? We are an emergency organization. We are there in the emergency. At one moment we were doing 300,000 meals a day feeding hospitals, homeless shelters, first responders, you name it.
ANDRÉSAnd at the same, Kojo, we had fires in California and Colorado, hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Charles. We had hurricanes in Central America, Columbia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Venezuela where we have a humanitarian crisis. The explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Indonesia with another earthquake happening. At the end of the day, my friend, on top of COVID-19 we had all these other because climate change situations that the man and women of World Central Kitchen were there.
ANDRÉSAnd I'm so proud of all of them because actually we've not been obviously the only ones. We are only the very tiny tip of the iceberg. What gives me joy and hope is that it's been so many Americans and especially here in the city that in the darkest hour of our communities many people decided to step in and in our case a plate of food was the beginning of hope of a better tomorrow.
NNAMDIWorld Central Kitchen has also partnered with restaurants to provide jobs for laid off staff and meals for the wider community. What has that effort looked like here in the Washington region?
ANDRÉSListen, we had many, many, many restaurants on top of the very big restaurant we opened at the National's Stadium that was helping us feed people in Virginia, in Maryland. And in the District we had many restaurants beloved by all of us. Many of them are friends from Colada Shop with Daniella, Compass Rose (unintelligible) pizza with Michael Lastoria, we're talking about so many that it's unfair just to name a few because everybody could doing something else and stay home in the comfort protecting their business alone.
ANDRÉSBut World Central Kitchen we saw this very early. When I closed my restaurants I said they were becoming community kitchens. We created the health code. We created the circles to make sure that people waiting outside could keep the six feet distance that was safe at the time. And what we saw was this, who better than restaurants to feed Americans in the middle of a crisis.
ANDRÉSAt the end of the day we had over 3,000 restaurants only across America on top of Spain and the other countries doing what we do best; serving our communities in the good times, but making sure that we were going to be there serving our communities in the bad times. I'm proud the World Central Kitchen, the money we received from so many people, many of the Washingtonians, we were able to channel the money to go to the people that need it the most, which was restaurants to pay rent, to pay salaries, to pay the farmers, to keep everything running and in the process solve the hunger problem. I'm very proud of what every man and woman joining our efforts, but joining every other effort of feeding fellow Americans, I'm so proud of all of them, because they were there in a very difficult moment.
NNAMDIJosé, many people out there still are not quite comfortable dining out. How do you recommend that such people support local restaurants and their staff?
ANDRÉSListen, the creativity of the food community that goes beyond restaurants, we need to understand involves everybody. We've seen everybody, restaurants, farmers, fish ladies, oyster guys, we've seen them adapting to the situation while doing take-out, while doing to go orders. Different ways that you could be ordering and be in the comfort of your home and knowing that you could be supporting the restaurants if you are not feeling safe going out, and helping the economy somehow to keep moving.
ANDRÉSI don't think many restaurants in this pandemic has gotten rich. I think everybody has been trying just to survive another day to keep jobs open to keep feeding people, very often feeding people in need at the process. So I think the creativity that we've seen I think it's something we're going to see going on in 2021 and beyond.
NNAMDILet's talk about you. How did you first fall in love with cooking, José, and when did you know this would not be just your passion, but your career?
ANDRÉSI don't want to sound very romanticist, but I always mention about -- if we talk about who is feeding the world, it's not boys like me. It's not cooks like me. Our women around the world are feeding especially in the poor communities, nothing that the love of a woman, the love of a mother. And me, I wish that there was conscious when probably my mom fed me for the first time bringing me close to her and giving me her love and feeding me.
ANDRÉSAnd I think that's why we all love, love so such to share a plate of food with others to believe in longer tables not higher walls. I do believe that love that our mother gives to us the first time feeding us is what keeps going through. We're unconscious, but it's inside our brain somewhere. That's why we all love to have good times sharing loving food and enjoying of family and friends and a very long table where happiness wins the day.
NNAMDIYou opened your first Spanish tapas restaurant Jaleo you mentioned in 1993. Jaleo is still there, of course, but you've added many more culinary ventures since then. What was it like to venture into the restaurant business at that time and what did that part of D.C. look like then?
ANDRÉSThat part of D.C. looked very, very empty. We only had kind of the Shakespeare Theater, but was many other people next door. Obviously I remember the (unintelligible). But when I arrived the D.C. was amazing. We had Jerry Paladan and we had Roberto's Donuts. And we had Nora Pouillon and we had Robert Kinkaid and (unintelligible) -- I mean, so many amazing chef men and women that already made our city vibrant.
