How the pandemic calls out the best and worst, in business and in people.
By Yann de Rochefort as told to Chris Mohney
Yann de Rochefort is the founder and CEO of Boqueria restaurant, which has seven locations in New York, Washington DC, and Chicago. He and his team closed all their restaurants shortly before official lockdowns. Now, for the first time they’re launching takeout and delivery at their Upper East Side location in NYC before rolling it out elsewhere.
In retrospect, just about everybody in the country has been a step behind the pandemic the whole way, which is not terribly shocking considering how radically different this is from anything else that we’ve done or been exposed to. At first, we were starting to brainstorm all the ways that we could respond to this in a more or less normal fashion. We said we’ve got to step up health and safety, we’ve got to make people be and feel safe, we have to make contingency plans in case somebody gets COVID.
Two weeks later, we realized that we had to shut down. The first time the idea of actually shutting down came up was at 8 o’clock on Friday morning, the 13th of March. By 3 o’clock, we’d decided to close all the restaurants. That’s just a dizzying pace of decision-making.
The hardest week was actually the week right after we shut down, because that’s the week I realized that I had to take much deeper measures and lay off just about everyone. I realized that if I treated this as though it might be short-term, I would make certain decisions that would fit the way we normally do things, which is that we try to keep our teams together and stay optimistic. I realized that if I was wrong, and it lasted longer, then I could put the company under.
So I had to take some very tough measures, which I did my best to explain to the team. I think one of the biggest learnings from all of this is that crises increase the contrast on everything. Your weaknesses are felt more acutely, and your strengths help you even more than they normally do. Faults in your business model, or faults in your financing, or having some of the wrong people in place—things that you feel like you can live with when things are OK—all of a sudden you realize that you can’t, that they could be fatal. And you have to take very quick action.
The reverse is also true—the people who have great character and great skill, and who you’re glad to have around, can be lifesaving in a circumstance like this. A company culture that is cohesive feels good in normal circumstances. Our turnover is below 50 percent for both front of house and back of house, which is fairly low by industry norms. I think we’ve always had a very strong culture. We’ve worked really hard to be very explicit about who we are and what our values are, and we’ve hired and retained people on that basis for a long time.
I think it’s shown through in this crisis in ways that really floored me. I had to announce that we wouldn’t be able to pay PTO accrued to line staff, and I knew they needed that money. But I also realized that the company didn’t have the financial resources to pay it out. I had general managers step up and say, “I want to be the one to deliver the news to my team.” To have that level of ownership, where somebody who is no longer employed by me—these are people who were not on the payroll anymore either, and who hadn’t had a hand in making that decision—step up and say, “I owe it to my team to be the one to tell them.” That was just unbelievable.
When I announced the second round of layoffs and decisions regarding PTO, I did it over a Zoom video call because I did not want it to be an email or text. I couldn’t deliver it in person, but a Zoom call was the next best thing. I did another one two weeks ago just to talk about how we see things, the crisis, et cetera, and we had a third of our former staff attend. Some attended because they were curious, some attended because they had really tough questions to ask. But being able, in the shittiest possible circumstances, to maintain a dialog and a level of interest and engagement—that really struck me.
I know there’ve been a lot of tough conversations with landlords. I’ve had some landlord conversations I didn’t particularly look forward to—because conversations in the past have been tough—actually go far better than I would have anticipated. I think that we’re all surprised continually with how people respond in this situation. Some people far better, others not so much.
Floyd Cardoz’s passing was a really, really tough blow. We know that there were hundreds of people dying in New York, but that one just really brought it home in a way, because so many of us knew him and liked them.
One of the things about this industry that I think is uncommon—and I think it’s always true, but it’s particularly true now—is that for a very competitive industry, there’s very little feeling of direct competition between any given operators. This is way too fragmented of a market for any of us to see any other operator or any other restaurant as a direct competitor, and not want to help them. I think everybody in the industry has a very open relationship with everybody else and is willing to help others get a leg up. That’s shown through in spades in the current crisis.
Overall, I’m trying to advocate—through the Restaurant Network created by Hospitality House’s Steven Kamali, and conversations with others—for what I think should happen, which is a rent freeze. Thousands of restaurants are being threatened with going out of business because of rents. That is the single biggest issue facing all of them. The fact that we’ve been ordered to close by the government, and yet we have this continuing obligation, is crushing. I also recognize that landlords are in a tough spot. Everybody’s fighting. Everybody’s in this situation not of their own making.
In terms of eventually reopening and coming back, if people feel safe being in the company of other people, we’ll be fine. If they don’t, we’re screwed. There are tons of things all of us can do—delivery, catering, et cetera. But none of our restaurants are built for that. You don’t need to pay the kinds of rents that we and others in the industry are paying in order to do delivery. Most of the restaurant industry needs people in the restaurants that they’ve built, eating. There’s only so much that any of us can do to make people feel safe if mass testing, contact tracing, selective quarantining, and other measures of public health aren’t in place.
The public health measures are everything. For restaurants as they existed up to a month ago, our task is to weather the storm somehow until there’s a vaccine in place and people feel really safe coming out again. And then I think we’ll be fine. But “we” may not be us. The other day, President Trump said restaurants will still exist, they might just have different owners. All right, fine. That’s great. That’s reassuring. Fuck you.
Things are not going to change forever. I don’t believe that. We kept traveling after 9/11. There may be different measures, and we may keep track of our employees’ health and other people’s health in different ways that are more invasive. But just as we’re still flying, we’re still going to go to restaurants. The question is, how do we get there, and how much pain does the industry go through between now and then in lost business before we come out the other side? Because it would be a lot cheaper to take the right measures to keep the business structures and teams intact and in hibernation, than it will to create them out of whole cloth again.