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Jose Andres

Features

Hospitality Industry Feels 86’d

April 21, 2020

By Paul Samberg

Photo courtesy of Buffalo & Bergen/Photo by Rey Lopez

As COVID-19 continues to control the country, businesses are on life support, scrambling to pay the bills and employees. The allocation of $2.2 trillion in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act neglected most of the hospitality industry, many of which are struggling to keep their doors open while Americans stay home.

In particular, the portion of the CARES Act known as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) designed to support small business seems to be failing most independent bar owners and restaurateurs. All too quickly the $349 billion provided for this program dissipated, and the few businesses that received support from the program do not find themselves in a much better position than they previously were in.

Which is exactly what concerns the Food & Wine Best New Chef and James Beard Award-winning chef Andrew Carmellini as he sees the financial aid programs roll out and restaurant operations severely restricted or closed altogether. This seasoned operator, whose restaurant group includes such NYC favorites as Locanda Verde, The Dutch, Lafayette, Bar Primi, and The Library at The Public, shares, “The PPP doesn’t put us as operators in a better position than we were, and I’m not sure it will put employees in a better position.”

A recent survey conducted by the James Beard Foundation reflects that Carmellini’s colleagues are equally concerned. More than 60% of respondents cannot sustain a closure for one month and 75% do not believe they will be able to reopen after two months of government mandated closure.

For those 75% of respondents who are not confident they will be able to reopen in June— which marks the eight-week usage term set out by the PPP guidelines—this program would not help keep their businesses afloat.

Staying afloat once COVID-19 hit wasn’t even a question for Wake the Dead, a popular breakfast spot in Lawrence, Kansas, which closed its doors on March 20. Fearful about her underlying health conditions, owner Rachel Ulbrick did not want to endanger herself by coming to work, and the PPP did not offer a feasible solution to temporarily closing. “I already have a fair amount of debt. Even though [the loan] was like zero percent, in three years it wouldn’t be. And that would add $20,000 on top of whatever debt I already have; I can’t do that,” Ulbrick said.

The remaining 25% of respondents who believe they could reopen in June face a secondary issue, though: actually receiving the initial loan. The CARES Act provides close to $349 billion in aid to small businesses through the PPP, but was designed to be distributed on a first-come-first-serve application basis.

On the first day applications could be submitted, April 3, $4.3 billion of the $349 billion available in loans was immediately allocated and banks began limiting applications. Wells Fargo was the first; they announced they would not consider loan requests submitted after April 5.

With the early April dates behind us, and PPP filings not a possibility for some, there are other avenues within the CARES Act to pursue, such as new unemployment benefits. In addition to the current standard weekly unemployment payments, supplemental payments of $600 per week are provided as part of the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation measure in the CARES Act. For self-employed and gig workers, they also qualify for extended 39-week benefits, which is 13 weeks more than normal eligibility.

While the supplemental payments are a help to many workers filing for unemployment, the unemployment websites and offices have been overwhelmed and the process can be slow, clunky and confusing. Some checks began going out to unemployed New Yorkers in early April, but Missouri did not plan on doing so until April 12, and Indiana residents may have to wait until as late as April 20.

No matter whether you’re in a state that makes provisions for unemployment payments early or later this month, there are some workers who may not even qualify for unemployment benefits. Even for those a stone’s throw from the Capitol, who count amongst their guests the same legislators who passed the CARES Act, restaurants like Buffalo & Bergen were not immune to being left high and dry by unemployment. Gina Chersevani, who founded and owns both the Buffalo & Bergen at Union Market and the newest on Capitol Hill which opened just weeks before the country shut down, explains, “We just got rejected. Out of 26 people from my one location that applied [for unemployment], only two were accepted, both not tipped employees.”

Chersevani also feels that insurance companies are failing the industry just as unemployment isn’t there for so many of her employees.

She’s discovered that her carrier will not pay disruption of business for COVID-19 and says, “I’m in my ninth year paying them—the same insurance company—and they denied all my claims for disruption of business.”

Chersevani is not the only owner in the hospitality industry who has had this issue, and, as a result, some restaurants are getting together to file class action lawsuits against insurance companies. Wolfgang Puck, Dominique Crenn, and a handful of other famous chefs have created the nonprofit foundation We Are BIG (Business Interruption Group), which is threatening to bring legal action against insurers who do not start paying insurance business claims.

According to founding member and chef Thomas Keller’s statement on the organization’s website, “The restaurant industry is the largest private sector employer in America…We need insurance companies to do the right thing and save millions of jobs.”