ANDRÉSWhen I came as a young boy and I opened Jaleo, I was very lucky as a head chef to have -- who become a very good teacher and a good friend and passion, an amazing woman that taught me a lot what I know if anything about organization. You know, what I realized, Kojo? That at the end of the day I am who I am thanks to all the people that invested their time and made me better. This is the America we want. This is the communities we want where we understand that it's not about I, the person, but we, the people.
ANDRÉSWhere everybody is who they are thanks to people that we have around us, and we need to celebrate that because we have each other. And in this darkest hour I feel like we have each other. We need to keep this philosophy going forward.
NNAMDIYou were something of a pioneer back then on the local food scene. How has the restaurant landscape changed in the past couple of decades here in our region before this pandemic hit?
ANDRÉSWell, you're going to have Tom Sietsema and others that they're much bigger experts. But let me put it this way. Washington D.C. I'm very proud, because it keeps reinventing itself. New generations keep coming up. Chefs, Afro American chefs, Latino chefs that before probably they couldn't even think about owning or being at the top. We see that they are some of the most creative chefs doing amazing things and taking their know how to TV and to other cities around America and around the globe. This to me without a doubt has been 10 amazing years.
ANDRÉSAnd this only tells me that the next 10 years with new communities opening up, raising up, new amazing moments where every community seems to have a new restaurant, like, my friend from Busboys and Poets, Andy Shallal opening in Anacostia when nobody else would dare to open in Anacostia. People don't want our pity. People want our respect. And I love that in this case Andy Shallal showed me how to give respect to a community by opening a restaurant. The next 10 years I think they're going to be even better. You just wait and see.
NNAMDIWhen you joined us on this show back in 2018, a lifetime ago, and spoke about the value of small businesses, the value that small businesses bring to a neighborhood, what effect can a restaurant or a bar have on a community?
ANDRÉSListen, I mentioned before restaurants are all longer tables. We all have moments in a restaurant. We know all the owners or the chefs or the managers or the bartenders or the busboys or the waiters or the hostesses. We all are proud of a restaurant well in our city, well in our neighborhood, we love to take friends. In my case, can you believe right now that I see people that they are 30 years old that they told me that the first anything that they ate was in one of my restaurants.
ANDRÉSThis is something that's very -- I cannot I've been almost 30 years in this city. But this only tells you that restaurants are anchors of community in ways we cannot even imagine. Restaurants don't only feed our body, but they feed our soul. Restaurants are part of the DNA of Washington. They are part of the DNA of our country. That's why America is the melting pot. It's been a way that we know more about the world one restaurant at a time, because every restaurant tells a story.
ANDRÉSEvery dish tells a story and the more important tells the story of the people behind every one of those dishes. Restaurants are here to stay. It's going to still be hard, but I see that the future, the light at the end of the tunnel, we all see our restaurants are going to have to be supported, because they need to be part of putting America back to work back to be who we were.
NNAMDII'm glad you said you know it's going to be hard, because restaurants are notoriously tough businesses to run with very thin profit margins. Tell us about some of the factors that go into making it. How much is luck? How much is timing? How much is location? Is there a formula for success?
ANDRÉSI think Winston Churchill said it best that "success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm." No one is going to deny to me that food people of America that this is beyond restaurants as I said before. It's everybody that makes part of the food business from the storytellers, book writers, farmers, everybody, obviously cooks and chefs and owners and maître d' and sommeliers everybody. But restaurants, yes, are tough. This pandemic is showing all of us probably is that we need to be all better at the numbers.
ANDRÉSBut it's bigger than this. It's making sure that the new American dream is making sure in this case that the people that feed America are able to feed themselves with dignity. When we are talking even about the minimum wage, it should not even be about the minimum wage. It should be about the living wage. We need to make sure that the people that feed America can feed themselves. People don't want our pity. They want our respect. Let's make sure that we start making decisions that we can give respect to people belonging to the city we all love, to the country we all love. And that the restaurant food community can be part of that change going forward.
NNAMDIWhat advice, José, would you give to aspiring restauranteurs, who have seen what this past year has done to the industry and are now feeling scared to death about getting into the business?
ANDRÉSWell, to be a little bit scared to get into any business is okay, because this allows you to prepare better, stronger. You don't take anything for granted, but I think my answer is the same I gave you two minutes ago. "Success is going to be going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm." And my friends celebrate the failures, because they are part of the learning. I had many in my life. I'll probably few others ahead. But learn from your mistakes. Take charge of them. Use those failures to build and rebuild better and stronger. And keep the enthusiasm flowing and eventually we will all succeed.
