When the novel coronavirus hit the United States, chefs Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark already had a lot on their plate. The chefs, who won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes in 2019, were running two restaurants, Parachute and Wherewithall — the latter of which they opened last year, right around the time they had their third child. They were in the process of closing on their new home right when they were forced to close their restaurants’ dine-in service.
Kim and Clark decided to keep both restaurants open for carryout and delivery. Last week, they also announced the release of a cookbook devoted to their cult-favorite bing bread, which is already off to press. Kim and Clark have also just moved and are getting settled in their new home, but Kim took some time to document their experience running restaurants at this time.
“When I’m stressed, I find that journaling helps me stay grounded,” she says. “This is such a unique time in history. Documenting the highs and lows of navigating this could be a great way of learning and revealing the challenges of the restaurant industry. Hopefully, people will carry more empathy and understanding through this.”
March 5 & 6: Ghost Town with a Golden Gate
My executive sous chef Jeffrey [Newman] and I go to San Francisco and work the James Beard Taste of America event. The Foundation’s houseware show on the 15th had been cancelled, along with the fundraiser at Navy Pier, which was an indication that there would be a slowdown in business. Originally, I was going to take my babysitter and my baby Bowie, since I’m still nursing, but as a precaution, I go alone.
It feels eerie. The catering place we go to is empty, since three of the four scheduled events had been cancelled. The event turnout is actually pretty good, but there is an uneasy feeling in the air.
Johnny and I text about all the conferences that just cancelled, including a Japanese seafood convention in Boston and a huge bodybuilding convention in Columbus. We receive an email from nuts.com saying they would waive shipping fees due to the slowdown in demand — even the nut business is already hurting.
We plan a formal address on Saturday to our staff about the seriousness of the situation, that this wasn’t like a cold weather slowdown. We also notice an overwhelming number of applicants to job postings, a sign that other restaurants must be on a hiring freeze.
On Friday, we prep 800 bing bread portions and also drop some off at the AFAR Magazine headquarters in San Francisco. AFAR staff say that they were also seeing direct effects since their reporting required traveling — with the travel restrictions, they were seeing a slowdown in their stories.
At first, it seems like San Francisco isn’t very affected: We can’t get a reservation at Mister Jiu’s, and when we go to eat at Angler and Chez Panisse, they’re full. After the event, however, I talk to Mister Jiu’s chef Brandon Jew and he says that business in Chinatown is slower. Our Lyft drivers also comment that it’s been slower that week due to cancelled events.
Later that day, Mayor Lightfoot, Governor Pritzker, Public Health, and Chicago Public School officials announce a new presumptive positive case of the coronavirus. We send a letter to our staff managing their expectations and warning that we might see a downturn in business. We tell them we will do our best to keep them updated.
March 7–10: The Calm Before the Storm
We leave for the airport and go back home to Chicago. We check on the restaurants and it seems like business as usual at both places.
On Monday, I respond to emails about future events I was participating in as if they were still happening — a photo shoot on March 12, the Carl Von Linne Fundraiser on March 20, a Soho House event on March 25, a private wedding party on March 27, a small business meeting and Cornell Florist–Monsoon Pottery joint event on April 1, and the James Beard Gala Foundation on May 4.
On Tuesday, we place hand sanitizer at the host stand. There was none available to buy, so Johnny makes his own by buying aloe vera from Joong Boo Market and mixing it with alcohol. Guests are appreciative of this and comment on it. We also implement a happy hour at Wherewithall in hopes of boosting sales.
I order some hand sanitizer for our teams from a website that said it would ship it in two to three days, but we don’t receive it until 17 days later, on March 27.
March 11–13: Bracing for the Inevitable
Six new cases of COVID-19 are announced, pushing the total number in Illinois to 25, and the WHO declares COVID-19 a pandemic. I stay up all night working on a SBA application for disaster relief. Somehow, Johnny thinks that this would be something we needed to look into — he’s good at finding information and very quick to pick up on things we have to do to protect our business. The disaster loan for COVID-19 isn’t up at that point, but I figure all the financials asked of me would probably be the same. I print out the application and fill it out, searching all my misplaced docs to get all the info, from loan doc numbers, personal finance numbers, principal, interest, forecast, etc.