Photo by Francine Cohen

Many restaurant owners are in agreement with Keller and the other chefs taking legal action against insurance companies. Longtime New Orleans restaurateur and co-owner of Commander’s Palace Lally Brennan shares, “I very much agree with the efforts by Thomas Keller and others [to take legal action] and have the law changed around, because that’s not what America is about; that’s abusive.”

This fear felt by restaurant and bar owners and staff is not unfounded. An analyst at UBS predicts that one in five restaurants could permanently close due to the outbreak, which would mean nearly 200,000 establishments are in danger. Thus far, about three percent of restaurants have closed their doors, despite the recently passed stimulus package, according to the National Restaurant Association.

In the wake of ongoing hardship and potential lawsuits due to COVID-19 related regulations, and the failure of programs that are not one-size-fits-all, the industry does what it does best — turns within to help one another, especially when lawmakers cannot.

“We currently are ignored by lawmakers, which has been true for as long as we can remember. Case in point, our independently owned businesses have not been given a substantive seat at the table during Congressional relief conversations,” Chefs Andrew Carmellini, Luke Ostrom & Josh Pickard said in an email urging others to sign their Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants (ROAR) petition.

Chef Guy Fieri and the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation worked together to create a relief fund for restaurant workers who are struggling due to COVID-19. Their fund is raising money for those in need with one-time $500 grants. And big and small liquor brands like Jameson and actor Ryan Reynolds’ Aviation Gin have committed financial support to the USBG National Charity Foundation Bartender Emergency Relief Program’s Covid-19 Relief Campaign, which is offering needs-based philanthropic grants. Over a quarter million people have applied thus far.

Chef José Andrés is in week five of his #ChefsforAmerica campaign through his World Central Kitchen foundation. He has closed his restaurants, turning them into community feeding centers for people facing food insecurity due to COVID-19 related lost income. To date he has served 2 million meals.

Brennan and her cousin and co-owner, Ti Martin, are concerned about their team, many of whom have been with the iconic restaurant for more than a decade. They have been providing their recently laid off workers with food and other basic needs during the crisis, too. Brennan shares, “We gave away bags of vegetables and all the perishable items and things that we had cooked, and we’re giving away bags of toiletries and paper and paper towels and hand sanitizer. We’re doing all those types of things with the team to still stay in touch.”

Philanthropy for the hospitality industry is not just coming internally. Twitter personality Yashar Ali opened a GoFundMe to support restaurant workers. On his Instagram account he explains, “Restaurants have closed or are offering only takeout and delivery options, hotel business has slowed dramatically, and bars have been shuttered. As a result, people who rely on hourly wages (including those who rely on tips) are suffering, having seen their daily income all but disappear overnight, and for some already losing their jobs.”

Photo by Francine Cohen

Ali has already amassed over $1.1 from more than 8,900 donors, surpassing his goal of raising $1.1 million to be directed to Tipping Point Community and Robin Hood, two established foundations long dedicated to serving those in need.

Independent bars and restaurants need help. The future of COVID-19 is uncertain, and so is the future of many restaurants and bars in the nation. While many owners have had to close their doors forever, others are trying not to follow in their footsteps. The hospitality industry should not have to rely on famous chefs and Twitter personalities to help keep their doors open.

These days, it feels like an insurmountable task as Gina Chersevani concludes, “We are risking our lives serving f**king sandwiches.”

Photo courtesy of Wake the Dead

Features

WHO CARES IF YOU “LIKE” ME

April 20, 2013

Taking the focus from being liked to being used
By Francine Cohen

Pinas in oven tight shot

The other night I found myself at the bar at Employees Only. The purpose was tri-fold; I needed to taste the entire range of spirits from the newly launched 86 Company as a story about them was pending, I hadn’t seen Dev Johnson in far too long and a semi-proper catch up was in order, and my aunt was visiting from out of town and it had been even longer since I’d seen her and had any sort of quality conversation that wasn’t overshadowed by the entire family sitting around a Thanksgiving dinner table and engaged in less intimate chatter.

So, at 6:00 PM on the nose we entered the hushed tones of EO (www.employeesonlynyc.com). Having been there myriad times, but only one other when it was this empty, it was a whole other place but one that I imagined filled with people. People coming from after work around the corner with their friends in accounting, neighbors popping in on their way home, and the expected industry folks paying homage to the bar for reasons as varied as just wanting a good cocktail to hoping to ply their wares and/or support an account.