NNAMDIYou and I are both immigrants who call Washington home. I remember going to your swearing in by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. And that was a wonderful event. But how did you find belonging here in the Washington region? I'll tell you how it was for me. After I had been doing broadcasting for a while and hosting shows, it became apparent to me that this community welcomed me, that this community for reasons that I'm still not sure I understand appreciated what I do, and as a result extended a welcoming hand to me. And that what caused me to call Washington home because this is where I feel at home even though I was not born here. How has it been for you, José?
ANDRÉSWashington D.C. is more important in this case in my life than I could ever explain or ever I will get back everything I receive. I got so many people that were making me successful even when I was a very bad. Ann Cashion, she knew I was maybe a great Spanish cook. I was the worst running a kitchen when I was 23 years old, but there she was trying to make me better. I mean, my partners Roberto Alvarez, Rob Wilder, 30 years later here we are still together. Many obviously investors, but then employees -- employees that leave but then they come back to say hi even if they move to another country or another state. And they come back because our restaurants they are not my restaurants. They are the restaurants of everybody.
ANDRÉSEverybody needs to take ownership. I took ownership when I was not the owner of my restaurant. That gives you that feeling that you have all these people that believe in the same dream you have. That slowly you slowly you began creating this amazing network of friends, of people that sometimes kind of you forgot, but then all of a sudden one day, you see them and oh, my God, this was the same customer, the same guest was coming every single day especially the days we were empty with nobody in the restaurant, and here is coming back 20 years later.
ANDRÉSAt the end of the day, Washington D.C. for me has been this place where I met my wife, where I had my three daughters born in Sibley Hospital. Meeting my wife was everything, because I am -- anything I am is because my wife always kept me straight and in a line. And the many friends that I have in D.C. today that for me right now I know where I come from. I come from Spain using my accent. Everybody knows it, but I also know where I belong. As I always say I am a proud Washingtonian with an accent and I hope I'll be 30 more years a proud Washingtonian with a little better accent.
NNAMDIJust like me. We mentioned World Central Kitchen, the non-profit aid organization you started more than a decade ago. Why and how did you launch a food aid organization?
ANDRÉSI'm going to try to make it quick, but I have to give the thanks and every second to Robert Egger our food fighter, food hero who founded over 35 years ago D.C.'s Central Kitchen. I was very young when I joined D.C. Central Kitchen. I was peeling potatoes next to ex-convicts and homeless people that they had fascinating stories only we were willing to listen, and to learn from them too. Robert Egger showed us that a plate of food is a beginning of a better tomorrow of giving hope to people and give them in this case the training we were giving them to find them jobs in the community.
ANDRÉSRobert taught me that team philanthropy is about the redemption of the giver when philanthropy should be about the liberation of the receiver. That beautiful phrase is pasted on my forefront. And that's when I began seeing that food, yes, can be that change. And I've been part of D.C. Central Kitchen until today. But World Central Kitchen -- so many times that we weren't responding to the needs in emergencies.
ANDRÉSKatrina, we saw thousands of Americans in the Super Dome waiting for food and water when a Super Dome is nothing else that a stadium, a gigantic arena, which to me is a big restaurant that entertains with sports and musicians. I wish I was there and I didn't. When Haiti happened, I said, I'm not going to be regretting any more my lack of action. I'm going to drive to put in place everything I learned in D.C. And I began feeding in Haiti. I began learning. And who was going to tell me that slowly, slowly World Central Kitchen is already reaching 40 million meals in 2020 alone. And that we are able to respond to multiple catastrophic events in different countries all over the globe.
NNAMDIRobert Egger was a frequent guest on this show and a friend of the show when he was with D.C. Central Kitchen before he moved out to the West Coast. And I would always run into him running in Rock Creek Park. So he's moved on. But what is next for you, José Andrés?
ANDRÉSWhat is next to me, me I know that I want to make sure my restaurants open. I want to make sure that they help my city to rebuild to go back, trying to help many of the people that used to work with us and now they have their own restaurants, trying to make sure they'll do okay, trying to give wisdom if anything when I need myself. But when people ask trying to give them a word or two of wisdom to tell everybody that don't worry we are all broke that means nobody is broke, so let's keep working hard.
ANDRÉSAnd for me, I want to keep -- you know, the family man I am next to my wife if she doesn't quit on me. Pulling my restaurants running and making sure that World Central Kitchen will be what should be an organization that always will be there next to Americans and other communities around the world when there is destruction.
ANDRÉSRemember Missing soldiers office of Clara Barton in Washington D.C. is across the street from Jaleo right across. That woman single handed, a nurse like my mom was, was able to take care of the wounded soldiers in the Civil War. This tells me and tells anybody listening to us that all we have something inside us that we can put at the service of helping others of helping our community. We need only to look inside. Me, it's just cooking. It's the only thing I know, and to make sure that nobody will be hungry especially after an emergency.
