Oral histories are shadow plays, narratives that convey a truth, but an imperfect one. Often told well after the fact, they rely on a potent mixture of memory, fact and emotion. But as Studs Terkel, the author responsible for several of the greatest oral histories of the 20th century, wrote in “Hard Times,” people’s “remembrances are their truths.”
“Hard Times,” published in 1970, documents the stories of the Great Depression, recalled more than 40 years later. People are already signaling that the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 could be this generation’s Great Depression, with unemployment estimates looking like a replay of America in the early 1930s.
Few have suffered as much from the coronavirus outbreak as those in the restaurant industry, which has either shut down completely or tried to limp along as carryouts and delivery operations, relying on a handful of employees and the owners themselves, all of whom may be risking their lives (and others’ lives) to keep the business afloat.
These are their stories, told while the wounds are still fresh.
These stories don’t have the benefit of hindsight or formal studies. They are oral histories told in real time, marked as much by doubt (should owners keep the doors open?) and questions (how long will this continue?) as by cold, hard sales numbers, which have declined by as much as 75 percent. These are the stories that could mark the beginning of the end of the restaurant industry as we know it — or just provide insights into how some operators navigated one of the worst periods in U.S. hospitality history.
The stories, told to photojournalist André Chung, have been edited for clarity and length.
The Gibson, U Street Corridor (closed)
Chantal Tseng, bartender; Jewel Murray, operations manager and bartender
Murray: I’m worried about my staff paying their bills. I’m worried about me paying my bills. I’m worried that, by the time the business is back open, the account is going to be entirely drained and we’re not going to be able to buy anything to sell. So it’s a little precarious right now.
Tseng: This is definitely supposed to be a temporary situation. As far as what “temporary” is, it’s anything from a couple of months to over a year. So it’s about money. It’s about, hey, how do we pay rent when there’s no money? How do we get landlords to figure out how to work with people? How do we get utility companies? Every place where money goes, how do we pay that or have them be sympathetic and work out some things so that we can open up again when this is done?
Breadsoda, Glover Park (closed)
Jack Mascuch, part-time server (and senior at American University); Urana Metzger, bartender
Metzger: I haven’t totally freaked out yet, but I think I’m still in the honeymoon phase, where I think everything’s going to be okay. But I don’t know. It’s just really scary, because I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and they’re saying that it’s going to be closed for another two months. It’s just, you know, a lot of uncertainty.
People like bartenders and servers don’t have health insurance anyway because they’re already living paycheck to paycheck. I know a lot of bartenders and servers who are getting insurance through the restaurants who are no longer getting that anymore. I have my own personal insurance, but that’s a whole other thing, because now I don’t have income, so I might have to cancel that.
Mascuch: It’s affecting a lot of my friends because a lot of us are college students. Everyone’s working in the service industry. People have been figuring out just how they’re going to make rent. I’m lucky to have the support of my parents, but a lot of my friends don’t. And they’re still struggling with how they’re going to get by.
It was going to be time to apply for jobs, go to career events, start taking that kind of stuff more seriously and just kind of get ready to transition into adult life. In a weird way, this is a very adult situation that we’re dealing with, a global pandemic that everyone’s involved in. But it’s also kind of weirdly prolonged this childhood state of mind where I can’t apply to jobs. I can’t take this next step forward.
Maketto, H Street NE
Rebekka Baltzell (left), pastry chef; Rafael Gorgua, prep cook; Vero Mateo Nava (right), cook
Baltzell: It’s just weird to come in and not have people everywhere. It’s a really beautiful courtyard that we have, and it’s just empty and kind of sad and lonely. I miss being able to make a bunch of pastries every day and make people happy and see their smiles.
Open Crumb, Anacostia
Peter Opare, chef and co-owner
We were really excited, because this was going to be, probably, our first month in which we would be 100 percent profitable. If you know anything about small businesses, especially restaurants, getting to the black in your second year is a huge accomplishment. But the rug was just pulled right out from under us. The coronavirus itself did not hurt us as much as the way that the federal government reacted to it. We’ve seen our sales drop 75 percent in just one week.
The good thing about us is that takeout was our primary audience. The bad thing is we live in a community, and they have groceries, they're less likely to eat out. We're no longer getting the lunchtime crowd. We’d get the office workers, construction workers. Those no longer exist.
