Taking a stand on behalf of restaurant staff against the pandemic, exploitation, and degradation.
By Jason Vincent as told to Chris Mohney
Jason Vincent is chef and co-owner of Giant and Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar restaurants in Chicago. Both restaurants have been closed to dining since lockdown in March. Vincent and his team recently started experimenting with a Giant food truck to help keep some staff employed.
On March 15th—the Ides of March—we voluntarily shut down ahead of being asked to. After that, it was one step forward, two steps back. We would try and make a bunch of plans. At first it was, “What are we going to do for two weeks?” and then it was, “What are we going to do for a month?” We would end up putting a lot of work into thinking through all the solutions, situations, and outcomes, and then scrapping it all and starting over, over and over and over again. In more of a macro sense, it was just endlessly saying, “What the fuck are we going to do?”
We had two different datasets going on at the same time, one of which is Giant, which has been open now for almost five years and is doing pretty well. Then we had Chef’s Special, which had been open for two months. It’s a lot of X’s and O’s to be moving around two very different chalkboards. In one way it was interesting to see the differences and discrepancies in the solutions—how one would work as opposed to the other. But it’s all the same result, which is bad.
There was a pie chart in my head, trying to take into consideration PPP money, and revenue versus output, and payroll and rent and shit like that. There were a lot of X factors, even more so than normal, because we’re looking at Congress and the dumbest motherfucker in the world running the country. That’s the reality of it—somebody who is completely unwilling to give a shit about anything other than himself. And we’re affected by it. My kids are affected by it.
Trying to take all that in put us in this nesting mentality, where it was like, “We have to take care of ourselves. We have to take care of our staff. We have to take care of our people.” Unfortunately, it became transactional, because we weren’t making food from a place of, “Everybody’s going to really enjoy this.” We were making food from a place of, “What is going to sell this food?” Whatever joy there is in hospitality was completely wiped away. It didn’t exist. It still doesn’t exist, to be honest.
I come in here on Mondays when we’re closed, and I make soup. I find joy in that. But it’s only because we can sell it. If we weren’t selling the soup, that joy would be wiped away. In that case, I would feel like I got bitten by a zombie and I was about to turn.
The food truck idea came up pretty early on—March, if not April. We started looking around for the truck. We went down a few different avenues for renting one. We thought it could be an asset—a different way to sell food. Then George Floyd happened. We all watched a Black man murdered by a cop. It became a civil rights flashpoint. All of a sudden, a food truck was not the most important thing. Even making money was not the most important thing. Even our staff being taken care of became less important in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We thought for a second, “Well, what if we could use the truck as a food-delivery vehicle for free? We would just eat the cost, and we could help.”
Then the pandemic dragged on into the summer, and we still hadn’t signed off on the truck. We started to see it as grossly opportunistic to try something like that, so we put a cap on it. And then no more PPP money came. No more stimulus. All of our staff’s unemployment was running out. I was like, “We’ve got to do something, because both of our bank accounts are at zero.”
We could sell enough food off the truck and out of the restaurant to no more than break even, but it’s supplying hours for our staff. I don’t give a shit if we break even. I absolutely don’t plan on making any money. I’ve never been a good businessman, so this is actually comforting to me.
But for our staff—when the pandemic happened, we gave everybody a raise. There’s nobody on staff that makes less than $20 an hour at this point. And we’re never going back, because it’s unacceptable that we ever didn’t pay that much. We provided insurance for everybody, and we had to have that slow, grinding conversation that we needed people to start contributing to their own insurance. I was planning on taking over another bar just so that I could do cocktails to-go from a different location to make $25,000 a month to pay for everybody’s insurance. I had a nervous breakdown from that stress. So some of these wounds are definitely self-inflicted, but fuck it, I can sleep at night. I can look at my staff and say, “You guys are taken care of.”
There are several people who are top of mind in Chicago who don’t think like that. They’re absolute fucking dickheads. I’m sure there are even more nationally. When this started, I unfollowed every food person that I ever followed on social media, especially food writers. Because they did not meet the moment. Some of these people have purported to champion certain causes, but when it really fucking mattered, they didn’t do it. And it’s depressing.