NNAMDIJosé Andrés is a Restauranteur and a Founder of the World Central Kitchen. José, I can't wait until I can see you at a Washington Wizards game again.
ANDRÉSI cannot wait when we celebrate that the Wizards won the NBA.
NNAMDIYes, I'll be with you for that celebration, and thank you so much for joining us.
ANDRÉSI love you, Kojo.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Ruth Tam, Journalist and Host of WAMU's food and culture podcast Dish City. Ruth Tam, thank you for joining us.
RUTH TAMHey, Kojo. It's so good to be here with you.
NNAMDIAlso joining us is Tom Sietsema, a Food Critic at the Washington Post. Tom Sietsema, always a pleasure.
TOM SIETSEMAHey. Good to be back. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Julie Verratti is Associate Administrator of Field Operations for the Small Business Administration and Co-Founder of Denizens Brewing Company. Julie Verratti, thank you for joining us.
JULIE VERRATTIThank you so much for having me. Happy to be here.
NNAMDIRuth Tam, I'll start with you. How has this pandemic year changed the restaurant landscape in the Washington region?
TAMThere's so many ways to answer that question, because there's been a lot of changes at different scales. But I really feel like the idea of public space, the idea of, you know, a third space that's not your home or work that idea for us has changed potentially forever. It's changed how restaurants are designed, how we define service, how we think of comfort and approach the idea of a luxurious dining out experience, and it's weird to kind of see these changes manifest in some weirdly specific ways.
TAMI think about how we used to be able to go to bars and grab drinks with friends or a date and now, you know, instead of being able to do that for a period of time you could go to a bar and pick up a little pouch of a cocktail and walk home with it, or, you know, you couldn't dine indoors for a while, but you could park yourself in a table literally on the street. So lots of changes from the big picture way we're thinking about dining to be small and scrappy ways that people are making that happen now.
NNAMDIRuth, of those changes, which do you think will be permanent, and are there any silver linings?
TAMWell, one of the changes that I do bring up is maybe the ways that restaurants and diners are thinking about ways to better take care of people in the service industry. I saw restaurants kind of come up with their own merch or implement service charges to do better by doing workers during these really uncertain times. And I think that's maybe leading to what I think will be a silver lining, that people will be thinking more about where their money is going and be conscious of that, to be asking questions about what is really a fair wage for restaurant workers, and what we consider to be safe conditions.
TAMI really do hope that conversations like that continue after the pandemic, and that it's not just happening on an individual level, but being a conversation that's happened by lawmakers and out in the public. And it's something that we all kind of back happily, together.
NNAMDIJulie Verratti, the big news this past week has been the passage of the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill, known as the American Rescue Plan Act. How are you feeling about this, and about what it will do for small businesses?
VERRATTII'm very excited about it, not just on a personal level, but proud of the Biden/Harris administration. You know, just looking at the programs that are in this package, we're finally at a place where real help is going to be coming to the restaurant industry. Right now, the teams at the SBA -- and, you know, congratulations to Administrator Isabel Guzman. She just got confirmed today. We've got teams standing up these programs as we speak so we can try to get funds into the hands of business owners who desperately need it right now.
NNAMDIWhat will this mean for restaurants, in particular? And do you see issues with some of the smaller establishments accessing that funding, as we've heard in the past?
VERRATTII'm glad you brought that up, because part of the law, there's a requirement for -- set asides for the smallest of the small, as well as priority periods for some of the small businesses and restaurants that are, you know, women-owned, minority-owned, veteran-owned, as well. And specifically, restaurants, the mom-and-pops that are, you know, annual revenues of less than $500,000, there's a specific set aside for them.
VERRATTIEquity is absolutely one of the number-one priorities for the Biden/Harris administration and using that lens in all of the programs that are being implemented. So, this will definitely be a high focus for us, when standing up these programs.
NNAMDIIs there also local government funding available to restaurants?
VERRATTIYou have to check with your local jurisdictions. I know that where I live and when I was operating my business in Maryland, there were lots of programs both in Montgomery County and Prince George's, as well as in the state. I know that D.C. has set up a lot of programs. I know that Virginia has some programs, as well, in terms of localities. But definitely reach out to local resources and ask, because people want to help.
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned running your own place, because you're known to many of us as the owner and operator of Denizens Brewing Company. But, as we said, you were recently appointed to a new role in the Biden administration. So, what are you working on?
VERRATTII am working on helping stand up the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. That's one program. As the associate administrator of the Office of Field Operations, my main job now is to oversee the 68 field offices across the country. And our sole purpose is to help small businesses start, grow, stand, as well as recover, at this point.
