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Walter Manzke On Adapting To Get Through The Pandemic

From a car accident to the coronavirus, navigating the highs and lows of the new normal.

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Chef/restaurateur Walter Manzke owns three restaurants in Los Angeles, with each showcasing very different cuisines — Modern French restaurant Republique, taqueria Petty Cash, and Filipino rice bowl stand Sari Sari. Another, Bicyclette Bistro, was scheduled to open in spring of 2020. He and his wife Marge Manzke, a James Beard-nominated pastry chef for Republique, also own 16 restaurants throughout Manila, Philippines.

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This pandemic is one of the most horrible things I have ever experienced. I’m trying to stay positive, but, you know, everything I have is all being shaken up. It makes it hard to get through the day.

One thing that was really hard on me as this thing started to grow—I was in an accident where I was hit by a car, and it really has taken me away from everything. I’ve never experienced anything like that. In some ways, I feel so lucky to be alive that it makes me feel like this coronavirus is no big deal. And then it makes me feel that one day, oh my God—all my luck was used up from that accident, and this virus is going to get me. I’m all over the place in my head.

I had been to the Philippines twice this year. We were actually there when all this started, around New Year’s. The Philippines is very connected to China, with a lot of Chinese there. And people were already getting a little bit nervous.

And then I came back to the States, and it was much quieter. You didn’t sense it as much here, and it just felt farther away. And then I had gotten back to the Philippines again—it was like the end of January or the beginning of February—and that’s when I really saw something unusual. Everybody was wearing masks there at the time, and there were some people sick in Manila. It was intense. And then I came back, and it was getting to be a little more so here as well.

I talked to our chef Allen Buhay of Wildflour in Manila last night, and they’re more locked down than we are right now. Manila does have a lot fewer cases than we do. They’re not sure because they don’t have testing either, but from what is known, there’s fewer than us. But their lockdowns are much more severe than ours. They can’t go from neighborhood to neighborhood, they have curfews at night. And I don’t know if that’s coming to us. I don’t know if that’s the right way to do it. I’m definitely not the expert in all this.

It’s really been quite a fast month. It was six weeks ago that I had that accident. And in six weeks, everything has really been turned upside down in my life. Thankfully, I’m recovering really well, and I’m feeling really good.

I’ve been staying home. And there’s really an argument back and forth about whether I should or shouldn’t go to the restaurant, but I have been for the past week. I’m still very involved, and it gives me a chance to work on just trying to make sure that everyone is doing the right thing. Even with our bar director Shawn Lickliter with the cocktails. I was very involved in trying to help him find bottles to serve them in, and support him as much as I can to get him to where he is, and the same with all of them.

They all have a story to tell, I’m sure. I don’t think there’s anybody who’s not scared about this. Among the group that we have running the restaurants, they’re definitely fighting to keep this thing going and keep it alive and do everything they can. The effort that everybody is putting in is phenomenal.

We have such a great, strong, committed team that took us years to put together. And it’s such an undertaking to get where we were, where we are. And to have to tell everybody, “Sorry, we can’t schedule you, and you have to stay home.” It’s just horrible.

It’s not possible to pay everybody’s salary in the restaurant, unfortunately. We don’t have a way to do that currently, and I think there are things that are more important to us than that, like medical insurance. That’s a really large bill for us because we normally have that 4% service charge added to guest checks, which we don’t have currently. And so Republique is paying 100% of that.

Obviously, this would be the worst time not to have medical insurance, so that’s really the importance of this. And I think everybody who is at Republique doing what they’re doing really understands that.

It’s a difficult situation for anybody who chose the food business, because no matter what happens, everybody still needs to eat, and we need to get the food from somewhere, and we need to somehow get it to the public. That’s what we chose to do in life, and it’s our obligation to do it.

So far, most people have been interested in just simple comfort food. We get people who are asking, “What about this dish?” and “What about that dish?” and “Are you going to make that dish?” Look, the truth is that the more we do, the more labor we gotta involve, the more people are going to be touching everything. So doing something simple and more consistently, it’s safer and it’s better for everybody. I don’t think we’re in the position right now to be changing the menu every day and making something creative.

And, hopefully, it puts us in a place where the restaurant is still there when this is over, and makes sure the employees have their health insurance taken care of during all this. That’s really the purpose of it. We’re not, in a way, running a business. It’s a formula for survival.

I have no idea how long we can all do this. Anything can change. It’s really day by day and seeing how the team is feeling, seeing how we’re feeling.

