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Jon Shook And Vinny Dotolo On The Emotional Toll Of Social Distance

An LA restaurant empire under siege by the pandemic.

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Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo are the James Beard-award winning chef-owners behind LA restaurants like meat-centric Animal, partner Ludo Lefebvre’s Trois Mec, and their eponymous Italian-American restaurant. Since the mayor ordered all restaurants to convert to take-out only, they’ve closed five restaurants and their catering facility with an uncertain financial future ahead, laying off or furloughing over 600 employees across their restaurant empire.

JON SHOOK: We were always paying attention to all health requirements going on in our city, and very aware of the Los Angeles health codes, because we tried to maintain the highest level of sanitation in our restaurants at all times prior to the coronavirus. As they started to hand down the guidelines, they were changing those pretty much that entire week, almost daily, until we got to the point where we’re at now, which is take-out only.

We were trying to fight through it. When it went to take-out only, we moved into a different phase internally where we had to start furloughing people we loved and respected. To create enough finance in the bank to be able to have something for those that work there and wanna come back there, customers included, the cash had to be there to reopen.

VINNY DOTOLO: We caught word of this early, and we started to feel it in the early weeks. The media was talking about it three weeks ago, with Seattle. We started to see just a little decline in some of the restaurants, and we started to pare back the menu. Animal had 35 items on the menu and Son of a Gun had 30–we went down to 25. We saw the age of customers in those restaurants get younger, less older folks out.

Then the pandemic hit the gas and started spreading in the United States. The government stepped in and started, as they should have, guiding us into the right procedures and practices we should be doing.

Safety is our top priority with this, and we’re taking it seriously. We’re not medical professionals, but these people that are working in these restaurants, feeding people in these communities, are kind of on the front lines too. They’re putting themselves at risk for a good cause. We want to keep these people employed and working. There hasn’t been a real program yet for people if they’re not employed, or for all these small businesses.

So hopefully something will come down the pipe, and we’ll have some government assistance for people that we had to lay off and furlough. It was terrible. There’s no other way to describe it. These people are family. We built this community. We have people who have worked for us for 12 years, 10 years. We pretend they’re like our children, you know. We care about them through and through. It’s an incredibly bad feeling. There’s no way to really even put it into words. It’s horrible.

Jon and I have worked our entire lives for this—since we were 19 and 18 years old. I’m 40 and he’s 38. This wasn’t in the playbook. We have nine places in this city. We closed six of them within a week. It’s not how you imagine things going down.

You know getting into the restaurant business there’s a lifespan to a restaurant: 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, maybe a restaurant can outlive you. But you never imagine closing all of your restaurants in one week. Everybody’s dealing with this, but it’s unimaginable.

The mayor’s orders are that your restaurant can do take-out, right? But Jon and I know that people come to certain restaurants to be there, to be together. To have service. To be in that dining atmosphere. All hospitality professionals—we create environments, settings, moods. We give people pleasure. This is what we do. This is what we’ve done our whole life.

With Ludo’s project, Trois Mec—it’s a tasting menu. We knew that people wouldn’t feel comfortable taking that food to go. Even if you had a couple of fans that wanted the food, it wouldn’t be enough to stay open. With our pizza place, Jon & Vinny’s, people knew the foods as to-go. They were already comfortable with it. So it worked in the business sense to keep that open and keep these employees. But now there’s no service, so we couldn’t keep all the servers around. We even lost jobs within the businesses that are doing to-go.

We just don’t know when there’s going to be an end to this lockdown, with rules in place about the way that we’re allowed to function as a business. Obviously there’s an economic downturn for a lot of people in the world, so the spending is going to be different.

I think the real question is, “Who can come back to their restaurants?” Without assistance, a lot of these restaurants won’t exist because you have to have capital to be able to reopen.

JON: A lot of it’s going to be determined based by how many days we’re under these conditions. One of those things we’ve talked about is that the whole world will turn into a cloud kitchen, because people will just get so comfortable with the on-demand aspect of being able to order food, and restaurants that aren’t necessarily able to pivot to that capability might not exist.