VERRATTIAnd so, what I am very excited about being in this position is that I am bringing a sense of empathy and understanding at a very visceral and human level, the absolute terror this past year has been for small businessowner, operators, especially in the restaurant and retail space.
VERRATTIAnd so, every day that I am going into work -- and I just started week three -- but I've hit the ground running. That is singularly my focus, is what I'm doing right now, going to bring relief as fast as possible to the many small businessowners out there, as well as their staff, to make sure that America can get back on its feet. I am very heartened by the people at the Small Business Administration and the work that they're doing to bring relief to people. And help is on its way. That's all that I can say.
NNAMDITom Sietsema, food critic at the Washington Post, you've been a food critic here for over 20 years, and you've seen the restaurant landscape change dramatically during that time. But this past year must defy comparison, as Jose Andres was saying. What do you see as some of the biggest losses to the Washington region's restaurant scene?
SIETSEMAWell, individually, I mean, I could go on and on about this, but Poca Madre, the upscale Mexican restaurant from Victor Albisu, Johnny's Half Shell in Adams Morgan, you know, that had been around in different incarnations all over the city for over 20 years, too. And I got to chart its course during that time. But that was a real, true beloved neighborhood restaurant that I'm very sorry to see close very early in the pandemic. Momofuku, you know, downtown, David Chang's restaurant, I think that was very important.
SIETSEMAYou know, just loss after loss, but, you know, the lists could go on. And I think of all of them, you know, there's also the loss of hospitality, too. We look at individual restaurants and we think, you know, we don't have the service. We don't have the ambiance. Every night, we're sort of looking at the same four walls in our homes or wherever we happen to be eating dinner. And that is what I miss, and I think that's what a lot of other people miss, too.
SIETSEMAWhat I'm very impressed by, however, especially here in Washington, is the way in which so many restaurants have taken packaging and other little things to heart. You know, so, no, you don't have a server waiting on you or a beautiful dining room or an interesting dining room, but you might get a little note from the chef or signed by the kitchen staff. You might be asked, hey, do you want some music with dinner? Here's the curated playlist. And little things like that, or a little free ice cream or a little free treat like you might have gotten, in the before times, in a restaurant. And so, restaurants have been really creative. You know, on a weekly basis, I'm really surprised and delighted by the subjects I cover.
NNAMDIMikaela Lefrak, we have a question?
MIKAELA LEFRAKYes, we do. Ashley in Alexandria asks: With the increase in takeout during the pandemic, which restaurants in the DMV have been leaders in finding creative alternatives to single-use plastic?
NNAMDI(laugh) Tom Sietsema, can you respond to that?
SIETSEMAOh, wow. Well, I can think of a few places, like Oyster Oyster in Shaw, that have compostable, you know, eco-friendly containers. I believe the utensils are made out of -- the utensils themselves are made out of bamboo, you know. And I really support this. I actually did a story where we took a photograph of a month's worth of takeout packaging, and it horrifies me.
SIETSEMAI know, too, that there are places like Food Not Bombs that collect certain containers, too, that they can distribute to their audience. And I really applaud that. I think we all need to be mindful of that. The big thing is, I think, any time you want something from a restaurant, you need to ask. And if enough people ask for something, restaurants are apt to respond, and respond in a positive way.
SIETSEMASo, if you are concerned about these things, call, have your neighbors call, have your friends call, hey, we want eco-friendly packaging for our takeout. We want to be good stewards. I think all of us want to be good stewards.
NNAMDIMikaela, you have another question, specifically for Tom?
LEFRAKI do. Mary in D.C. wants to know how soon Tom will feel comfortable eating inside a restaurant.
SIETSEMAI'm chomping at the bit. But, you know what, I take my cues from people like Anthony Fauci, because he is -- you know, he's the expert on this, right. And as far as I know, he's still doing just takeout. He's not even eating outside. I am eating outside, but the large majority of my food that I'm reviewing right now is either I pick it up, or I have it dropped off.
SIETSEMAThe nice weather was really a boon, because I was able to get outside of my house and review things again. But I also encourage -- and I hope this sticks around after the pandemic -- cold-weather dining. I'm all about it. I'm also from Minnesota so that helps. But I loved seeing so many people eating outside at 30, 35 degrees this year. And I hope that's something that carries on next year, when more people are vaccinated and we're somewhat clear of the coronavirus.
NNAMDITom Sietsema's hoping that becomes a thing in Washington, because why? He's from Minnesota, that's why. Julie Verratti, putting on your Denizens' hat for a moment and looking back at this pandemic year, what were the particular struggles and triumphs for your small business?