In the quiet of the first hour my aunt and I were able to catch up, Dev and I reminisced a bit, and Vincent Vitek made us laugh. Suddenly, right next to me sat three Mexican gentlemen. There why? To pay homage to the institution known as EO and graciously introduce their line of mezcals. Interesting fellows, all, and, as happens in bars, our two parties melded and we five fell into conversation and discovered we had a lot to talk about that went well beyond the booze business (which is refreshing); and, of course, their Wahaka mezcal came out for me to taste (www.wahakamezcal.com).

Far different from the mezcal I usually order, both the ones I tasted last night opened up a whole new appreciation for a different kind of terroir association. The first immediately hit me as having a mustiness to it; as if the smoke flavor that generally gets imparted during production had been muffled by cotton wool. Not offensive, just that that was my gut reaction. One person mentioned above found it oily, another liked it. The second mezcal I tried made me feel as if the spirit were very vertical. Not just a long finish, a descriptor which to me means it lingers and coats the inside of your cheeks, but actually as if there was a very directed column of mezcal running down the middle of my tongue and picking up those spicier flavor receptors along the way.

Interesting to discover later that the second mezcal was made from a wild agave which, unlike the Weber Blue with which we make tequila, the wild agave harvested for this mezcal was tall and had a trunk. Hence the vertical? Who knows! I certainly can’t claim to be an all knowing botanist who would have immediately recognized that the origins of this liquor came from a taller standing plant and that’s why it resonated “vertical”; I just think that’s how it made me feel and so that’s what came out of my mouth when asked.

When Dev asked what I thought about the mezcals my immediate and honest reaction was to say that there were elements of it I liked and elements of it I didn’t. I wasn’t jumping up and down and raving about how wonderful they were. It wasn’t that I DIDN’T enjoy them, but I wasn’t going to unequivocally give these spirits I’d just tasted a whole hearted two thumbs up and a big snap. But you know what? That’s okay.

I felt the same way about the vodka, gin, rum and tequila I tasted from the 86 Company’s line (www.86co.com). They make things I would drink on its own (thank you Cana Brava) and things I’d like to sip mixed into a cocktail. But that’s just my opinion; though it has some validity given that the 86 Co. designed their spirits for cocktails. The more I taste the more I believe that it’s not so important whether or not I “like” it. This is not a popularity test. For me, despite the fact that I don’t run a bar, it’s the application that is important. Remembering that each spirit can be a tool. And that you need lots of tools in your tool belt to build a house. One of them may be the 86 Company’s products, or you might reach for Wahaka mezcals. Some you may like to use, others you have no use for at all. Chefs like Rick Bayless (www.rickbayless.com/restaurants) and Jose Andres (www.oyamel.com) who both carry Wahaka in their restaurant bars understand this. So do Angelo Sosa and his bar manager Josh Wortman over at Anejo (www.anejonyc.com). Like every ingredient they bring into the kitchen they understand that spirit doesn’t fit into every drink or every bar.

Appreciating how they can is what sets you apart from the pack who just wants to be “liked.”

Features

YOU’RE SO POPULAR

August 27, 2012

What you may want to consider when courting a celebrity chef or existing concept
By Francine Cohen

Undoubtedly, hiring a celebrity chef or bringing on a familiar concept to be a spotlight restaurant on property is a calculated move. One designed to leverage their popularity and benefit from their exposure and ability to draw in guests. Finding the right name brand chef or restaurant group to partner with your hotel can be an interesting process and requires quite a bit of consideration in terms of how you are going to run your f&b program and what you want to represent to the outside world when people think of dining with you.

Bringing that known entity on board can be a very good idea that results in a mutually beneficial partnership, but, as always advised before getting into bed with someone, doing your due diligence makes the decision an even better idea. And one that will enable you to insure your partnership is in keeping with your brand’s philosophy.

At the family friendly resort, Atlantis, Paradise Island (www.atlantis.com), a new restaurant came on board (Virgil’s – www.virgilsbbq.com) that was an extension of an existing, and satisfying, partnership. Ian Reid, SVP of Food & Beverage explains how and why the relationship with Alicart restaurant group (www.alicart.com) has expanded to satisfy guests, “My team and I evaluated what cuisines were currently being offered at Atlantis and identified Virgil’s Real BBQ as the perfect way to incorporate a dining experience that we didn’t offer anywhere on property. It was important to craft a mouth-watering dining menu that would be familiar to our guests and to add another great value option to our Atlantis meal plans.”

