Fighting to keep his staff while trying everything possible to stay afloat, from guided takeout to YouTube.
By Rick Bayless as told to Chris Mohney
When we were finally shut down for the pandemic, we were not brought to a screeching halt. The halt had been coming for three weeks before that as our business dwindled to almost nothing as people stopped coming to restaurants.
Here in Clark Street, we have four restaurants altogether, and each one focuses on a different thing. We have one that is sort of a sandwich shop called Xoco. That’s 12 years old now. It was already geared toward doing takeout, but none of the rest of the restaurants were. So we went from four restaurants down to one basically overnight.
We tried to figure out how we could do takeout for Frontera Grill, which is the place that makes the most money for us. It’s been said pretty widely that I’m not a takeout person. I have never ordered a pizza to be delivered in my house. I have never gotten takeout from any restaurant. I’d rather make food fresh and eat it. So I am the worst person to lead a team creating a takeout menu.
But we had actually started thinking about it for Frontera even before we were closed down because our business had dwindled so much. I’m super ecologically oriented, so we had all of these compostable takeout boxes in Xoco already. We thought, could we use those in something we were going to do over at Frontera?
We made a little Frontera menu, and we stuck it onto the Xoco menu. That didn’t work at all because people going to Xoco are interested in sandwiches, not what we offer at Frontera. So we quickly switched over and started doing something separate on a different platform for Frontera. We were flailing through all of that and trying to understand what a good Frontera takeout menu would look like. It actually came pretty quickly, because I had other people working with me that were more natural at it than I was.
At the same time, I was completely torn apart because we have so many long-term employees. Most of them live paycheck to paycheck. I thought taking a paycheck away was going to put them out of their apartments and into the bread lines. When our mayor said that there was going to be a two-week shutdown, right away I said, “Don’t worry. We’re going to pay you two-thirds of your salary. At least that can get you over this hump of two weeks.” When that came to an end and they said, “No, it’s going to be six weeks now,” that’s when I got really scared for the people that were working with us because our money was running short. We had not had a good first quarter up to that point. We have a line of credit with our bank, and we had already started drawing on that line of credit. In fact, we had almost drawn the whole thing. So I was getting really scared, because I saw money just flying out of here. The other thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that takeout is not as profitable as eating in because of all the extra costs for the packaging and everything.
We knew we were going to have a bunch of produce that was going to go bad, and then we talked to this one guy who said, “I’ve got this other supplier to restaurants that has coolers filled with stuff. They need to empty them out.” I said, “I’ve got staff. We will box it all up and distribute it to restaurant workers. We will find other restaurants in the neighborhood, and we will get going with that.”
So we did that one day, and it made everybody feel good that they were doing something, and they were taking care of our people. Within a week, an anonymous donor gave us a couple of hundred thousand dollars to keep that program going. We would buy the food and box it. Because we were restaurant people trying to help out other restaurant people, most of us cook all the time, whether you work in the front or the back of the house. I said, “I don’t want to buy frozen prepared meals that people put in a microwave. I want to give them real food.”
We put together these 35-pound boxes of food that had everything from fresh meat to fresh vegetables and macaroni and beans and rice and all that sort of stuff. We got somebody to donate the boxes to us. We worked with a couple of social-service agencies, and we pulled together a long list of local chefs. I reached out to them, and I said, “Can I get you guys to come and pick this up?” We tried to blanket the whole city as best we could so that we weren’t just focusing on downtown restaurants—we were doing all the neighborhoods as well.
One of our chefs, Matt Miller, is really into doing volunteer work and has worked with a lot of these people. The next thing you know, he had taken over the whole project. We were doing 400 boxes twice a week, and within a week he said we can do 600 boxes. So we started doing 600 boxes twice a week. That was one of the greatest things that we were able to accomplish right off the bat because the need was so great. After that program was finished and we got shut down again, Matt took a leave of absence from being a chef to work on these projects.
We started up another project ourselves, but this time it’s prepared food that our staff is making. We’re doing 100 family meals a week. That was first sponsored by the LEE Initiative. We’ve run through the LEE Initiative money, and now we’re moving over to High Road Kitchens, and they are going to fund the same program for us. Matt is coordinating all of that and getting the meals to the right places.
