A Bittersweet Honor for James Beard Nominees

Restaurateurs weigh in adapting to the pandemic and the restrictions of PPP loans.

Receiving a James Beard Award nomination this year is bittersweet for Bay Area restaurateurs. Lindsay Tusk — who co-owns the San Francisco restaurants Quince, Cotogna and Verjus with her husband Michael — was pleasantly surprised to receive two this year.

Now in its 17th year, Quince received a nomination for Outstanding Restaurant. And Verjus, which opened in 2019, was nominated for Best New Restaurant. Tusk says this “bookending” was satisfying. “Knowing that you’ve got a newborn, and one that is very much established and still recognized for the work and the energies that go into it.”

But she also acknowledged the painful economic realities of running a restaurant during the pandemic. “This is an apocalyptic time for restaurants. If restaurants don’t get immediate funding and support, this country will lose 11 million jobs.” Until March, Tusk’s restaurant group employed 180 people. Since then, they’ve reduced their staff to about 30 — mostly chefs, a few administrative jobs, general managers and some hourly employees. Quince and Verjus are both temporarily closed but the Cotogna kitchen is still preparing a family dinner for delivery and pickup.

Verjus operated as both a wine bar and a wine shop. When the Tusks closed their new restaurant, they pivoted to an e-commerce model. You can buy wine through their website as well as some high end food products, like lamb loin, pâté, and their house made sausages. Tusk explained that the Verjus “marketplace” came into being because they were still receiving product from Fresh Run Farm, the farm they own in Bolinas.

“It was a way to help the farm, and other West Marin farms as well, to create a revenue stream for them.” The marketplace and take out model is keeping people at work from all three of their kitchens.

But another of this year’s nominees made it clear that takeout orders are a little more than a Band-Aid on a deep wound.

“To-go is not going to save us,” says Josh Harris of Trick Dog, which is nominated for Outstanding Bar Program. Harris is in a leadership position at the Independent Restaurant Coalition (I.R.C.), an organization that’s currently lobbying legislators to amend the problematic Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan. As Harris, and every other restaurateur I spoke with explains, the parameters of the program don’t make sense. For the loan to be forgiven, a business only has eight weeks to distribute it from the day they receive it. The program further complicates that distribution of the money by assigning 75 percent of the funds for payroll and 25 percent for rent and utilities.

When the shelter-in-place orders began, restaurants could no longer operate in the same way. If a restaurant was partially or completely closed, there’d be no employees to pay those PPP funds to.

“Many of the places would not be able to open because their shelter-in-place orders weren’t lifted yet,” Harris says. “If they were able to operate on a limited capacity and offer to-go, they wouldn’t be able to rehire, or to the degree that would fulfill what the timesheet equivalents were in the first place.”

In addition to asking for changes to the PPP, the I.R.C. is also advocating for the creation of a $120 billion restaurant stabilization fund. The difference between a PPP loan and the stabilization fund is that the former subsidizes a reopening now while the latter will be important a year from now. Harris, who laid off all 50 of his employees, adds that, “It’s not an either/or. It needs to be both.”  

Pim Techamuanvivit is the chef and owner of two San Francisco Thai restaurants — Nari and Kin Khao. She’s nominated for Best Chef: California, but the bustling, six-year-old Kin Khao is shuttered for now.

“None of us are foolish enough to think that when we reopen it will be like we were in January again,” she says. “I am not going to have that kind of full dining room for a very, very long time.” 

Techamuanvivit and her team are operating a to-go service out of her second restaurant Nari, which opened last August. Kin Khao’s kitchen was just too small to operate properly and safely for her staff so they decided to operate out of Nari’s much larger space.

“Both Kin Khao and Nari serve meals family style, because that’s how Thai people eat,” Techamuanvivit says. “Now we’re going to have to rethink what we’re going to become and how we’re going to change.”

Master distiller Lance Winters is still producing his signature Terroir Gin at St. George Spirits. But the Alameda-based company is also devoting 20 percent of its production line to the fabrication of hand sanitizer. Nominated for Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Producer, Winters and his business partners realized that it wasn’t a dramatic leap to repurpose high proof beverage ethanol into a formula that could be used for the purpose of sanitization.   

They started putting it out in bulk — donating it to a number of first responder groups in the area, like the Alameda Fire Department, Alameda transit employees, on down to a group like the West Oakland Punks With Lunch. They’ve been able to maintain social distancing with a skeleton crew and haven’t laid any of those 15 full-time staff members off. But the production teams now rotate in on a day or an evening shift so that there’s no overlap between them. “Every single day the conversation is about the balancing act of being able to be safe but to go back to some semblance of normal,” Winters says.

With a mix of strain and optimism in their voices, all of these Beard Award nominees have been adapting to daily news updates from government and health officials. Harris started the BV Bottle Club, a bar membership that has generated $30,000 for his employees’ GoFundMe platforms. Tusk and Techamuanvivit continue to pay the health care benefits to all of their employees, including the ones who were furloughed. Techamuanvivit believes that, in order to survive, her business model will have to embrace this transition period as if it were a marathon — and not the sprint that the eight weeks of PPP implies. 

Tusk hopes that people start to understand the challenge that restaurants are going to be facing, “because we’re vital to neighborhoods.” She concludes, “We are the linchpin and the supply chain, up and down. We’re the cornerstone of the community.”

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