And then came Omicron. The week before Christmas, one member of our 41-person staff tested positive for Covid, forcing us to close for the weekend. Over two days, our restaurant lost over $38,000 in revenue. Inspecting our walk-in fridge, I saw thousands of dollars worth of foie gras, white truffles and ducks that had been dry aging for two weeks. I felt a sickeningly familiar sense of uncertainty and fear. I was one of many chefs and owners who felt that old angry exhaustion once again as restaurants big and small confronted yet another challenge.
Lazy Betty is primarily a reservation-only restaurant — so when we were hit with a slew of cancellations in that pre-Christmas week, we feared the worst. Every caller said they had an emergency Covid case. Many asked if we could waive our cancellation fee.
On the one hand, we risked the inevitable nasty review on Yelp. On the other hand, there was the lost revenue and the cost of ingredients we had to throw out — a classic lose-lose situation, brought to us by the pandemic. In the end, we tried to sway these diners to reschedule their reservations to a future date, delaying the possibility of the cancellation charge.
The biggest challenge has been deciding when to reopen, which hinges on the health of our team. On that recent weekend we closed because of the positive Covid case, only five of our employees could secure an appointment for a Covid test. After a long search, I wound up with a cart full of at-home tests and a new membership to Sam’s Club. All told, my chef-partner Aaron Phillips and I spent just shy of $800 on 106 tests. My staff burned through half of them by the following Wednesday, allowing us to safely reopen.
Lazy Betty has been lucky. We made smart investments at the start of the pandemic and our reservation policy allowed us to closely manage our food and labor costs. We share our service charges with the front- and back-of-house, which has helped us retain staff. We’ve also delayed paying back our investors and distributing profits to owners to increase our operating capital by roughly 50 percent, which we’ve spent on pandemic-related upgrades.
Others haven’t been so lucky. Some chef friends tell me they are considering another career. No one would fault them.
Our industry needs more support from the government. That means supplemental health insurance for employees or rent abatement programs for landlords of restaurant properties. Easy access to free rapid testing would also help us catch infections early. President Biden has announced plans to expand free at-home testing. Restaurant employees and other essential workers who can do their work only in person should be prioritized.