May 30 was supposed to be a good day for Los Angeles restaurant owners and chefs—the first full day of sit-down dining since the COVID-19 pandemic triggered shutdowns two months earlier. But that night, several chefs could only watch as a few individuals took advantage of protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis to loot several eateries.
Chef Nancy Silverton's partner went downtown at 10 p.m. to check on her restaurants—Osteria Mozza, Mozza2Go and Pizzeria Mozza—at the corner of Melrose Place and Highland Avenue. At Mozza2Go he found looters and flames.
"Melrose Mac [a computer store] is next door," co-owner Joe Bastianich told Wine Spectator. "So we were collateral damage. They came in, they poured in fire accelerants, lit the place on fire, stole all the wine and booze, cash register and then they left." Thankfully firefighters were able to put out the flames before they spread to the entire complex.
Just around the corner, looters smashed the windows at two of chef Ludo Lefebvre's restaurants, Trois Mec and Petit Trois. And the disorder in the days after has been even more damaging. "They are closed until we can get the glass repaired," Lefebvre told Wine Spectator. "And L.A. has been under a curfew for five days now. The curfew has taken away our ability to do any kind of dinner service."
Just as restaurants across the nation had begun to cautiously reopen, protests and unrest added new uncertainty. Even in areas where protests have been peaceful, many restaurants have temporarily closed again as diners stay away. Curfews in many cities have also necessitated closings.
But despite the economic and mental stress of the past few months, every restaurateur interviewed for this story believed that it was important to take reopening slowly to protect diners and staff. And what's more, they believed the protesters' message was more important than dining right now.
"It's a small setback—paint, wood and wine," said Bastianich. "The bigger cause is what's happening in America, and we're all for that, so if that's the price we have to pay, we're willing to pay it.”
A year of turmoil
Restaurants have been starting to reopen slowly across the nation, with many limited to 25 to 50 percent occupancy or outdoor seating only. Many chefs have chosen to keep their doors closed for the time being or to limit themselves to takeout service, as they try to keep staff safe. Many also report that partial occupancy is not financially viable.
But most have started to gradually open, limiting seating, requiring reservations, training staff on new rules for keeping diners and employees safe.
Since George Floyd's death on a Minneapolis sidewalk on May 25, protests have been held in more than 430 communities across the nation, from small towns to the biggest cities. The vast majority have been peaceful, but looting and violence has impacted both restaurants and wine stores. Binny's Beverage Depot, a Chicago-based chain of wine stores, reports that eleven of its locations have been looted. Similar reports have come in from wine stores in other cities. In Minneapolis, a craft distillery was looted and partially burned.
The unrest has spurred state and local officials in several places to implement curfews. That's ended dinner service and, in some instances, to-go food too.
The timing could hardly be worse. "Aquavit has been closed since March 15 and just last week opened for takeout and delivery," said Håkan Swahn, owner of the Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner in New York City. "We fully support peaceful protests and feel they would not have a negative impact. It's the rioting and looting around us that naturally negatively affects our possibility to have people pick up food and to safely deliver meals."
New York has an 8 p.m. curfew in place this week. "We will lose the orders after 7 p.m. as we will close at that time for now," said Swahn. "Every small piece of business is precious for us and we pray we can resume full service very soon."
Many restaurateurs say their biggest concern is the safety of their employees. Aaron Teitelbaum owns Herbie's, an Award of Excellence winner just outside St. Louis, Mo., where a curfew has been in place. "The curfew hasn't affected us in terms of closing early," he said. "What it has affected is our employees. Some of them haven't wanted to leave their homes because many of them live in the city. You put this on top of a pandemic, and your employees are anxious, so we've been giving them [time] off and things like that."
"We haven't seen any vandalism [at our open restaurants]," said John Filkins, beverage director of Officina and Masseria, both Best of Award of Excellence winners in Washington, D.C. "We closed our restaurants June 2 for the safety of our staff. We want to make sure that all of our employees can get around the city and be healthy and safe. If they're taking mass transportation or things like that, they're able to get home before the curfew."
Filkins also believes closing sends a message. "[We're closing] to also show our solidarity, because as a restaurant we're an incredibly diverse group of people. We want to ensure that we're standing up for everyone, and we're in support of everything that's going on [in terms of] the protests."
In many cities, restaurants have offered demonstrators water and access to bathrooms. Others have given their staff paid days off to attend protests.
"The world is so unpredictable right now, who would've thought that not only would there be a pandemic but this would be a time for people to really stand up and to open their eyes, and band together," said Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou, beverage director and partner at Allora, an Award of Excellence winner in Sacramento, Calif. "Honestly I'm really torn. I'm torn as a business owner who would love for my business to open. But at the same time, as a citizen of this country, I don't really want [the protests] to stop. I want people to rise up, so it's this really interesting position to be in, to feel both sides."
Feed the soul
Chef Marcus Samuelsson believes the food community will come out stronger after these trials. "I think we've learned as a community, as chefs, that to pivot is a big part of what we do," he told Wine Spectator. "We're going to pivot again, we're gonna go from fine dining into takeout, which we've never done. And then we're going to go into something else."
At his Red Rooster restaurants in Harlem and in Miami's Overtown neighborhood, he is preparing to begin takeout. "I learned that during the pandemic, nothing is good to go until we're there. And I just feel like we're doing our important work right now. And if we have to change in a day or two, there's nothing I can do about it."
Samuelsson has supported the protesters, feeding them from his kitchens. And he spoke at a rally in Harlem. "The rally was on 7th Avenue—Adam Clayton Powell [Jr. Boulevard]—and 125th Street, so it's just a block away from our restaurant. There were 800 people doing a peaceful march and there's nothing wrong with that. That's beautiful."
After months of hardship, most chefs and sommeliers are tired. But they believe they must reopen to help brighten the nation's future. "I can't guess [the future]," said Samuelsson. "I just know that as a community—that the 11 million people that work in restaurants and the up to 40 million different jobs that they provide in terms of other services, purveyors and so on—we're very, very strong, and we're very important. And I know that America's neighborhoods, the heart and soul of the neighborhoods, are restaurants."