VERRATTIThe first thing was just sort of the initial pivot after the first day of just sort of, again, I use the word terror, just not knowing. You know, your entire world has just flipped on its head. What you had in your business plan, you can just throw that directly out the window. And trying to figure out, okay, you know, and for us, Denizens is a brewery, so we had all this beer in kegs and all this beer in cans and bottles. And how are we going to sell this? Because (laugh) we can't have people there. And so, very quickly pivoted to the direct to consumer home delivery. And so, started that on March 15th, and the company has been doing home deliveries ever since, throughout parts of Maryland and parts of D.C., as well.
VERRATTIBut that was a triumph, knowing, like, oh, wow. We can figure this out. And, again, I was really heartened by the support of the community at that time. I think one of the biggest struggles, and this is something that business owners have felt throughout this year -- and, again, particularly in the restaurant industry, because of the amount of shutdowns that we've had and restrictions -- is having to furlough staff was probably one of the worst days of my life, when we had to do that in March.
VERRATTILuckily, we were able to bring back most people. Some people didn't want to come back. They either switched careers or just didn't want to, but that was horrible. And so, this is, again, why I think it's so important that the government steps in and created things like the Paycheck Protection Program, which has -- in the American Rescue Plan, we've added another over $7 billion into that program. On top of that, having the restaurant revitalization fund to bring more help to restaurants, specifically the restaurant industry.
VERRATTIShuttered venues operators grant is also another program that's being stood up right now. It's specific to help people, like, save the 9:30 Club, Anthem. If you're a live music fan, that's also an industry that has been destroyed.
NNAMDIRuth Tam, the city has made it easier for restaurants to create outdoor seating, opening streeteries that Tom Sietsema has grown to love, and relaxing rules on sidewalk dining. Is the city considering making any of those changes permanent?
TAMI think those programs are really popular, and for a good reason. You know, there are people who had outdoor seating space, and then there are plenty of restaurants who had zero. And so, the fact that D.C. was able to collaborate across different agencies, DDOT and, you know, local bids and to try, you know, ease some restrictions and make outdoor dining space possible I think was really popular among local restaurants. The city actually polled restaurant owners about these programs, and they released their findings earlier this month.
TAMAnd 89 percent of local businesses who were operating as streetery programs said that they would support a permanent one. And so, in response, the mayor said that she looked forward to, you know, working with the D.C. Council to extend such a program after the public health emergency ends. And I think they even called the program something that gives people hope. So, I think they realize that it's more than just about funneling business to these restaurants, but it's about kind of making sure people are feeling comfortable to eat out, like Tom, and to enjoy people's company and to be a community again.
NNAMDITom Sietsema, nevertheless, and in spite of, there have been quite a few restaurants that opened and survived the pandemic. What stood out to you?
SIETSEMAWell, I think the fact that so many survived, you know, the fact that I was able to do a fall dining guide last year delighted me, tickled me. You know, I focused on restaurants that I thought were doing a particularly good job of enduring this. You know, it's all about diversification and everything. I'm very optimistic about this. I think, you know, it's a very resilient workforce. People have been very creative. You know, D.C. was first with some of the streeteries and putting mannequins in dining rooms to make them look populated and colorful and welcoming. And, you know, I just think we have some real leaders, here. The trick is all about diversification.
NNAMDIJulie Verratti, you spoke before about the toll that this pandemic has taken on those in the restaurant industry. What would you say to someone who still dreams of opening their own restaurant or bar?
VERRATTIWell, I'm very happy to hear that someone like that exists in the world, (laugh) after this last year. That's number one. One of the things that makes this country so great is the spirit of entrepreneurialism. And, you know, I think Tom is right, saying, you know, diversification and creativity and just sort of the resilience that you need to have, these are all characteristics of entrepreneurs, right. And so, if you are passionate about something and you love something, yeah, go for it. I would say throw your hat in there.
VERRATTII would also recommend, from a practical standpoint, to make sure you have access to capital, it's always better to have multiple partners helping you. If you just sort of look at the data, the success rate of businesses surviving the first few years, really, the number of business partners you have helping you stand it up is a practical point of advice there.
VERRATTIYeah, I love to hear that. I mean, one of the things that I was afraid of this last year, stepping back, you know, not just from my businessowner hat or the fact that I'm, you know, part of the Biden/Harris administration now, but just generally speaking, I had a really big fear that the psychological damage of what this pandemic has done beyond the economic damage, beyond the public health damage, would kill that entrepreneurial spirit.