This new addition went into an old restaurant space that existed on the property. Virgil’s took over where the Waters Edge restaurant left off, offering diners an indoor space that’s 11,000 square feet and a 3,000 square-foot outdoor patio. Reid describes, “Noted interior architect and designer, Jeffrey Beers, translated the restaurant’s road-trip concept into Continue Reading…

Rocks Stars

ROCKS STARS SOUTH (TALES OF THE COCKTAIL 2011) – OWEN THOMSON

July 31, 2011

5 questions for Owen Thomson, Lead Bartender for Jose Andres’ Think Food Group, Washington, DC

We know Owen Thomson has a big appetite for creative drinks and delicious food. We’ve broken bread with him at New Orleans locals’ favorite restaurant Elizabeth (www.elizabeths-restaurant.com); the man can order!

Plus, during Tales (www.talesofthecocktail.com) he sat on the SavourEase panel with Mixtress Gina Chersevani and Chef Peter Smith of PS7s (www.ps7restaurant.com).

With all this under his belt it is no wonder he’s running the beverage program for celebrated chef Jose Andres.

And has this to say about the industry…

Q1. How many years have you been coming to Tales of the Cocktail?
A. Five

Q2. Do you wear an armband behind the bar?
A. Uh… NO…

Q3. As a veteran in the industry, what advice do you have for someone who is just starting out in the business?
A. Keep and open mind, and don’t ever think that you know everything.

Q4. Sponsorships aside, what’s your Go-To spirit right now?
A. Bourbon and Rye. Although, I drink everything…

Q5. Cubed or Crushed Ice?
A. Summer? Crushed. Other times of the year, Big Fat Cubes…

Agreed! Enjoy Tales…

Features

WINNER TAKES ALL

May 10, 2011

Congratulations to the 2011 James Beard Foundation Award Winners
By Francine Cohen

Photo by Krishna Dayanidhi

While the outside world may view the James Beard Awards as the food industry’s Oscars or Emmys, those in the know who spent the night catching up with dressed up chefs, sommeliers, and restaurateurs affectionately refer to this annual event as the chef prom. And prom-like it is, with everyone in their finery and the king and queen (aka best chefs and best restaurants) crowned for all to celebrate as the dance party goes into the wee hours.

Here are this year’s winners. You may not know them all, but you should. They’re easy to spot – just look for the big bronze medal hanging off a striking yellow ribbon around their neck.

Continue Reading…

Features

FIRST LADY ENLISTS CHEFS

November 4, 2010

Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move” program calls for culinary creativity
By Julia Mix Barrington

Photo courtesy of Landmarc

Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative (www.letsmove.gov) has a new weapon in the fight against childhood obesity: America’s restaurant chefs. Launched in February, Obama’s program partners with professional chefs to visit public school classrooms and teach schoolchildren to create fun, healthy dishes themselves. However, in a September 16th address to the National Restaurant Association, the First Lady said these restaurant chefs who serve as role models must do more.

Obama began her address with an unsettling statistic, “The meals [kids eat] in restaurants have twice as many calories as the meals they eat at home.” Larger portions and an emphasis on pleasing young, often picky, palates lead to kids’ menus crammed with chicken fingers, grilled cheese sandwiches, and other “sugary, fatty, salty foods.” However, the First Lady had more than reproach for the restaurateurs of America. “In the restaurant industry, creativity is your life blood,” she told the crowd. “It’s what sets you apart from the competition and keeps customers coming back for more. And today I am asking you to use that creativity to rethink the food you offer–especially dishes aimed at young people. And to help us make a healthier choice, the easier choice.”

Chefs have long been aware of the problem of children’s nutrition—the catch-22 between getting kids to eat healthy and getting kids to eat at all. According to Chef Ben Ford of Ford’s Filling Station in Culver City, CA (www.fordsfillingstation.net), “Kids enjoy the foods that you give them”—provided that you start them early on the good stuff. “I believe in not babying kids through their investigations of food,” Ford says. “I don’t want to stifle them or retard them.” Therefore Ford’s Filling Station doesn’t have a separate children’s menu, though kids are welcome and encouraged to try the braised rabbit, fish and chips, polenta cake, or whatever else strikes their fancy. And according to Ford, the children of Culver City are delighted to oblige—the early seatings at Ford’s Filling Station can see as many as twenty children at once.

“There are a lot of young kids out there who are way ahead of their parents as far as taste buds are concerned,” says Ford, adding that the restaurant has “a real foodie kid following.” Ford is happy to have young people in the dining room because he knows that the child foodies of today are very likely to be tomorrow’s customers.
Continue Reading…