A day like this, all my orders have been through Postmates. They take 30 percent. We can negotiate them down between 25 and 30. But when you're dealing in such small margins, 30 percent can obliterate you. Sometimes you question yourself: Is there really any point of opening just for takeout?
If I was to look into a crystal ball, I would say the only people left in the city are going to be the big restaurant groups. They have the money to sustain this, the cash flow. They have ability to get those loans that are crucial to sustaining any business. A lot of the smaller restaurant groups, they’re just going to be gone. Your favorite places are not going to exist anymore.
Taqueria Habanero, 14th Street NW
Israel Mendez, manager and bartender
It’s been kind of slow with the problem that is happening right now. Hopefully it’s going to get better in the next couple of weeks. We tried to keep everyone here. We want everyone who works for us to still work for us until this gets better.
Thamee, H Street NE
Simone Jacobson and Eric Wang, co-owners
Jacobson: We just decided that it was going to be best if we didn’t open. Not do takeout and delivery, but be fully closed. One, because it felt like the socially responsible thing to do, and, two, because the more we kept our staff and ourselves in limbo, the more expensive it would be for us. The more confusing it would be for our community.
Just one week prior, we were nominated as a semifinalist for the James Beard Award. So, if you can imagine, we were on the highest high, followed by the lowest low and then even lower than that. It was a very emotionally taxing time. I personally called every single staff member. There are 28 of them. I called them, one by one, after we made our decision that it would be best to close indefinitely. It was the worst and hardest day of my life, but also very important that we let people know, so that they could make life decisions.
Wang: When we were thinking about switching to delivery and carryout, I was on the train from Philadelphia, doing the math in my head. There’s just no way that switching over to delivery and carryout would pay all the bills that we have to pay and also be able to take care of all the employees that we have.
Not to mention the human cost of it, the human risk of it, and that was the most important part. People like to think, ‘Oh, doing delivery means that there is no human contact.’ It’s not true. There’s a lot of human contact involved in doing delivery service because every single person in that kitchen has to get from their home to here. You also have the drivers who have to expose themselves to those risks. And it’s just too much.
St. Vincent Wine Bar, Park View (opening delayed)
Frederick Uku and Peyton Sherwood, co-owners
Uku: I’ve known this man for almost two decades. We’ve been talking about doing a project for a really, really, really, really long time. And everything just kind of fell into place with this project. Until global pandemics, everything was going smooth. You didn’t see that coming.
I’m really concerned that a lot of my friends, people that have taken that step, opening their own restaurants, opening their own businesses, I am incredibly concerned that a lot of them aren’t going to make it to see the other side of this. How do you shut down a business whose margins are as slim as restaurants and bars are? How do you shut them down for a month, two months, and tell them that they have to subsist on purely to-go orders and keep paying rents? How are they supposed to go toe-to-toe with landlords who are not being friendly?
Sherwood: It’s a wait-and-see game. No one’s played this game before this. We’re in brand new territory here, and it’s scary. What’s going to come out on the other side? A lot of people aren’t going to make it to the other side, and that’s the hardest part about this.
Meaza Ethiopian Restaurant, Falls Church, Va.
Meaza Zemedu, founder and chef
April, May, June, July and August, those are very critical months for us because, for one, college graduation is in May. The events are booked. And in June, high school graduations are booked. Of course, weddings are also here and outside. But right now, there's no graduation. There are no weddings, because how could people think about a wedding at a time like this? Most of the people who booked the space and who had contracts for catering, they've all canceled.
When we reopen the restaurant and it’s business as usual, are people going to come? Are they going to be socializing? That is what’s worrying me. I cannot predict the future. You usually don’t use utensils for Ethiopian food. I guess I’m going to have to come up with something that you could use as utensils, otherwise people are going to be scared of using their hands.
Oohh’s and Aahh’s, U Street NW
Tony Barnes, general manager
Since the new restrictions, our operation has fared well under the circumstances. Of course, it’s hurt us on the late nights, with the bars and everybody else not being able to be open. But for the most part, we’re doing okay. We are typically a takeout, with an option to dine in. So, it’s been a gift and a curse for us to be able to stay open and thrive in these difficult times.