It’s like—read the fucking room. There are children in our city that don’t have fucking food. They don’t have internet to go to Zoom school. That’s more important than which restaurants that were able to pivot better. Understand the real issues, and use your platform to speak about them, to talk about them.
For now, our people have the choice—do they feel comfortable working? And if they said no, of course I understand. If I was in their position, I don’t know if I’d feel comfortable working. But the people that did decide to work, they did that for a reason, too. That is 100 percent their choice. And no hard feelings if they then come in today and say, “I don’t feel comfortable anymore.” Mazel tov. But the ones that do chose to work, the onus is on us to provide for them, and to come up with the ideas of how we’re going to do it. So this truck is all we got, and we’re still losing money. But fuck it, they’re getting the paycheck.
We were thinking people in the suburbs will want the truck to come out for a socially distanced block party, a kid’s birthday party, a Sunday football game, or whatever. And we’ll provide that service. It’s safe for us, it’s safe for them. We’re checking all the boxes. When we announced the truck, we had tens of requests for that. And then they all went away because the “don’t gather outside of your family” order took effect. I understand that, too. We’re absolutely not trying to make people do something that’s unsafe. We want this thing to end. But the real result of that is we have a food truck that basically goes around to different neighborhoods and sells pizza and sandwiches. And if it’s raining, nobody buys pizza and sandwiches.
We’ve been doing that since October. We’ll have some days that are complete busts, and some days that aren’t. Weekends are busier. We partner with Half Acre Beer Company when they release a beer, and people buy pork sandwiches while they’re waiting in line for beer, and that’s great. But they only release a couple of beers a month.
Going into the holidays, people are going to spend less on takeout. They’re going to go to the grocery store more and watch their money because the last thing people want to do is tell their kids they’re not getting Christmas presents. They’re going to forego the $19 crab pasta at Giant so that they can afford the VR headset. And I get it.
The truck is a month-to-month rental. We signed on for another month just a couple of days ago. Again, if we can not lose money and provide people with salaries, then great. None of my partners are taking a paycheck. So it really is just giving a shit about your staff first and foremost. They’re good people. They’ve always been good people. This pandemic just made them maybe a little bit more dependent on me. That’s what I signed on for, regardless of the political climate.
A lot hinges on whether there’s another round of PPP money before inauguration. We have alternate payrolls at both restaurants, so we’re toggling money back and forth just to get rent and payroll covered.
Before the pandemic, I did not see our insular business here as all that fragile. We provided health care for everybody. It’s a small place. We were busy. We were making money. We paid back our investors two years early. We were doing good. And we’re good cooks, and we’re nice to people. We do that kind of shit right. That’s all we can hang our hats on, and it pays off.
But I see the industry as a whole, including the media component—this lionization of white chefs, white male chefs, and white female chefs. It scares me a little bit, because I can see the same thing happening, and they’re just moving on. Now it’s time to pay attention to Black people. It’s too little, too late. You’re going to do the exact same thing to them that you did to everybody else, and pay attention to them for their month. Then they’re going to do the same thing that we did, and get angry at their staff because they’re not on the cover of fucking Food & Wine next month. It’s just a vicious cycle.
Food critics need to go away. Anybody who’s a food journalist needs to go away. These carpetbaggers who come into the industry and try and make it into a den of capitalism instead of taking care of the fucking people that are working there, there’s no more room for them.
In the past 10 years, we couldn’t find a decent line cook because there were so many restaurants opening up. The bubble burst in the ugliest possible way. I don’t wish this on anybody, but if Michelin doesn’t come back, or if anybody that had three stars or two stars or whatever never comes back, I could give a fuck.
Put your people before your wallet, every single time. If somebody is not making enough money and they work for you, guess whose problem that is? That’s not the system. That’s not the world. Not everybody’s business succeeds. This is not the way to figure it out, though. We painted ourselves into this corner, but we didn’t build the house. We have to be able to take care of the people, and that needs to be built into the business model from here on out.