They told all those waiters and bussers and line cooks that they didn’t have enough hours to offer, couldn’t guarantee enough money to live on. Better to run to the unemployment office, get in line and start the paperwork.
After it was over, Suzanne Perry texted a reporter a picture of Ben the Dog, the office mascot, looking dejected. It was the first of several short, choppy texts full of pain.
“I’m in tears. Devastated. Trying to keep ‘leader face’ but unable in the chaos,” she texted after delivering the news.
“I don’t fall apart, and I’m falling apart,” she wrote a minute later.
Some are called to the hospitality industry, hard-wired for the pace. Others fall into it, waiting for something else to unfold. Before the virus, a server at Datz could expect to pull in $300 in tips on a flush day. Top bartenders earned more than $75,000 a year. Some of the Perrys’ employees had been with them since the beginning, growing up, having families. Becoming family.
Now restaurants, like other public places, are painfully exposed to the economic effects of the pandemic. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard recently said unemployment could reach as high as 30 percent in the resulting recession.
In the hospitality industry, that number could be far higher, as tens of thousands of American restaurants have closed and owners like the Perrys make their individual calculations about how much longer they can hang on. Independent restaurants employ more than 10 million workers.
The Perrys had watched the virus news from other countries in February and early March as social gatherings were limited to 1,000 people, then 500, then 250, then all the way down to 10. They watched Europe, then New York and San Francisco, as they prepared and looked over payroll and vendor invoices against sales projections. They watched as the first cases were announced in the United States, as southeast Florida, the other side of the state, got hit hard because of snowbirds, spring-breakers and infected people coming off cruise ships.
“It’s knowing there’s a tidal wave 150 miles out moving 28 miles per hour and just watching it come,” wrote Suzanne Perry, a Floridian accustomed to natural disasters. “Any amount of prep — get on the second floor! — is a ridiculous effort. You’re going to die, and you know it, but at least climbing to the second floor keeps your mind off impending death.”
The Perrys, Roger, 70, and Suzanne, 57, own a handful of eateries with a total of 700 seats. They came to the industry later in life but dove in feet first, making a splash with their first place, a deli called Datz, in 2009. It was embraced immediately for its audacity, its pluck. Its oversized sandwiches and “nothing succeeds like excess” mantra made it a darling of Instagram, with dishes such as the Cheesy Todd — a fat burger with two jalapeño mac-and-cheese “buns” — capturing the attention of “Good Morning America.”
They bought the bakery space next door and opened Dough in April 2013, sending out bacon lattes, bacon eclairs and bacon chocolate chip cookies. They added the swankier Cajun-Creole Roux down the road in August 2014 and then Dr. BBQ in St. Petersburg in October 2018.
They also run the cafe and concessions at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg, which opened in April 2018, and a second nearby Datz location, which debuted in June 2019. They were shooting for April 1 to open the doors of a third Datz location in Riverview, with 5,900 square feet of indoor space and seating for 175 guests, plus two patios.
The tables and chairs are arrayed, the kitchen complete. They hired 75 people for the new location, laying them all off before a single shock-and-awe sammie was sold.
Datz’s Riverview location is in limbo. Or maybe done.
Roger Perry said they had already been calling nightly meetings, moving around key employees, slashing items with high food costs, reinventing the business every 12 hours, “making extreme pivots in what we are selling and who works for us.”
In a March 18 letter to President Trump, the National Restaurant Association projected restaurant sales would decline by $225 billion over the next three months, prompting the loss of between 5 million and 7 million jobs. Independent restaurants make up nearly 70 percent of the nation’s food service operators, according to Chicago-based food-service database firm CHD. Even the successful ones operate on low margins and a tight cash flow.
Suzanne Perry still ruminates about how the layoffs went down. In the aftermath, she texted a GIF of Kermit the Frog leaping off a building, with his puppet arms flailing. Gallows humor, but it fit her mood.
“We had a range of emotions from people, from ‘Yes, I absolutely understand, good luck and God bless,’ to real anger, people thinking we weren’t taking care of our people,” she says. “The ones who remain have survivors’ guilt. We’re trying to salvage the company, and these are the people I need in the room when the plane drops the oxygen masks. They say you have to put it on yourself before you can help other people, right?”
Her husband is worried about her, saying she’s not sleeping, not eating.
“Suze isn’t doing well. We have no control over our destiny right now. The biggest fear to me is, there’s no end in sight. The anxiety is crushing,” he says. “Would we be better off to shut our doors and save our cash? We’re working really hard to keep a small number of people with jobs.”
The couple has applied for the state’s $50,000 interest-free loans under the Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan program, but they don’t know when or whether that money is coming. They say they don’t have the personal reserves to continue more than a few weeks without government checks and loans.