The Girl & The Vine, Takoma Park
Jocelyne DeHaas, co-owner
The biggest change is that I’m a delivery driver now. So I just bring wine to everybody in the vicinity, which has been nice actually. No one’s mad at the wine bunny. Knock on wood, our business model was one that, hopefully, will be able to survive this, because we already just did takeout sandwiches, and I sold wine. We were able to kind of continue what we’re doing and just pivot as we needed to.
As long as we can keep our doors open, we're going to keep doing the things that we're doing, and our landlords are being amazing. Thank God. We'll just keep truckin’. Unfortunately, though, we had to lay off 99 percent of our people, which is just the saddest day. Now, if I can hire them all back tomorrow, I will. We had a great team of, like, 20 people.
This outbreak is like kryptonite. My superpower is I bring people together. That’s what I do, my whole existence is based around that. So when this fell off, I can’t be around my people and I can’t gather them together. It is crushing for me. We fed the Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op staff last week, which was absolutely amazing. They were so grateful. It was me and my little red wagon, like, walking up the street. It’s like really trying to figure out ways to continue to connect with the community.
Brookland’s Finest Bar and Kitchen, Brookland (closed)
Amy Ballard, general manager; Shannon Troncoso, chef and partner
Troncoso: We tried to do takeout only, and after looking at the sales versus the labor, I just couldn’t afford it. It’s very expensive to have enough labor to only do, like, $500 in sales for the day. So my partners and I decided to shut it down. We completely closed down, and I donated all of the food in my walk-in to staff, so they’re able to feed their families. Also, we did a smaller order, just like bread, eggs, milk, toilet paper, things that people weren’t able to find at the grocery store for my staff, as well. We laid off about 50 people, and that’s never an easy thing to do.
Personally, I’m not sure how I’m going to be able to pay my bills, because I’m not qualified for unemployment the way the tax laws are now. I’m stressed out, but also thinking about the business, of course, wanting to get it open as soon as possible. But I don’t want to put my staff at risk. I keep going back and forth about trying to do the takeout again without trying to expose any of my staff.
Ballard: At first, it was hard to find the balance. What was the right answer? Was it to stay open so that the business is as solvent as possible and can reopen as easily as possible, but also put our staff at risk? Is it to shut down, so that the staff can apply for benefits as soon as possible? We’ve got a lot of parents and a lot of caregivers for their parents, and I didn’t know which was the right choice for them.
Maydan, Florida Avenue NW; Compass Rose, 14th Street NW
Rose Previte, owner; Marcelle Afram (pictured), executive chef
Afram: At Maydan, we want to make sure that we don't have a crowd of people outside of the establishment, so people can place their orders right now between noon and 2 p.m. online. And then we're contacting them and giving them a time in which they can come in so we can have as few people picking up at the same time. As important as it is to pick up your groceries and feed yourselves at home, I think that this is extending and kind of preserving the sense of community that we're all really thirsty for right now.
Previte: We’re just grateful to be feeding the community. That’s why we got into this business. I think the most soul-crushing part has been that we can’t bring people together in a time of trouble. So, this is a very hands-off way of doing it.
Purple Patch, Mount Pleasant
Bridget Gill, bar manager; Patrice Cleary, owner
Cleary: I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to do this. How long is this going to be? You constantly worry about your staff and their well-being. You know, are you doing the right thing by staying open? How long are they going to be laid off? I have a staff of 35. I have about 10 people working for me now. About 25 people have been laid off.
Caviar delivery service has been huge. But at the same time, they take 22 percent from us, and other delivery services actually take more than Caviar. I mean, I do deliveries myself sometimes. It's really whatever needs to be done. Change happens every day. What's going to work today? What do we have? What did I just buy or what can I use to create specials? Whatever needs to happen, we make happen.
The Filipino community, wherever they are, we've had people who live in Virginia that drive all the way here to pick up food from us, because Caviar, of course, doesn't deliver there. We've had a lot of support from people, and we just are thankful.
Gill: Another aspect of community is the restaurant community itself, which has really come together in these trying times. We’ve seen a lot of restaurants providing free meals for industry workers who’ve been laid off and providing meals for kids, like we are doing. Just really trying to make sure that laid-off workers have the support that they need.
Vicino Restaurante Italiano, Silver Spring, Md.
