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Julien Gremaud On Serving In South Florida While A Second Shutdown Looms

Living by the letter of pandemic law while taking a hard line versus rulebreakers.

Julien Gremaud is chef-owner of Avocado Grill, a restaurant with two locations in Palm Beach County, Florida.

We’ve always done a pretty good business in takeout. The food travels well. We’re on a park in West Palm Beach, and before the pandemic, all the people in the nearby condos would wait until the end of the day when it would cool down a little bit. They would come and hang out in the park, and we’d be selling drinks and food. So that’s why it was busy. Part of it was people ordering to-go, and part of it was people walking by the restaurant and ordering food and drinks, which ultimately turned into a happy hour.

Then in March, we shut down completely because I was worried about my staff contracting the disease. I gave my staff all the food that we had in the refrigerators. We still lost about $20,000 worth of food. I closed for a month and a half to see what was going to happen. Then I realized that some people were making a little money by doing takeout, so I reopened for takeout at the West Palm Beach location. And we did pretty good. We were doing a decent volume of sales. It was a couple of weeks until we were able to reopen in Phase One. When we reopened, the West Palm Beach location did better than the year before, but the Palm Beach Gardens location struggled because of the older clients.

And now that COVID numbers are going up every single day, we’re seeing a decrease in sales. West Palm Beach is about 20 percent down versus last year. Palm Beach Gardens is down 50 to 60 percent, which is very worrisome.

We’ve tried to keep as many employees as we can so everyone gets a little bit of money. We reduced by about 20 percent. We probably have 80 or 90 employees right now. The front of house is not doing very well because the tips are low, so of course we’re putting less people on the floor. I cross-utilize the kitchen guys between the two restaurants so they can make 50 or 60 hours. They do lunch at one place and dinner at the other.

We’ve been fortunate to be a busy restaurant. Of course, with less volume it’s hard to keep the food as fresh, so we had to remove some items from the menu. That’s about the only change that we’ve done.

I started with a disposable menu, which drove me absolutely insane because we do specials every day. We were going through a massive amount of paper, and it was costing me a fortune. I decided to go back to the regular menu and have my hostess constantly wiping them. I just think it makes no sense because when you sit at a restaurant table, you have a plate, you have silverware, you have a napkin, and you have glassware. That didn’t come from the sky and drop on the table. Somebody touched it, along with everything else. So I find it completely useless to have just one thing that’s disposable. We just wipe down the menus.

We have a whole new dining room, all six feet apart. The city of West Palm Beach was very proactive, and they let us put tents up outside, which they paid for during the first three months. Really beautiful tents. So my seating capacity in West Palm Beach ended up about the same as it was before because we added another 10 tables under the tents to make up for fewer tables inside. I was just in Aspen, and I was talking to a restaurant owner there. They had two parking spots. The city let them build a structure there to seat people, and it looked beautiful. I’m trying to bring this to my cities to see if we can maybe build something.

As for all the new rules—I’m not going to lie. It’s been frustrating. You had a lot of businesses that didn’t follow the rules, a lot of greedy business owners that just decided to have a party. I’m in the business of selling liquor. But the coronavirus’s best friend is liquor. People start drinking and congregating, and then they start kissing and hugging and all that. That’s because of alcohol. It’s as simple as that. You let your guard down, and everybody’s like, “I’m having a great time.” People don’t think about the virus.

We’ve been exemplary in both of my businesses. I know a couple of the other restaurants run by people I’m friends with, and they’ve also been very good. Then you have people that took advantage of the situation and tried to make a quick buck. I think that’s part of the problem with the virus spiking here. And of course, you had all the tourists that came to Miami and Fort Lauderdale. The virus is not going to stop them. I think it’s part of the problem.

There was nothing that we could do except follow the rules. We closed the bar because the bar is the source of the problem. People can get drinks to-go. We’ve had a wild Sunday brunch for the past six years in West Palm Beach. We stopped doing that, which is very sad because Sunday was the busiest day of the week for us. We just don’t let people congregate at the bar. And if people want to congregate outside, we tell them, “Hey, you guys have to be six feet away from another table.”

Photo: Courtesy Avocado Grill.

We are on the verge of a second shutdown down here, I’m pretty sure. People are being more cautious and following the rules a little bit more. But it’s up to the business owners. You see some restaurants where the servers are not wearing masks, the bartenders are not wearing masks. They’re not wearing gloves. They’re not going to be the ones that tell the guests, “Hey, you cannot congregate at the bar.”

But you have to be the cop. We nip it in the bud with the guests right away. We’re very firm about it, and that works. It’s tough to work with a mask, especially in an industry where you’re running around. And in Florida it’s 90 or 95 degrees outside. Any time I catch an employee not wearing a mask, they get a spanking. But that’s the only thing you can do. That’s what is difficult in my profession. All you do all day is repeat yourself.

I am a very lucky guy who could afford a second shutdown. I just want to do whatever is right to go back to normal. A lot of my fellow business owners have been very greedy. I know some of them are trying to survive, but there are also other ways to survive. Try to negotiate a deal with your landlord. Try to get as much from government grants as you can. But some people just don’t get it. It just became so political.

I think that landlords should be working with the tenants as much as possible. I know they could help on both sides, sometimes from the bank. Letting go of a tenant is not a small thing for them to do right now. I foresee some major problems here in a couple of months. Some restaurants that are not as successful, who see one or two tables per day, how are they going to pay rent? So it’s all going to depend on the landlords and how they are going to react. Some won’t want to have a restaurant space and will try to change the usage of the space because they’re going to think that restaurants suck.

I just hope that the way we dined before—we all can come back to that. I see my guests, my regulars, and they can’t wait for that. I don’t think that we should change a thing.