VERRATTIAnd, you know, luckily, Congress has stepped in and this administration has stepped in to bring relief to small businesses, because if the government has -- and it's not just on the federal level. States have stepped up, local jurisdictions have stepped up. If that hadn't happened, think about it. I don't know anyone in their right mind who would look at what happened and see the experiences small businesses have gone through this past year and think, that's a great idea, I'm going to go ahead and do that. Right?
VERRATTISo, I'm just very excited about the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, because I really do think -- and Ruth talked a little bit about this, about the grant monies that came into certain programs that were very specific about how you had to spend that money. And the restaurant industry, for a long time throughout this whole pandemic, has said, you know, the PPP program was helpful, and I do think it helped a lot of businesses, but the restaurant industry is kind of its own animal, in some ways. And it was a little too restrictive.
VERRATTIWhich is why the Restaurant Revitalization Fund was enacted, so that it was very specific to the industry, which will give a bit little more flexibility in terms of being able to use the money in ways that the owner-operator knows they need to use it.
LEFRAKYes, I have two related questions. Kat asks: Do you foresee restaurants continuing to pursue the alternate revenue streams like takeout, delivery, meal kits, cocktails to go that they've developed during the pandemic once things are back to normal? And then Paula in Arlington says that she's really enjoyed going to fancy restaurants that she hasn't been comfortable going to alone and getting takeout from them. So, she's wondering, is upscale takeout, she calls, it, here to stay?
SIETSEMAEvery chef I'm talked to, not just in D.C. but around the country, has told me that takeout is here to stay. They told me this early on, and they continue to tell me that. People are so used to this now, and they're used to the creative approaches that a lot of restaurants have deployed, too. Like I said earlier, you know, little notes, the little service aspect, that hospitality aspect that comes into your home now with notes and curated lists and things like that.
SIETSEMAYeah, I expect it to -- you know, I love the fact that takeout is here to stay. It's sort of opened our world and chefs have gotten good, too. They used this as a chance to experiment a little bit, too, you know, with some new dishes. They can try it on takeout. If it works, you know, they'll put it on the menu. If it doesn't, they'll pull it back. So, it works both ways, actually.
NNAMDIRuth Tam, D.C. was finally on the food map of the country with creative places landing Michelin stars and James Beard Awards across the region. Do we know what the restaurant scene will likely look like, post-pandemic?
JOSE ANDRESOkay. Well, I'm going to push back on that trending just a teeny, little bit. I know that awards and lists really matter in a real way for businesses, and I celebrate when D.C. spots are recognized in that way. But I will say that D.C. was definitely on the food map. D.C. is a food town, and we don't necessarily need outside people to confirm that or validate that.
JOSE ANDRESBut to actually (laugh) answer your question, I think the fact is is that, you know, although there are people who, you know, have lost their jobs and have taken a real economic hit, the D.C. area is full of working professionals with disposable income who dined at the Michelin-style, Michelin star restaurants pre-pandemic and all these kinds of other places. And my guess is that after a year of not being able to do that, people will welcome the opportunity to do that again.
JOSE ANDRESAnd, you know, like a lot of other cities, D.C. saw some residents leave this area, but the fact is is that D.C. is D.C. It's the nation's capital. We are never going to be without people who want to dine out. We're never going to be without tourists. And now that D.C. -- at one point, as you say, like, on the food map, I think people will be really excited about returning to that and enjoying it once again.
NNAMDIMea culpa, indeed. D.C. is a great dining town. Do you think that will continue, Tom Sietsema?
SIETSEMAAbsolutely, for all the reasons that Ruth just ticked off there, you know. We've got whole new neighborhoods that really didn't exist 10 years ago. You know, at one time, a lot of the restaurants were congregated, you know, the better-known restaurants, at least, were congregated along the corridors of power. And now we have places in Shaw and H Street Northeast and Anacostia.
SIETSEMAYou know, all over, these neighborhoods have really blossomed with a lot of creative types, and I welcome that. We're seeing a lot of, you know, people of color and women joining the talent pool. And I think that's just great cause for celebration. This is one of the smartest markets in the country. It's also a very affluent market, you know, despite our being a government town and everything. A lot of people have traveled here. You have a lot of people with two or more college degrees. People really know food here, and they're passionate about it. And I love that. It keeps everyone on their toes, including food critics.
NNAMDIJulie Verratti, how have restaurants and bars been handling staff layoffs? You talked about your own establishments, but how have others been handling it, and do you see hope ahead?
VERRATTII do see hope ahead. I think there are obviously a lot of restaurants that had to lay off and furlough because they couldn't negotiate with their landlord. Their revenues dropped by, you know, well, more than 50 percent. Which is why I think it's so important that the unemployment benefits have been expanded again for the American Rescue Plan. And that has helped support people who were laid off.