It’s six in the morning by the time I go home. I sleep for two hours and go back to work again. Our Flat Brim dinner is in two days, and there is still work to be done. Little do I know that later that day, March 13, President Trump would declare a state of emergency and Chicago Public Schools would suspend classes until March 31.
We contact our insurance company to ask about business interruption due to coronavirus. The broker says unless the government shuts us down or someone sues, claiming that they got COVID-19 at our restaurant, most likely there isn’t anything we could claim.
Johnny and I are convinced by this point that we need to prepare for a complete shutdown. With only one month of working capital, we decide that filling out the SBA application may be crucial for the survival of our business.
March 14 & 15: Springfield Issues a Shutdown
On Saturday morning, we talk about how the coronavirus is affecting our livelihoods with our mentor, Kathryn Frazier of Biz3. We consider closing, but are concerned that we will never rebound when we reopen our restaurants. She advises us to take that insecurity and throw it out the window — this is survival mode, and no one would judge us if we did business differently during this time.
Through weighing all the possibilities, we conclude that Chicago isn’t quite at the state of emergency that New York was and that closing our restaurant altogether would be preemptive.
We reason more guests would come out if they knew we were taking every precaution to keep them and our staff safe, so we implement new rules and checklists of extra sanitizing, removing tables, reducing paper, reducing cash, clearing with gloves on, etc. We post on Instagram and send out an email about the safety and sanitation measures we are taking. Normally, letting guests see your gloves and sanitizer is pretty unflattering, but now, it seems necessary to ensure guests feel safe eating and spending money in our establishment.
That evening, winemakers from Lo-Fi and Bichi both are able to show up to our planned wine takeover. This boosts morale among staff, but no one is 100 percent themselves. A sous chef at Parachute says he feels off, so we send him home right away.
The next day, while walking with the kids to Dunkin’ Donuts, we are notified that the governor is limiting venue capacity to 50 percent or less for the next eight weeks. Within the hour, we got another update that all restaurants and bars would be closed until March 31.
We hold an emergency meeting on Monday, normally our day off, with our lead manager to help us remodel our restaurant to offer takeout. We tell ourselves to give it a week or two, at most; if we don’t get customers, we would completely shut down.
March 16–19: Thinking on Our Feet
I keep trying to log into the SBA disaster loan website, but the application isn’t up yet. I feel helpless.
At noon, we bring in the managers (minus two who were advised to stay home for two weeks, to be safe) to discuss how we would pivot to a takeout and delivery menu. According to our projections, we will have to temporarily lay off the rest of the employees. In order to break even at both restaurants, we will have to ring in $12,500 in sales a week, which seems like a lot for never doing takeout or delivery. The number is so overwhelming that I feel numb. But, without sales, we cannot support workers and would be standing in their way of getting unemployment benefits. We do the final payroll for both restaurants, and include an additional $8,000 in paid time off that we gave employees who had accrued it.
We totally revamp each menu and restaurant: For Parachute, because our plated food would not do well in a to-go format, we decide to focus on Bing ’n Bop, different varieties of bing bread and crispy bibimbap, and for Wherewithall, we offer pastries and coffee in the morning, lunch boxes in the afternoon, and family meals at night. Both will remain open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., with the same managers opening and closing.
Our front-of-house managers reformat menus; print a banner; input everything into our POS system; sign us up for Caviar, Chownow, and GrubHub; and post on social media. Jessica Line, the general manager at Wherewithall, and Jose Villalobos, the general manager at Parachute, figure out what we have in our nonalcoholic inventory and reorient our beverage program. There are probably five spelling errors on all of our menus, but at that point, we are so in the weeds that we let the imperfection slide.
Kevin Pang stops by to take photos and videos for the Kickstarter supporting our bing bread mini-cookbook. Since more people have time on their hands with social distancing and bing bread has such a cult following, we figured we’d wrap the book, with production slated for mid-April.
By the end of the day, we realize the whole menu at Parachute is way too much work, and most people just want the original bing bread anyway. We decide at 10:30 p.m. to offer family meals for two or four people instead and offer the bing bread a la carte. We calculate we are net negative –$800 in profits for that day at Wherewithall and negative –$500 in profits at Parachute.
In more positive news, Illinois passes a law allowing us to sell alcohol off-premise — a huge win for us. We decide to sell the wine at 50 percent off our menu prices and get that ready for the next day.
Though we’re net negative, we’re happy just to have some orders, and we have some fun with Instagram games we implemented. People are actually posting photos of our food at home, which is cool to see.