VINNY: The thing you, as a restaurateur, miss the most is the great sense of joy from seeing your restaurants full of people having a good time. That’s first and foremost what we’re here to do. We’re here to make people happy—to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, babies. Friends who haven’t seen each in five years.

That emotional connection—we’re missing that in these spaces right now. If all I needed to do is go to a place to take food out of a facility, I would just need a little window and kitchen and that’s it. That’s where we are right now without these dining rooms full, like all of these restaurants across the world. We’re missing that human connection.

I miss seeing people happy, the servers in the restaurant, people waiting at the front door–I miss all of it. Otherwise, we’re on the front lines feeding people that want to have something they love and recognize in the comfort of their own home, because it’s really uncomfortable being locked in your house all day.

I think about all the little neighborhood places that aren’t some sort of popular restaurant that gets talked about, or a chef that gets talked about all the time. I think about them too. People haven’t really been talking about the supply chain, you know, the purveyors and drivers, cleaning crews …

JON: Maintenance people, and farmers.

VINNY: Farmers. The farmers, man. It’s like, they can’t get stuff to stop growing! California obviously has a huge connection to our farmers’ markets. We’re trying to do our best to help those guys too. The domino effect is huge in this industry.

Think about the linen companies, the people that sell the soaps to the linen company that washes the linens, and the guys that deliver the linens to you. All these people, their jobs have been jeopardized or taken away.

JON: It goes up and down, right? One day you could feel like, “Hey, we’re like making headway, we’re trying to get our feet under our shoulders–what’s good?” And a couple hours later, you’re depressed. You’re looking at your sales and you think, “There’s no way possible we’re going to survive. How far can we go in the hole?”

Having that kind of conversation where it’s like, “Is this all over? Are we going to be able to get back on her feet after this?” There’s so many emotions every hour. We built this incredible organization that has housed around 800 employees, and 650 of them right now are furloughed or laid off. For us, it’s like, “Can you bring them back? Will you have something to bring them back to?”

Vinny and I climbed the hill for so long. We moved out to LA with 500 bucks and a dream. And now, in a week, it’s almost like we’re in the same spot. We’ve closed five restaurants. We’ve closed our catering facility. It’s like one thing after the next, and it’s really just trying to figure out how to balance out. How to have something there for everybody to come back to, if they want to come back.

How are our employees going to look at us? Are they going to be like, you guys are assholes? Most of our team members, when we’ve talked to them, they’ve been super understanding. We can only hope for that. It’s stressful. No joke. It’s for real. We literally take every day, hour by hour, because in three hours the mayor can come out and say, “No more take-out food,” and then it’s like, pivot into whatever the next stage is.

How do restaurants bounce back from this? I don’t know. Nobody knows.

I was talking to Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco the other day, and I said, “Most people that get into the restaurant industry, they’re not getting into it thinking that they’re going to be rich. They’re in there because they love cooking. That’s why I got into this. And nobody can take that from me.”

No matter what happens, nobody’s going to take my passion for food and love of cooking away from me. Now, it’s just nice to remind your peers and say, “You have that down. That’s gonna go nowhere.” After this pandemic, the way hospitality is treated, the way restaurants operate—all that’s gonna be different, without a doubt. But your love, your skill, will never go away from you. That’s one thing I think is the silver lining for our industry.

VINNY: I think the restaurant industry is full of a lot of resilient people, and I think everyone’s going to sort of wiggle our way back up. We’ll figure this out.

JON: Every day, Vinny and I get together, and we hope and pray none of our team members gets sick, and that none of our family gets sick. That’s something we definitely have not taken for granted. Even with our staff, we put in a lot of measures to try to help them get through it physically, mentally. The next one we’re trying to work on is financial opportunities. Hopefully the government’s going to be able to come and support not just our restaurant group, but any restaurant.

Every day feels like an attack for all of us at whatever level you’re at: new restaurant owner, food media, everyone. We have to unite.