VERRATTIIt's really important that restaurants survive, and I am so adamant about that. They are literally the lifeblood of the communities that we all live in, and they bring people together. And I loved hearing Chef Andres talk about how important they were to the community. And that's why it's so important that we are bringing the relief that we are bringing to people now.
NNAMDIRuth Tam, the Hilton Brothers who operated some seven bars and clubs in the District, closed all of them last fall, we thought permanently, but what I'm hearing is that some or all might be reopening. What do we know?
TAMI think less than five months after the Hilton Brothers closed their D.C. bars, they have announced that many of these places are coming back. First of all, El Rey, a taco bar on U Street never actually closed, because the neighborhood was like, no, like, we won't allow it. We need tacos to survive this pandemic. So, in addition to El Rey opening, you know, all the beloved places that have become part of D.C.'s nightlife fabric, many of them are coming back. Some of them are in a new capacity.
TAMEcho Park is already back serving pizza. The swanky cocktail bar, The Gibson, is coming back, but I think in a new location though that hasn't been announced yet, the location. Player's Club will return. The date is to be determined. The Brixton is coming back on U Street, but instead of a nightclub, it'll be more of a pub. And the only holdout so far of the seven bars that were previously closed is Marvin, which was my personal favorite of the bunch. That's on 14th and U, or was on 14th and U. And I eagerly await news about that.
NNAMDIYou've been especially interested in what these seismic shifts in the restaurant industry mean from a labor standpoint. Who have you been talking to, and what have you been hearing so far?
TAMI'm really interested in how companies that are related to the restaurant industry, like third-party delivery apps and career services, how they're influencing all the changes that are happening right now. And if it's, as they say, to the benefit of restaurants and their survival or to the conditions that workers have access to, my co-host of the podcast, Patrick and I, we've been talking to people who are delivering food during this time who are responsible for their own PPE and safety. We're talking to people who study technology and labor and how affects the restaurant and food systems that we know and love.
TAMA lot of them are coming from a place of skepticism that these changes are happening that are going to be beneficial for workers. But we remain, you know, in reporting, and we're working on several new episodes. So, stay tuned about that.
NNAMDITom Sietsema, how do you feel -- and I'd like to put this question to Julie Verratti, too -- how do you feel about restaurants reopening, particularly in a state like Maryland that is planning to operate at full capacity? First you, Tom Sietsema.
SIETSEMAIt makes me a little nervous, right now. I think until more people are vaccinated, you know, I don't encourage that. You know, I want to be as much of a cheerleader and a supporter as I can, but I think we have to be a little wary of that. And we can still continue to support restaurants by takeout and, you know, gift certificates and merchandise and all of that.
SIETSEMAI would not encourage people, right now, to eat in a crowded dining room or a dining room at full capacity. Even if you've been vaccinated, you know, you're putting the help at risk, too, if they haven't been vaccinated. And you don't know the status of the other people around, you so I'm very cautious when it comes to that.
VERRATTII agree with Tom on this. You know, like him, I'm also a Dr. Fauci fan and sort of listening to his guidance. And it's true, I mean, if you look at sort of the way vaccines have been distributed locally, you know, restaurant workers are not necessarily at the list of where they're eligible to get the vaccine, at this point. I know that D.C. just opened that up in the city, but, yeah, I agree with Tom.
NNAMDIAnd, Mikaela, we have one last short question, don't we?
LEFRAKYes, we do. Matthew from Alexandria wants to know: What dish do each of you miss the most? And for him, it's mussels and fries that come to mind.
TAMI haven't had (unintelligible) or dim sum in this entire pandemic. So, I'm dying for some of that.
VERRATTII'm always a sucker for a really delicious, greasy cheeseburger and a nice cold draft beer at a bar.
NNAMDIAnd you, Tom Sietsema.
SIETSEMAOh, anything Korean. I miss some of those buffets, to be honest with you. And I'm -- fingers crossed on that.
NNAMDISame here. And I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Thank you all for joining us. Ruth Tam, thank you for joining us.
TAMThank you so much for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDITom Sietsema, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIJulie Verratti, thank you for joining us.
VERRATTIThank you for having me, and, folks, you can go to sba.gov/coronavirusrelief to find help.
NNAMDIToday's show on Washington's restaurant scene with special guest Jose Andres was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Coming up tomorrow, the House Oversight Committee is holding a hearing on the D.C. statehood bill, Monday. We'll hear from Meagan Hatcher-Mays, the director of Democracy Policy at Indivisible, about why the group has made statehood a priority.
NNAMDIThen Prince George's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks joins us to talk about easing COVID restrictions in Maryland. That all starts tomorrow at noon, on The Politics Hour. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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