I am a firm believer that people don’t come to our restaurants just because they’re hungry. They come here because we offer them an incredible experience that has everything to do with the food and the atmosphere, and the service style, and the music that’s playing, and the art on the wall. When you strip away everything but the food, how would that play? How could we figure out a way to share a sense of hospitality with people? That was the hardest part of the whole thing.
Everybody laughed at me, because I said if I was going to get this takeout, then I would take it home, I would warm it up properly, and I would put it on real plates. Everybody was like, “No, they’re just going to eat it out of the carton at room temperature.” And I’m like, “What if they don’t? Let’s encourage them to have more of an experience with this thing.” We started making cards that explained it to people—how to reheat everything, how to garnish it. We packed all the garnishes separately so that you could finish the plates yourself.
By July, we were able to open up at 25 percent indoor capacity dining. We didn’t know if anybody would come for fine dining. But that big room at 25 percent capacity looked like a mausoleum. So we said, what if we take the 25 percent capacity and we put them up in our library and test kitchen—just serve 14 people at a time? We could do two seatings. The test kitchen’s got an open kitchen. It’s like somebody’s making food right in front of you. So we can add the drama of all of that. We had a private dining space that’s a very informal place. We said, why don’t we just invite the people to come up there first, and we’ll offer them a drink, and then we’ll take them into the library and they can have their five-course meal?
We started doing that as a way to keep the staff engaged, because they had no business. We couldn’t figure out a way at the beginning to do takeout. But when we were closed down again, one of the chefs said, “Let’s make that same meal, and we’ll package everything separately.” They said to me, you make a video of how to plate this stuff, and we’ll make it really easy for the guests to be able to get this experience. So we started doing Topolo at Home, with the video to go along with it of how to plate the meal. There’s one raw fish course, so that’s not cooked. Then there’s a vegetable course and a sous-vide steak that we finish on the grill, and then all you have to do is just pop it in the oven and heat it up, so it’s really easy to look like you’re an amazing chef. We gave you a playlist to put on so that you could have a sense of being in the restaurant.
I am a total hospitality guy through and through. Every single one of our restaurants has an open kitchen so that all the cooks get to watch the diners enjoy what they’ve crafted. I was so desperate to be able to share stuff with people the way that I have done for 33 years. I decided to start doing daily cooking classes on Facebook Live. For six weeks, every day at noon, I went live and I cooked in a way that I haven’t cooked for years.
I had no assistants or anything like that. Nobody could help me do anything or get anything set up, so I would get up in the morning, and I would go to the grocery store. I would have an idea of what I wanted to cook, and I would see what was available. In those first few weeks, it was dreadful what you could find. I would say that I was going to cook something, and then I would have to make all kinds of substitutions. I would get in front of the camera, do my own prep, and I would cook with no swap-outs, no nothing. And as everybody knows, cooking doesn’t always go exactly the way that you want it to. Whatever I came out with at the end was what the camera zoomed in on. My son-in-law came and he was doing everything on an iPhone. He would zoom in on whatever I made, ugly or beautiful or whatever it was.
Sometimes I would just narrate though the whole thing: “Well, I couldn’t get this,” or “What they had at the grocery store looked like this. It’s what you probably will experience, too, so let me tell you how I’m going to deal with it.” I dumped out all of my 40 years of cooking experience on how I deal with less-than-perfect circumstances. We would get 800 to 1,200 people a day that would tune in live. By the end of the day, usually 10,000 people had watched them.
We applied for and got a PPP grant, which allowed us to pay all of our huge staff, even though they weren’t working with us. We were able to pay our rent, which is the thing we were most concerned about. When that PPP money ran out August 9th, by that point we had been open for outdoors, and we were getting ready to open for indoors. I was scared to death because we didn’t have any money, and we didn’t need these people around. So we had to make major cuts, and that was the worst day of my life.
We decided to spin off some of our staff that does media stuff into a media company, and we would work toward starting something that would be self-supporting for that part of the staff. The idea was that we would start doing a YouTube subscription series. We don’t know anything about how to promote it, so we’re learning it all from scratch. I do something fast, and I do something that’s more like what I was doing in the Facebook Lives during the first six weeks of the shutdown. I do what we call a “talking video” about an aspect of my professional life or my home life that might be of interest to people or might help them out. Then once a month we do a cook-along. That’s really fun, because people can ask me questions in real time. I give them the recipe and the equipment list the week before so they can get all their stuff together and cook along with me, or they can watch it and then go back and cook it later.