So how does this end? Is it going to end slowly? There may be a point where everybody says it’s okay for everybody to start going outside, and it’s okay for the restaurants to open. But what does that really mean? Is everybody going to be comfortable doing it? Is everybody going to be safe? And I think that’s the big unknown. If they’re not comfortable and they’re not safe, it’s going to be a very slow transition back to normal.

And even if everybody feels good about going out again—where everybody is excited about going back to the restaurants and the restaurants all open up—and then, you know, a couple of weeks into it, everybody starts getting sick again. That would make it even worse, probably.

I’m not the one who can say how exactly it’s going to be at the end of this, or when it’s going to be. It’s one day at a time and doing the best we can.

We normally had 190 people on our staff here, and we hope we can get back to that. But currently, it’s very tight and very small and very limited. It’s a few of us keeping all of this together.

We really just had to give everyone a break. I never told anybody, “Look, you work for me. You have to come to work and you have to do this.” We’ve always left it up to them. “Do you feel comfortable doing it? Do you feel safe doing it? Is it something you feel good about and want to do?” And we’ve only taken those who feel that way, and we haven’t held it against anybody who’s said, “I’m scared to death and I just want to stay at home like I’m being told to and get through this.” We respect all of that, and we let anybody do that.

When this thing started and they told us, “OK, all the restaurants have to close,” it’s easy to say, “Yeah, whatever you need, I’ll help you out.” And it’s a different situation when you’re waking up in the morning and seeing how grim it is on the news and coming into work and seeing your customers coming in with gloves and masks on. It’s a lot of pressure, and it puts a lot of things in your head. I’ve been the same way to where you wake up one morning and you feel like, “I’m going to be fine, this is all good. I gotta do what I gotta do.” And there’s the next day, you feel scared to death. “Oh my God, what happens if I get this? I have kids.”

I was in that accident, which puts me, in some doctors’ opinions, more at risk. I don’t know where I’m at. I’ve been back and forth as well, and I wouldn’t hold it against anybody by feeling that way.

We feel that the health and the condition of our team are very important, and scaling down was to support them as well. Hopefully, there’s a time where it’s a little more positive in the media, and the discussion on the street is a little more upbeat and promising, and we’ll open it up again. We’re in the restaurant business, and it’s our obligation to serve people food and make them happy. And we will continue to do that and we definitely have to refine it. We’re spending a lot of time right now thinking about what we’re going to do in the weeks to come.

Through all that, I feel it’s very important that we don’t completely shut down. I don’t ever want to do that. I think that the more we can be here together with our team and in the presence and communication with our very loyal clientele, the easier it will be and the more possible it will be to transition back to what we really love to do in the future. So it’s very important that we keep doing this.

I’ve never been in the grocery business, I’ve never thought about it. I think it fills a lot of the needs that we have. I’m talking more and more to the farmers who I have always been involved with, and who have supported me. And I’m buying stuff from them in a way that we don’t have to process it, even the ducks I get from Sonoma County Poultry. I’m going to start to get more ducks shipped down, but we’re doing it differently. We’ve always got whole ducks and dry-aged them for three weeks and then butchered them, which is really great for the restaurant, but a little too much for the home cook.

So now we’re getting the ducks, and we’re just getting the breasts individually Cryo-vac’d. It’s sanitary and safe, and we’re going to start selling the ducks not only because people love them—it’s the best duck farm in America. I want to support Jim Reichardt because he’s in the same trouble as everyone else. He’s had to lay off all his employees, and they’re trying to figure out how to take care of all of their ducks and keep them going and healthy. It’s a great product, and in this time, there are a lot of people who’d rather buy the ingredients and cook it themselves at home.

Everybody’s at home, so they have more time on their hands, but also they have more control over it. If you’re getting a duck that’s cooked by somebody else, and it’s in a container delivered by another company, there are more people who have touched it and you have less control over it. Whereas you can get the ingredients and bring them home and cook them. I think it’s a good option. What we’re here for is always to serve our guests and make them happy. It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to keep cooking. We’re really a restaurant, and we’re cooks.

For as long as this continues, I think we’ll continue with the market, too. Which really came to us by accident. It was never an idea or a concept, it was only our guests and our customers who knew us, just saying, “I went to the supermarket, and I can’t find this. Do you have it?” And we said, “Yes, sure we have it. What do you want?” It was all of them asking, which turned it into a market. I think it’s a great solution to some of the problems that we have right now, and it’s making a lot of people happy and giving them what they need.