John Eshun, owner
This is a big one to weather. I mean, everybody’s feeling it. The business people as well as the customers, and a lot of the customers actually are very supportive. Very supportive. They come out to order carryout. It’s not the same. It’s not much. But at least you see how they support you, and we sincerely appreciate that.
Rasa, Navy Yard
Sahil Rahman and Rahul Vinod, co-founders
Vinod: Our sales overall have been down anywhere from 50 to 75 percent. What really sucks about the timing is that we’re located next to Nats Park, and this is really when we start to see a huge boost in our sales, starting at the end of March and going all the way through October. Given that our sales are down so far, we’ve had to cut a lot of our staff members, but also a lot of our own team doesn’t feel safe taking public transportation to get to work. So we’re stretched super-thin, and just a few of us are working each shift, meaning that from the time everyone clocks in to the time that they leave, there’s not a second to spare.
Rahman: It feels like you’re fighting a fire and the fires are all around you, and you’re just trying to figure out what to do from moment to moment.
It's the moral and ethical dilemma of choosing to stay open as a resource for the community because everyone's stuck at home right now, and not everyone knows how to cook. At the same time, it puts you in this moral quandary that we're putting ourselves, our family members, our roommates at risk, and all of our employees are putting themselves and their families at risk as well. And so it does pose this really difficult question of what is the right thing to do in this situation. Unfortunately, there's no clear answer, and we haven't received guidance from the city government or the federal government.
Those are some of the things that are keeping us up at night. In addition to just the uncertainty with rent, the uncertainty just around how long this is going to go and what it means to be supporting a community at this moment.
Republic Restoratives Distillery, Ivy City
Sarah Mosbacher, chief financial officer (right); Sebastian Markham, assistant distiller
Mosbacher: Liquor stores are open, so those accounts remaining are still ordering. But for the most part, everything has screeched to a halt. We had to close our bar. The great thing about being set up for wholesale distribution in D.C. is that we have a framework for delivering. We previously were delivering to bars and restaurants, but we are instead now delivering direct to consumer. We are having to do many, many more deliveries to sell fewer bottles.
I fear it's not going to last. I think we're facing an initial wave of people who are feeling excited to support their local businesses. But eventually we're not going to have the same volume every week and the same funds to continue employing every single person we want to. And that's probably my biggest fear.
It’s not just going to be what’s happening this month, or in these two or three months, but it’s going to be what happened in 2020 to this company and how it imperils 2021 and 2022.
Shilling Canning Company, Navy Yard
Jacob Weinstein, beverage director
A lot of people are like, “Oh, how can we support? How can we support?” Quite honestly, money. Right now, I’m working, instead of for tips, which are very good and my admin fee, I’m working for 14 bucks an hour. I think that we’re all in that position where if you were able to even maintain your job, you’re working for pretty much $14 an hour.
Sunrise Caribbean Restaurant, Brightwood Park
Alisa Plaza, co-founder and chef
We are taking advantage of delivery with Uber Eats, Postmates, GrubHub. It's not really a good service for us. We use it when we don't have a choice, like now. They take 30 percent of your business, so that's a lot. You know, it's rough because with the online orders, everything’s gotta be quick, and you can't afford employees because there's no business coming in.
Staying in business is my biggest worry, because the utilities keep coming. I didn’t pay the trash company, and they came personally to collect. If we stay in business, you got your rent, you got your utilities. And this is our only source of income.
There’s no way I can do all the cutting of the meat and all the cleaning and all that myself, so I contract. But now I’m scared. I mean, they have their own families, too.
The Pug, H Street NE (closed)
Tony Tomelden, owner (right); Russell de Leon, manager
Tomelden: I’m not going to have my staff come in here when things are dicey. I don’t feel like putting them at risk. I got three kids at home that I also have to manage.
I hope the little businesses can make it through this. It’s daunting, and I’m not asking for a handout. But it’s going to be incredibly difficult for us to make it through, and I am a violently independent business. But if Budweiser wants to buy this place right now, they can. They can call me, hit me up on Twitter. I just don’t know. I’m not sure the leadership nationally is going to get us to a spot where some of these small places can stay open. Both me and my wife are shut down. I don’t know how we’re going to keep it all going.
We have a little bit of cash reserve, but we’ll get through. You know, my mom is local, so family and friends will help us, and we’ll help people later. It’s tight. I got a big garden. I got four chickens. I’ll get my eggs.