We have exactly 50 percent of our pre-pandemic staff still employed. I’ve made a moratorium on more cuts. I said, “All of the people who are working with us right now, we have to almost guarantee them the salary whether we need them or not, because they’ve been so hurt through this whole thing.” You hear all of the big corporations tell you how much they’ve lost, but I can guarantee you that none of the higher-ups in those corporations have missed a meal, and none of them have had their salaries changed.
The people who are suffering the most are the people who are our greatest asset. That’s our staff—the people that are washing your dishes for you, and prepping the food. They’re highly skilled people, and many of them have worked with us for 20 and 30 years. I protect their livelihood at every single turn. Now that the year has ended and we’re into what would normally be—and is—the slowest time of year for us, we can’t be cutting these people back. They’re already cut back. We have to give them a base salary and say, “You can count on this. Even if we don’t really need you, we’re not going to take this away from you.”
The 50 percent of our staff that is not being employed by us right now—they have almost completely found other jobs outside the restaurant industry. When people talk about restaurant workers, they think of them as cogs in a wheel who are easily replaceable, who are a dime a dozen. And that’s not true. When we were closed down this last time and Topolobampo had to go to the to-go thing, we lost the entire front-of-house staff. They all found jobs in other professions, and they will not return. So when we open Topolo again, we are going to be opening it with a whole new staff. Training in that room takes forever. We always say if you’re less than two years in that room, you’re still the new kid. And we’re going to be starting off with all new kids this time.
The Frontera staff is the most stable because they closed the street in front of our place. I can’t believe this right now, but it’s 38 degrees outside and we have seven tables occupied in the street in a tent. It was kind of funny, because I walked out the door this morning and thought, “Wow, it’s so much warmer today. This is great. The sun is shining.” And then I pulled out my phone and looked at what the temperature was, and it said 38 degrees. I guess we get used to it at some point. We just dress for it. Last Saturday night, we did 85 people in that little tent. All the tables are more than six feet apart.
It’s kind of hilarious that our restaurants are in River North, and 33 years ago that name did not exist, and this was a really scuzzy street filled with porno shops. It was as close to downtown as I could afford. There was one nice restaurant in the neighborhood, but only one. I put myself really close to that one so I could say to people when they called on the phone, “Oh, we’re really close to Gordon.” And then they’d go, “Then it must be okay to go there, because that’s a really stinky section of town.”
Over the years, this became what we called the gourmet ghetto. It’s where all the restaurants and all the hotels went in. We’ve got 40 restaurants in our neighborhood, almost cheek by jowl. We’ve got 11 hotels within a one- or two-block radius of where we are. That meant that we were always full. It was where everybody went out to eat, and where all the people that were in from out of town would stay and come to our places. We were adjacent to the Financial District, the Loop. People after work would come up here.
The Loop completely emptied out on March 15th and still hasn’t come back. All the hotels closed down. We only have one hotel out of the 11 that’s still open. So we went from being in the best neighborhood in Chicago to being in the worst neighborhood in Chicago. All these restaurants around us are vying for the same very few people. We have local residents here, but it’s not enough to fill all these restaurants.
I hope the country can wake up to the fact that independent restaurants are almost like dinosaurs in the sense that you can come into our facilities and we will hand-craft a meal just for you. That’s very different than going into national chains where mostly things are coming pre-prepared. We are doing something that I think is really crucial for the culture of our country. But we do it by the slimmest of margins that you could ever imagine. The general public typically thinks that restaurants are just rolling in dough. They’ll say, “I could make that faster or better or cheaper at home.” Probably you have no idea what’s gone into everything that you get, and how much it costs to make those kinds of things.
Hopefully, the general public will wake up to the fact that what we are doing is a labor of love, and it’s not a way to make money. If you value what we contribute to your neighborhood, you need to support us. We are like cultural institutions, and you need to think of us that way—not as the place where you get your high school kid a job because, well, that’s going to be his first job, and of course he won’t stay in that. I hope people will be willing to spend a little bit more money when they go out to eat and really respect what’s put in front of you. It’s put in front of you because the people that are doing it really love what they’re doing.