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Jason Hammel On Leading The Charge To Save Hospitality

A sense of urgency taps energy to fuel a movement.

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Jason Hammel helped pioneer the farm-to-table movement when he opened Lula Cafe in 1991. He’s mentored hundreds of aspiring chefs over three decades in Chicago. After emerging as a leader in a secret meeting of Chicago chefs on March 15th, Hammel sent a letter to the governor calling for federal aid for independent restaurants, leading to more than 9,000 posts with the #toosmalltofail hashtag.

The week prior to the Illinois governor’s closure of bars and restaurants, we were feeling increasingly like we did not want to be open. We had actually made the decision to close before he did. It was a very stressful time. We were looking at the edge of a cliff, and we were making plans for what we thought was coming, and every day it would change.

I had employees who felt like they had a choice between their safety and health versus their livelihood, and they were scared of what the other side was. They felt like they should be working in order to pay their rent and other obligations, but they did not want to. I also had to think of our customers. We have a very small space, and I felt increasingly nervous about the role that we could possibly play in transmitting disease. I had already made a decision to close that Sunday when the governor made the decision to shutter all restaurants to dine-in service. It was a crisis. I was on the phone constantly with Abe from Fat Rice, with Paul Kahan, with Josh and Christine from Honey Butter. Those days were really fraught with anxiety and stress, and it hasn’t gotten any better.

Chef Jason Vincent and I called a meeting March 15 to discuss what our role was in the neighborhood. I invited a few people, and it just sort of exploded. Every five minutes somebody would be calling me. Those friends called other friends, and the next thing you know the room is full of basically everyone that you could think of. I don’t pretend that we represent all restaurants. There are tons of other types of food establishments that weren’t represented there, but it was a really wide mix of people and a very impressive room. Stephanie Izard, Rick Bayless, the Oriole team, Smyth & The Loyalist … it was crazy. I did take a front position in that meeting in part because I had already prepared a letter for Governor Pritzker. It was a very open and community-centered conversation, but I did read my letter out loud. We all read the letter and disseminated it on social media the next day, and we’ve done that twice. There’s a private Facebook group that has more than 400 people on it associated with that group, and the second post we did used the hashtag #toosmalltofail, and that hashtag has snowballed to thousands of posts.

We laid everybody off, and that was a really hard day. Since the layoffs, we have been in daily contact to provide whatever support, advice, and guidance we can, like letting everyone know about Edward Lee’s relief center at Big Star.

We actually did stay open for a brief period, and our plan was to do a pick-up, delivery, carry-out thing. We did it for one day, and it was very very successful in my opinion. But it nearly destroyed the six people who had been working all week long, taking the burden of closing the restaurant, and then flipping it to be a carryout place. We just looked at each other and realized that we need a real plan, but we need to make sure that everyone is okay first. Any one of us could have been infected. We just didn’t know what our own personal health was at that time.

That was compounded with my personal situation. I have a family at home that I need to help take care of, including my wife’s father who’s 90 years old. I didn’t feel safe going to work and coming back every day with him in the house. It was a mix of business and everyone’s personal situations, my own situation, and a degree of caution. We do believe that this is what we need to do to not only keep a few people on the payroll, but also to produce something that will help the hourly workers that are laid off. We want to continue to cover their insurance premiums and provide some sort of relief, whether that’s food or products. We need to be able to make enough money to do that, and that’s our plan for the near future.

The thing that I’m learning and realizing now is that everyone, all operators, have to make their own decisions about what’s going to save them in the best way. The loss of independent restaurants would be a tragic loss, and it’s one that is a very real possibility. Everyone has to figure it out on their own. That may mean delivery, or not. There’s no right or wrong way to do this. Whatever will work for your team and keep the focus on both caring for the people who have been let go, and also preparing for a time for the promise of return is a reality. We have to come back. I’m really afraid that some people won’t make it back.

Our Chicago group of chefs is still active. We still post and inform each other of what’s happening. There are similar groups in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Philly, and they all have hospitality coalitions. I have a meeting today, this afternoon, to talk with all the heads of those coalitions across the country.

I do think our letter made a difference. It created an energy. I don’t know if we were the first, but we were close to the first, and it’s been imitated a lot. It’s created a wellspring of energy to make our voices heard. We’re here and we want to stay and we want to prosper. If this money of unlimited extent goes out to big corporations and not to independent businesses in this country, there’s going to be a loss of identity in US food culture. Our voices were unified that weekend, and they’re being amplified, and I think they have an effect. I don’t know that they changed any votes, but I hope that the things that are passed in this bill do get to us, and that was the mission we had.

I think every day you’re going to see new innovative ideas. The Publican Quality Meats butcher shop is selling futures of beef. People are going to be selling future reservations with new platforms like Tock. They have been at the forefront of helping restaurants get their delivery and pick-up systems in place. I think those kinds of innovations are where to look for ways to help. Really, once we’re through this, we’re going to need a lot of support when we re-open. It does become political—who are we taking care of? What is the plight of the hourly worker and the contractor in America? Don’t they deserve the same sort of protections? How do we develop the infrastructure to support that?

It’s a wake-up call. A lot of us knew that there were injustices and fragilities in the economic models in which we live. It’s time for those things to be addressed.

I feel like more than ever, we’re all in this together. We’re recognizing the power of our community. We already knew that we had strong bonds because this is a tough job any day. Never mind today. It was always tough, and it’s known to be tough. When you are in the hospitality community, you may not realize the strength of the bond until something really bad happens. As terrible and dangerous as this is, I do hope it produces momentum for change and development from the standpoint of taking care of our workers, and support from the government in terms of our financial models. We could make a leap of progress here, but we gotta survive first.