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Derek Brown: The Moral Imperative Of Running Bars And Restaurants Right

The existential threat of the pandemic is a compelling reason to start making better choices in the hospitality industry.

Derek Brown is the founder of Washington DC’s Columbia Room and has served as chief spirits advisor to the National Archives. He’s the author of Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World and the forthcoming Mindful Mixology: A Comprehensive Guide to No- and Low-Alcohol Cocktails, scheduled for 2022 release.

We’re surviving for now. Obviously we could use a little bit more help, but we’re at about 50 percent of our sales, which these days feels like a great success. Which really just means we’re losing less every month than we were.

Restaurant owners and workers are already used to being flexible. There’s always something that goes wrong, whether it’s a table that accidentally got booked for the same time, or a water heater that breaks down. As an owner-operator I’m always flexible. This year though I was required to be Stretch Armstrong. I had to pull myself in so many different directions to make our bar successful and learn a whole new set of skills. We had to reinvent ourselves—and fine, we’re business owners, we’re supposed to be working with the flow of things, but obviously it was beyond our wildest expectations of what we’d have to do.

When we first sat down and started doing to-go stuff and saw it being successful, we added some snacks because DC required substantial food items. And whether that was “substantial” or not was up to the beholder. So we had this opportunity to offer more than just drinks, and also we wanted to do stuff that related to helping the community as well.

We started working with the Power of 10, and we started doing Your Only Friend, a sandwich shop, which at first was called Get a Hero Be A Hero, where you buy one sandwich, and one goes to charity. For every sandwich sold, we sent another sandwich through Power of 10 to frontline workers, like nurses and emergency workers, and that was great. We had an opportunity to keep some people employed and give back. But obviously we still weren’t making money, so we had to tremendously reduce our staff. As that evolved into Your Only Friend, we’re still contributing a percentage of sales to charity. Even though we’re losing money, that’s still an important thing to do. That money goes to Share Our Strength, which fights hunger and poverty, and Campaign Zero, which does work trying to put a stop to police brutality.

Though it started on shaky ground with large corporations taking most of the money, the Payroll Protection Program did ultimately help a lot of people and small businesses such as ourselves. I’m grateful for that. It helped us to hire back a lot of employees and keep them employed for a few months. DC offered some grants as well. It was a drop in the bucket, but it was good that they tried. That’s one of the new skills that I’ve developed—grant writing to request funding. Ultimately we need more money. You can’t close a business down for six months and expect it to survive on what’s been given already. But it was a nice start.

The failings were not keeping that program going, and not having a second round. The RESTAURANTS Act and Heroes Act are essential to making sure that independent restaurants and bars survive this thing. It’s a bipartisan issue. Republicans and Democrats both want small businesses—especially restaurants and bars—to survive this. But even bipartisan issues have become battlegrounds. I think that’s sad, because we’re ultimately the victims of that battle.

I’ve watched bar after bar close, like Room 11 or the Gibson here in DC, and they’re probably not coming back. After receiving only partial relief, now all of these great bars and restaurants are starting to slip through our fingers. That feels tragic. It’s incomprehensible that the government can’t do something to help. This is urgent. This is not something we need a month from now. This is something where businesses will close tomorrow, including your favorite businesses.

The one good aspect of all this is that maybe smarter business people—especially at independent restaurants and bars—have started to realize that our system is positively, fundamentally unfair. It has endangered the well-being of staff through these myths around it, whether it’s the myth of the celebrity chef or celebrity bartender or who cares, celebrity whatever. They have convinced other people that it was about the passion and the love and the craft—and I’m not saying that’s not important! But those other people have made unreasonable sacrifices as a result—whether it was working an ungodly amount of hours, or being paid a very low wage, or giving into this lifestyle where we sleep all day, then work through the night, and party after work, then sleep all day. So many people within the hospitality industry have mental health issues and issues around substance abuse, and it just went unchecked.

The imperative is to make our workplaces safe. For everybody. Make it a place where people can actually make money and live a life. I one hundred percent support raising the minimum wage, and I know a lot of restaurant owners would really be annoyed to hear me say that, but how the hell are you going to live at under $15 an hour? And $15 an hour, look, that’s not great. But it’s a start.

There has to be compassion. We have to be thoughtful about how we take care of people, especially our workers. So $15 an hour is a start. It’s the minimum, literally the minimum, and to think that people are trying to keep it lower than that—they’re not really paying attention to people’s lives. I know they’re paying attention to their bottom line, and I do sympathize with that. I’m not calling them horrible people. I get where their focus is, but I’m asking them to pay attention to more than the bottom line.

What we have to do, to be successful as a business, is to treat the people under us with respect and dignity. I think we can understand there are a lot of wayward souls that come through bars and restaurants, myself included. I haven’t talked about this a lot, but I was on my own, more or less supporting myself, since I was about 16 years old. And bars and restaurants were one of the ways I did that. Over time I learned to ape the behavior of others working in bars and restaurants, and also I learned to hide aspects of my mental health—buried under substance use, specifically for me, drinking excessively. That was normal!

I think it is up to bars and restaurants and businesses to behave morally. But it is not up to bars and restaurants to teach us what morality is. We can’t go around wagging our fingers at people who have problems, and try to explain to them why they’re wrong. I’m not saying you can’t party and have fun. But for me, at a certain point, it crossed that line from being fun. It was no longer fun. It was damaging, to myself and others. When I say you should be moral but not preach morality, I think we need to end things like shift drinks. Shift drinks were normal—you expected at the end of the night, you were going to start getting drunk for free at the bar.

Businesses have to make their own decisions, but I would ask them to consider that shift drinks is a practice that is not just damaging to your bottom line, but to your staff. To give them the space to have free access to alcohol is not necessarily the best plan. Especially when you’re talking about an industry that’s so full of mental health issues and substance abuse disorders. I’m pleading with people to consider that when you work at a restaurant or bar, the people in that restaurant or bar are souls under your roof, and you have to make sure they are, at the very least, free from harm.

Another aspect is being aware of what your employees are going through—making sure you’re connecting with them on what’s happening in their lives, giving them the space and time to do what they need to do. I guarantee you that as soon as this pandemic is over, everyone who is saying, “Oh my god, we need to improve the health of everybody, yes you’re so right,” is going to go right back to working those employees 80 hours a week. Which is no life!

And I’m not saying we haven’t done that, or I haven’t done that. I used to work those hours, and sometimes I’ve asked my staff to do it, too. I’m not an innocent character here, but maybe I’ve come to a different part of my life, and I realize the value of family and friends, hobbies, connection. Relationships that are not based on partying. Time to do whatever you need to do in life.

You’re going to have these celebrity restaurateurs standing up and telling you what hospitality is about, and they have all kinds of bullshit ideas. Because hospitality means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To me, hospitality means cutting through that alienation that we all feel sometimes, and helping us have genuine connection through food, through drink, through social interaction.

We’re talking about saving places you know and love—places that make and create the character of a city. It’s urgent. We’re letting these businesses die, and that feels so wrong. Let’s get money to these businesses so they can survive this. If I could do one thing that would be helpful right now for restaurants and bars, it would be to scream at the top of my lungs: We. Need. Your. Support.