On Thursday, when I check online, Indiana and Illinois finally appear on the SBA disaster loan site. My hands shake as I input our information. A huge weight is lifted off my shoulders that night.
March 20: Amid Crisis, a Milestone
We check into our restaurants at 7 a.m. Our house closing is at 9 a.m., but we still have two hours to get stuff done — Johnny goes to Home Depot, and I respond to emails and do some errands for the restaurants. Thank goodness the closing was in Logan Square because the downtown office is closed. We have to sign our papers with gloves on.
For most people, their closing day is a day of celebration, a day of breaking out the Champagne. For us, we have to get back to work as soon as possible and are also anxious to be taking on another major debt in a national emergency. But, we figured, it was now or never. In a year, our books would look so low we probably wouldn’t qualify, and our family is bursting at the seams in our current fourth floor walkup apartment. We have always put our business first, and this is the first time doing something for ourselves and our family — it is much needed for the mental health of our kids and our own mental clutter.
Johnny gets a text from another restaurateur at 1 p.m. that sources are saying restaurants will close altogether, including delivery and takeout. My heart drops, and I take a moment to pray.
At 3 p.m., we tune into the Mayor and Governor Pritzker’s speech. Schools are now closed until April 20, there is a lockdown order, and only essential businesses are allowed to stay open. Then it is over. We are a bit confused, so I check Eater, who report takeout and delivery are deemed essential.
Then, we get a bump in business and it is a bit chaotic. We run out of food by 6:30 p.m. at both restaurants. At the end of the night, some of us have to take a moment to cry out of relief. We have our best night yet, finally doing more than breaking even for the day.
March 24–26: Risk Assessment
Even though we’re closed on Monday, I take the day to review financials and ask bankers for deferment. They request more paperwork, which takes more time with the new house.
On Wednesday, I start working on my 13-week forecast for both restaurants. Based on sales from last week, we will be losing money at both restaurants and at risk if we have to close. Through it all, we’ve found ways to save — Johnny makes a handmade chalkboard sign for about $14, and we decide to unplug the private dining coolers to save money.
We also start working on the GoFundMe page for our employees who were laid off. Everyone’s done it, but we took some time to mull over the decision first: Was it truly the best way to help our employees, or should we focus our energy on staying open in the long run so we could rehire our employees later?
The same day, the CARES Act passes in the Senate; it would pass the House the following day. It was also the busiest night so far at Parachute; thanks to a PR boost from Eater and an email blast from Tock HQ, we would report record sales by the end of the week.
March 28: Community Support, at a Distance
On Saturday, just two days after posting, our GoFundMe reaches 60 percent of our total goal for our employees. The same day, I finally get the hand sanitizers I had ordered weeks ago and give everyone their own personal bottle. We add markers six feet from the cash register to make sure that everyone is following social distancing.
Both restaurants did their best sales yet, and each day operations become smoother. (They would have been even better, had Caviar and Tock not crashed due to a spike in traffic!) We sell a record amount of bing bread: 70 orders. On our busiest Saturday night at Parachute, we usually sell 40.
The one thing I enjoy about takeout and delivery is how much people are posting about their meals from home. If there wasn’t so much at stake here, I’d enjoy this more: We get to try new things, and every day is far from boring.
At our wrap-up meeting, we talk about the menu for brunch tomorrow. We are completely out of containers and need 40 pounds of spinach, but no one delivers on Sunday, leaving us to scramble the next morning. We also discuss sending food to first defenders (hospital workers) and other people in need.
All of One Off Hospitality’s restaurants closed today. Again, we ask ourselves if they know something we don’t.
March 29: The New Normal
Johnny and I make a run to Restaurant Depot and Joong Boo. We have to get used to ordering heavier on Sundays as most vendors don’t do delivery on Sundays. We implement even more stringent rules for keeping our employees and guests safe: We have plexiglass that Johnny made for pickups at Parachute, disinfect on a strict schedule, and make stations so that our employees can prep six feet apart as much as possible.
We sell 12 brunch orders for two, double the amount from last Sunday at Wherewithall. We end the week feeling more prepared than last. We have a call with Kevin Pang and prepare for the release of the mini bing bread cookbook.
Incredibly, we start to feel as if this is the new normal, adapting and learning as we go. Did this virus change how restaurants run forever?