Some supply vendors are trying hard to work with them and keep things running. But smaller vendors without deep cash reserves moved to a “cash on delivery” model almost immediately, Suzanne Perry says. She says she’s selling the entirety of her “epic” bourbon collection so she can keep staff another couple weeks. Her $20,000 Pappy Van Winkle 25-year and all of her expensive, rare things are going. Right next to the Michelob Ultra, she says. “There’s a kind of humor in that. Sorta.”
On March 20, a few days after his first announcement, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) issued an additional executive order closing all on-site restaurant sales, causing every restaurateur in Florida to make the decision: Close entirely or pivot to takeout and delivery only?
The Perrys shifted to takeout and delivery.
They have started over before.
Roger Perry’s family was in animal feed, from which he built a pet food business, eventually selling 31 pet superstores to PetSmart in 1994 and retiring. He lived in Ocala, Fla., and raised Derby-worthy thoroughbreds in Kentucky. He met Suzanne.
Love shook up their lives and, in what was a second marriage for both, they relocated to Tampa in 2005 to build something new. The city was unsophisticated then; there were mostly chain restaurants and gastronomic gaps, with no good deli like Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Mich., or Katzinger’s in Columbus, Ohio. Having never been in the restaurant business, the Perrys thought they’d give it a go.
They were perpetually tinkering with Datz, adding a cheese counter and taking it away, developing a sassy social media game that helped their restaurants garner notice from the Travel Channel, Cooking Channel and Food Network. The marquee above the flagship South Tampa location, leaning toward bacon puns and snarky pop-culture references, had been a source of local pride.
On Monday, all sense of play was gone, the letters spelling out simply: “DatzTampa.com: Order online 15 percent off pickup.”
Roger sits in the office with Cheeto, the office cat, and Ben, the Humane Society rescue mutt, and lays out the grim math. Out of 400 employees at the start of the pandemic, they are down to 36, mostly senior salaried managers, everyone taking pay cuts to try to keep things afloat.
Even the animals seem to understand something is off. The office, usually bustling, is somber. Outside, Ben the Dog’s tongue-in-cheek reserved parking place sits, almost for the first time, empty.
The Perrys started in the industry during the recession of 2008 and 2009. There was a huge reduction in the number of independent restaurants then, but they came roaring back. This is different, they say. The pandemic is making diners leery of togetherness, discomfited by the nurturing of strangers that has always been the guiding principle of the restaurant industry.
None of the employees they’ve let go has found another hospitality job, Suzanne Perry says, ticking off the other major Tampa Bay restaurants that have had to let employees go. The jobs just aren’t there. Some of her people have gone home to be with family, entering into family businesses like construction.
She doesn’t know how many of her employees have applied for unemployment. According to the U.S. Labor Department, 2 percent of the labor force, or 3.3 million people, filed for unemployment insurance the week ending March 21.
The Perrys’ own futures are on the line. Until the coronavirus, Roger Perry had intended to retire in the next few years. Everything they have is mortgaged, so a loss of income probably will change their retirement plans.
As a handful of takeout orders are assembled on a Monday evening, Roger and Suzanne stand in the darkened restaurant space, the front doors open to keep things cool. They aren’t selling enough to pay the air conditioning and electric bill.
“We make three payments of $1,400 a month for electricity just for this location, another $1,600 to the city for trash and water,” Roger says, trailing off as he considers his restaurants’ other expenses.
They’ve pared the takeout menu to a fraction of what Datz usually has on offer, a handful of greatest hits and family meals, things that require limited kitchen prep. It’s meatloaf and chicken and waffles, spaghetti and meatballs. They think they will add prepare-at-home meal kits and grocery items.
Suzanne Perry says they’re encouraging customers to buy takeout directly from their website because they can’t afford the commission on online ordering apps. Many of the big food delivery services, all experiencing explosive growth since the coronavirus arrived, have waived customers’ delivery fees, but their fees for the restaurants are still between 22 and 30 percent.
So far today, Datz has sold about $1,000 worth of takeout. A pittance, Roger says. This location usually makes that for breakfast service alone. On a Monday. Off season.
Outside, a black Honda Fit pulls up along a barrel taped with a sign that reads, “Stop here. Please stay in your vehicle,” along with a smiley-face emoji. Longtime manager Lisa Godbout, one of the handful of employees left, scurries out with a plastic bag containing a foam clamshell. She reaches it carefully through the open passenger window.
Hospitality is a reflex by now. Maybe hope is, too.
“Thank you so much,” she says, as the window rolls up. “Have a great evening.”
Godbout retreats and scrubs her hands with a sanitary wipe.