A plea for mutual understanding and support between restaurants and customers, both laboring under pandemic stress.
By Maya Lovelace as told to Caroline Hatchett
Maya Lovelace cooked in Atlanta and on the opening team of Sean Brock’s Husk in Charleston, South Carolina. After moving to Portland, Oregon, she launched the long-running Appalachian pop-up, Mae. In 2019, Lovelace built a permanent home for Mae and opened Yonder, a fried chicken concept currently open for take-out. Mae remains closed.
As business owners, the best thing we can do right now is try to be honest with our guests about what we’re feeling, what we’re experiencing, what we want to do for guests, and what we need from them. This pandemic has thrown such a kink in the way that people eat and the way that people approach dining, in general. I just want guests to know that we’re all trying our best.
In the very beginning, we immediately switched to serving Yonder’s full menu for takeout and delivery via third-party apps. That volume was immense—probably the highest volume we’ve ever done at the restaurant. We were pulling in a lot of money, but it was hard on the staff.
Plus, the apps were charging 22 percent in fees. Restaurant profit margins generally are very slim. One statistic that’s frequently thrown out there is 3 to 5 percent. So if you wonder, “Where does that money for apps come from?” The answer is it comes out of the money you use to pay your rent, your bills, and your staff. Pretty quickly, we realized that the new model was a tremendous amount of work, and we were also losing a ton of money. So we dialed it back, and, for a while, my partner Zach and I were making big batches of pickles and pimento cheese and selling local grains to help people build their pantries.
If you think about a restaurant with a menu that has 10 things on it, you have to prepare all 10 of those things—even if people might only order one of them. So you have to have a lot more hands in the kitchen doing the physical prep, as opposed to offering one thing where you can say, “Okay. We’re probably going to do 50 covers today, so we need to make sure we have 50 chickens and 50 portions of greens.” It just makes it a lot easier for restaurants to manage not only staffing, but also inventory.
Portland has resumed dine-in service, but we’re still just doing to-go from Yonder. We’ve been serving a really limited menu, basically buckets of fried chicken. Recently we launched a slightly more detailed menu with a lot more options, which is really exciting.
People are definitely getting the idea that restaurants need their support. We’re in a state where the public has to invest in the restaurants they love if they want to see them come back.
We have a little basket right by the door, which is where our menus used to live, and people have taken to just throwing $20 bills in there. It’s super, super kind. We’re able to distribute tips to our staff, which is really helpful to them right now. Workers’ hours might be cut, or maybe they just didn’t have a job for three months. If you’re clear that you’re accepting tips, and you have a vessel around, folks will drop money into it. They’re there because they love what you’re doing and want to support you and your staff.
We’ve built up a lot of goodwill, and I feel like we have customers who care about us and, for the most part, have been understanding. We have lost some customers, though, who didn’t really understand why we had to dial back our offerings or why we insisted on taking pre-orders. We’ve also gotten nasty emails and people saying, “I’m never going to order from you again.” We’ve had people comment about how they aren’t going to support us anymore because we ask people to wear masks to pick up food.
I know how scared I am. I know how much anxiety I have, and I know how frightened my employees are about everything that’s happening right now. Human response to these kinds of situations isn’t always rational. And that’s what I have tried to tell myself during any kind of difficult interaction with a guest. Everyone is freaked out, and everybody handles that differently. I’ve been surprised that it’s been pretty difficult for customers. I just want people to know that we’re trying to protect everyone. Business owners are trying to protect people on both sides, whether it’s the people in our kitchens or our guests, and that’s a lot of pressure.
We’ve also had a couple mean-spirited reviews. Mostly, it’s people saying, “The chicken was small.” And that’s a complaint we’ve dealt with since the start, because we use healthy, sustainably raised chickens, which are gonna look a lot different from what you get at KFC. It’s not that big of a deal, but it seems strange to me that anyone has felt the need to critique their takeout.
I understand that people feel powerless. We’re all struggling with having little to no control over what’s happening in our lives and in the world. For some people, the way to feel like they have control is just to shit on a bucket of fried chicken. Every once in a while you just flail and try to hit something around you. And if that’s your take-out, it’s your take-out.
But it’s definitely scary to feel like anyone is trying to harm your restaurant. We’re in this fight for our lives—as businesses and as humans, too. So it’s this kind of gut check when someone does something like that, and you question, “Why would you do that to me now?”
We’re reaching out to anyone who posts something negative and saying, “We’re really sorry, but what can we do for you? What exactly upset you?” We’re trying to get to the root of it and give people what I think they want, which is just for someone to say, “I hear you. I understand you. I’m sorry. Things are hard right now.”
I’d like guests to remember that the person they’re talking to on the phone or the person on the other side of that Yelp review is a human that’s going through the exact same stuff. That’s it. Just remember that we’re all human, and like my grandma always said, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” If you need something from a restaurant that you feel like you’re not getting from them, reach out to them directly and be nice. I think that that will yield a better result than posting something snarky on the internet.