As I find myself glued to the news that attacks everyone’s central nervous system, I am beginning to envision the chaos that the corona virus pandemic is about to inflict on the restaurant business. This is not the aftermath of 9/11, nor is it the same as the market crash in 2008 – this is likely going to be much, much worse. The other monumental events of the past 20-years were focused on fear and financial distress – this adds the element of critical personal health. In both of the prior events the restaurant business was devastated, but we did recover. With the addition of serious health concerns based on a communicable disease – I’m concerned that recovery may not be so dependable.
That being said, this type of crisis gives us all an opportunity to reflect on how we conduct ourselves and practice the normal precautions that every person must take to heart aThe immediate answers to slowing and stopping the spread of a virus are simply what we should be doing already – wash your hands frequently with soapy water for at least 20 seconds, cover a cough or a sneeze (not with your bare hands), avoid close contact with people who are obviously sick, and for those who are sick – stay home and away from other people. Makes sense – doesn’t it?
Let’s take a look at the behind the doors reality of the restaurant business in this regard:
 CHEF’S AND COOK’S VIEW SUFFERING THROUGH AN ILLNESS AS A BADGE OF COURAGE: How many times has it been said that chefs don’t get sick. The implication is that we simply tough it out and work through it as though the only concern is for ourselves. We may use the excuse that the demands of the business are so great that the business would suffer if we weren’t there. How self-centered is this?
 COOKS ARE EXPECTED TO WORK EVEN IF THEY ARE SICK: Although the chef may not say it, the hidden rule is that if you are sick you still work. The other side of it is that cooks cannot afford to miss a day.
 PAYCHECK TO PAYCHECK: When hourly rates of pay in restaurants are below a livable wage then a day lost is a day closer to not paying rent or putting food on an employees table. So – you work regardless of how you feel, whether you cough or have a fever, or your muscles ache.
 NO HEALTHCARE/NO PREVENTATIVE MEDICINE: Ask your cooks when was the last time they went to a doctor when they were sick or scheduled an annual preventative physical exam? Ask them if they even have a family doctor. Without healthcare or the ability to pay for it, people will not take adequate care of themselves, which puts others in jeopardy as well.
 SANITATION IS PARAMOUNT: In the restaurant business we understand the importance of proper sanitation and food safety – yet rarely apply the same understanding to our own personal health. We post temperature logs, rotate product, sanitize table tops, use color coated cutting boards to avoid cross-contamination, wear gloves, and rapidly chill products before we put them in refrigerated storage. Yet, the basics of caring for our own protective hygiene are too often glazed over. Do we monitor how our employees wash their hands, whether or not they show signs of a fever, if they cough do we watch how they handle the protocol for this? Sanitation and food safety is an all-in process- you can’t follow procedure and not include personal health. One of the essential jobs of the chef is to ensure that his or her staff remain healthy and properly care for their wellbeing.
Our business is a fragile one. When crisis strikes – people eventually act in a conservative manner. They need to visit grocery stores to put food on their table, they need to work (either in person or on-line), and they need to handle banking, and pay their rent, etc. What they don’t need during a time of crisis is to attend events, dine in restaurants, visit the local tavern, go to movie theaters, or shop in retail stores. When necessity dictates people will not think twice about cutting out that dinner reservation.
This health crisis is likely to be devastating. All indications are that we are only seeing the beginning of something that may impact the health of one third of the U.S. population. That means that over 100 million Americans are likely to become sick at some level and the other 250 million will be scared to death about the same result. This is going to be very painful for a period of time – we don’t know how long.
Recovery will likely be very slow and drawn out. During that time restaurants will be cutting hours, in some cases closing, and certainly experiencing dramatic reductions in customer counts. There will be layoffs and some restaurants may not re-open. We can’t underestimate the significance of this time.
Maybe we will be lucky and it won’t be as serious as is projected – if that is so we should be grateful to those who work hard to stop the spread and those of us who heed the warnings, but indications are that we won’t be so lucky.
When we do recover, we must understand our role moving forward:
- Be prepared for even more stringent health codes and enforcement. This is inevitable and necessary. It will be even more apparent that our primary job is to protect the health and welfare of the public.
- We must address the need for healthcare for all – if not countrywide, at least among our own in the food business.
- On-going training and measurement of personal health must become the norm in restaurants.
- We must work to build in some level of paid sick leave for our employees.
- We must view our local health inspector as an important friend who helps to keep our staff and our customers safe and healthy.
- Personal health, sanitation, and food safety training has never been more important. All restaurants must require every kitchen employee to be ServeSafe Certified. It must become the price of admission.
Let’s hunker down and prepare for what is coming, but let’s also use the time to strategize how we will rise up as a newly committed industry as a result.
BE WELL – BE SAFE – WASH YOUR HANDS – AND DO WHAT IS RIGHT
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC