Fast food sandwich giant Subway was rocked with another potential scandal this week. Years after dealing with allegations about their chicken containing other proteins, a lawsuit has been filed claiming that Subway’s tuna salad isn’t made with tuna.
According to the Washington Post, plaintiffs in the lawsuit got samples of the tuna from multiple locations in California. They declined to say the ingredients found, but claim that the salad mix was “not tuna” and “not fish.”
Subway has vehemently denied the allegations, saying they use “pure tuna” in a statement to the Post. Their ingredients list on the chain’s website also only has two ingredients for the salad mix: Flaked tuna in brine (which has tuna, water, and salt) and mayonnaise (which also contains spices and a preservative called EDTA that protects its flavor).
Obviously, given the history of fast food claims in the past, this controversy has swarmed swarmed the food news cycle. However, there are some questions brought up in the nature of the lawsuit that suggest it may not succeed.
Specifically, the lawsuit does not name what tests it used to determine how Subway’s tuna salad has no tuna. The most obvious forms of testing would be DNA barcoding or identification tests, which were used back when the chain’s chicken was evaluated in Canada.
While we don’t know if the plaintiffs used that kind of testing, we do know that it can raise some potential concerns on accuracy. Canned tuna (which the flakes come from) is known to cause issues when used in a DNA barcoding test. A 2017 review of DNA barcoding techniques in fish from Chapman University found that canned fish products often had a lower success rate and quality when it came to results.
The DNA barcoding sequences used could also be hindered by other ingredients in the salad mix. Given how the tuna is blended into mayonnaise, which is made with eggs, the possibility exists that the test results could be mixed with chicken DNA from the mayo.
The tests were conducted in independent labs, which should help reduce bias in the plaintiffs’ results. Unless they would be able to get the actual pre-mixed tuna from Subway, however, we don’t know for sure if any test results would be accurate. To date, the plaintiffs haven’t offered up additional information on how their testing was conducted.
It’s also unclear if any replications were performed to confirm results for the same samples, which was done back when CBC did their investigation of Subway’s chicken. Without knowing more information about how testing was conducted, given the data the plaintiffs have released, it’s hard to trust the veracity of the claims they’ve made to news outlets.
Of course, the plaintiffs could also be right, and probably wouldn’t be going to court unless they believed they had a strong case. Either way, we’ll have to see how this lawsuit plays out in court.
After a tumultuous and chaotic four years, Donald Trump’s presidential run is coming to an end as Joe Biden assumes the presidency.
Four years of policymaking by the executive branch in that timeline has altered the food landscape in numerous ways. As we take a look back at Trump’s term and what he did to the world of food, we also can see the challenges Biden will have to overcome in that industry and field as he steps into the Oval Office.
Overall, the numbers paint a more bleak picture for how food is made, its cost, and access to nutrition compared to four years ago. Below are some of the ways the food world has changed with Trump at the country’s helm.
The cost of food increased over the last four years, leading to rises in food insecurity
One of the key economic measures folks can look at for the cost of food comes from the Consumer Price Index. That chart shows that the cost of food went up 4% in the last year, and had additional increases ranging from 1.6-1.8% in each year of Trump’s presidency. This is compared to small increases of less than 1 percent, or even decreases, in the cost of food in the years prior.
As the cost of food has climbed, so has food insecurity, or the ability to access food by the general population. Prior to the 2020 pandemic, food insecurity had been dropping, and was at 15.7%. Conditions exacerbated by the lengthening of the pandemic, however, cause food insecurity to double overall, and triple amongst families with children.
As Joe Biden takes office, bringing the cost of food down to help make it affordable, while improving economic livelihoods to decrease food insecurity, will need to be a priority as we emerge from the pandemic in the months to come.
The power of Food Stamps and SNAP has significantly decreased, the program was almost gutted
Food stamps were a program targeted for cuts early on in the Trump Administration, and in 2019, they finally got their wish. Regulations were enacted that restricted the number of people eligible for food stamps, with up to 3.7 million potentially being impacted by the new rules.
While one could argue that an improving economy prior to the pandemic was dropping the number of those enrolled, numbers skyrocketed once COVID-19 hit. 38 million people were on food stamps in 2019, and that number jumped to 43 million in early 2020.
The recent stimulus package passed by Congress did loosen eligibility requirements for food stamps, and benefits were also expanded. In a challenging economy caused by COVID-19, we can expect numbers to go up, but hopefully, as jobs come back, numbers of those who need food assistance will decrease naturally.
Food became more unsafe, less inspected, had more outbreaks and more at risk to more contamination
The FDA under the Trump Administration cut back warning letters sent to facilities by a third, meaning that enforcement and regulatory warnings to help prevent contamination were limited at a similar rate.
The pandemic also led to the suspension of routine inspections of food processing facilities domestic and abroad. The amount of potential fraud and contamination that could arise is alarming, but we have yet to see any measurable data in that regard.
What we have seen, however, is a measurable rise in foodborne pathogen illnesses. Comparing data from 2016-2018 to just 2019, every single one of the eight most common pathogens saw an increase in reported cases. Produce and chicken, which the USDA just allowed to raise processing speeds on, were the most common causes, and even the CDC says that progress in controlling the pathogens has “stalled.”
Increasing food safety inspections is a tough ask to do during a pandemic, given the risk of spreading infection to all of those involved. Improving food safety technology and getting inspections to above normal rates should help in the long run, however.
Racism targeting the food industry rose steadily, but so did pushback
Maybe this was just due to claims made by the president that exacerbated hatred against Asian-American and more specifically, Chinese-American communities, or it could have been increased exposure to incidences on social media. Nonetheless, racism within the food industry was continually exposed over the last 4 years, and during the pandemic, Asian-American business owners were hit hard. They saw a 26 percent drop in business compared to 22 percent for other businesses.
Issues of equity in the food, food media, and restaurant industries are nothing new. But during the Trump presidency, private businesses took it upon themselves to do better, even if the country’s leader was still being blatantly racist towards many groups. Many major firms, including Bon Appetit and the Los Angeles Times, expelled or took corrective actions against those who were racist to others in the company.
Of course, there’s still a long way to go in that regard.
School lunch nutrition, and children’s nutrition in general, took a massive hit
One of the first actions the Trump Administration took was to limit the guidelines set in place by Michelle Obama that improved the quality and nutrition of childrens’ school lunches. The Trump Administration started by allowing for more sodium and flavored milks while decreasing whole grains required for kids.
That was initially rebuffed by a federal judge in 2017, but the Trump Administration continued by limiting the amount of fruits and veggies schools had to serve to kids. The administration is also taking another run at the initial limitations they desired, but a final rule never materialized before Joe Biden’s inauguration.
This comes as labeling requirements to point out added sugars and other changes have been indefinitely delayed, meaning that parents and kids may not have access to all of that info on all products they buy at the store.
Whether the Biden administration chooses to lift that indefinite delay and restore school nutrition policies remains to be seen, though many experts predict it will happen with his first 100 days as president.
Price fixing scandals within the industry have been caught and halted
Across the meat, poultry, and seafood industries, executives have been consolidating and artificially inflating prices. This was proven in both the poultry and seafood industries, where the Department of Justice has levied fines or indicted individuals and companies in both groups.
Companies where employees were charged included StarKist, Bumblebee, Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Claxton Poultry Farms.
The Trump Administration is also actively investigating the meat/beef industry, although no charges or fines have yet to be levied. The investigations that the Justice Department started will continue and be handed over to Biden Administration officials.
Farmers are relying on the government more than ever to survive: well, big farmers at least
The government has long been subsidizing farmers to help keep the costs of produce down. Due to Trump’s trade war with China that sharply elevated prices, that amount of subsidy increased, to the amount where farmers could be getting up to 40 percent of their income from the government. That’s not sustainable for a business to survive on in the long run.
What makes matters worse is that most of that funding is being used to subsidize major farm and production corporations, rather than small farms. Two-thirds of the above payments went to the top 10 producers, while small farms and those with diversified operations were largely shut out.
This all comes as the country continues to see an exodus of small farms that has continued over the past 40 years. While small farms used to constitute half of all farming in the 1980s, they now only consist of just a fourth of farming. Over 1,000 dairy farms have also closed in just the past year in Wisconsin, and even agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue acknowledged the issue, saying “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.”
Could the United States go further and privatize farming to guarantee incomes? Or will improved trade deals and economic conditions mean that they will have to help farmers less? That’s something the Biden Administration may have to decide in the coming years as they navigate issues surrounding farmers, including climate change and the current trade war with China.
GMOs got updated labeling requirements, but new nutrition labels have yet to be enforced
Good news, America: You’ll now be able to see if a product contains GMOs based on labels that were passed into law in 2019. President Obama signed the requirements into law in 2016, and the industry is starting to have to comply, with everyone needing labels by 2022.
Bad news, though: the updated nutrition label laws that show added sugars, make calories bigger, and implement other changes that are required at restaurant chains, are indefinitely delayed. While many companies took it upon themselves to institute the changes anyway, the Trump Administration chose to keep pushing the enforcement date back on them. Eventually, they chose to just indefinitely delay it in response to pressure from trade groups.
Biden may choose to end that delay and push them into effect, which would bring everyone up to date on nutrition labelling nearly 5 years after legislation was passed requiring them. Industry lobbyists, however, could still prevail.
“We’ve listened to all the advice, only to be shut down over and over again and not to be compensated… There’s no science that shows outdoor dining is unsafe! I’m not an asshole, [Governor Gavin Newsom] is.”
The above viral clip from Slapfish owner Andrew Gruel has resonated strongly with restaurant owners around the country. Gruel, whose seafood chain has locations nationwide, is echoing frustrations that governments aren’t doing enough to help restaurants while forcing many in the industry out of business.
Meanwhile, the industry is hurting at an unprecedented level. Data from the National Restaurant Association shows an estimated loss of $215 billion in the last eight months across the restaurant industry nationwide. Over 100,000 restaurants have already closed, and estimates figure that over a third of all restaurants could shut down by June without some sort of relief.
Shutting down small businesses right ahead of the holidays, with no relief, while the rulers break their own mandates is not going to end well.
Restaurants have been doing everything governments tell them to do for the most part. They’ve added capabilities for outdoor dining, spending thousands of dollars to do so. Chef Jason Quinn of Southern California’s esteemed Playground, for example, was paying thousands of dollars monthly for a heated tent setup that all got shutdown when outdoor dining was banned.
For many, they feel that banning outdoor dining is a step too far, especially when research has not definitively proven that it leads to a spike in coronavirus cases. Outdoor activities with social distancing are actually encouraged, such as walking in parks or camping, and the CDC does consider outdoor dining to be lower risk than indoor dining as well.
Of course, any form of activity where you come into near contact with others has some level of risk for transmission. The safest thing to do would be to shutter everything, but doing that requires stimulus money paid out to restaurants and businesses. Otherwise, they won’t be reopening once those hypothetical lockdowns end.
“All of this following rules is being predicated on being assisted by the government,” Quinn told Foodbeast.
From local to state to federal level, there has been minimal help for struggling restaurants. Outside of a potential meager stimulus package from the city of Los Angeles and the dimming hope of a restaurant bailout bill passing in Congress, there’s little funding out there to ensure restaurants have the ability to reopen after the current period of pandemic lockdowns.
Congress does have the legislation on hand to help out, with the RESTAURANTS Act potentially providing up to $120 billion in relief. While it has passed the House of Representatives, the Senate has fallen flat in helping out one of the most crucial industries in the country. The bill has yet to even be taken up in legislative sessions there.
Meanwhile, the latest round of bailout funding from Congress doesn’t funnel any money into the restaurant or hospitality industry, leaving owners struggling to survive.
Foodbeast has spoken to several restaurant owners since the latest shutdowns began. While some, including Slapfish, are keeping outdoor dining open, and some are sticking with the government lockdowns, all of them had the same message: Without funding and help, independent restaurants likely won’t last much longer.
“Over the last 10 years, food has become an important part of our culture,” Quinn said. “If we lose all of these small restaurants and just end up with Cheesecake Factories and f**king Arby’s and shit, then we’re gonna have lost a lot of really important work.”
“Even the aid has been manipulated in a way that … the majority goes to big guys, not small guys.”@damicheleusa owner Francesco Zimone speaking on the current restaurant environment and what the industry needs to survive. pic.twitter.com/2WEU1nyJRX
Regardless of whether governments should lock down restaurants or open up outdoor dining, they need to be funding restaurants at a level where they can survive, lest the “backbone of the American economy” collapses. They’re currently sitting on their hands and doing little to nothing, meaning that it’s up to us, regular people, through takeout orders and tips and whatever other ways we can support, to help keep these businesses going.
As students have been returning to college to start the new school year, some have had to quarantine to prevent the spread of COVID-19. At New York University, students that quarantined in the dorms got meals, but their quality was so poor that videos of them went viral all over TikTok.
For the first few days, the NYU quarantine meals program was a mess. Vegans and vegetarians received animal and dairy products, some students had missing meals, others didn’t get them delivered until late in the day… it was chaotic, to say the least.
After making it onto the news for their low-quality meals, NYU apologized, and pledged to do better. For the most part, they’ve lived up to that, as they’ve added more employees to help prepare and send out meals, and even sent out cases of water and snack boxes to help students get adequate nutrition.
It didn’t resolve all of the issues, however, so NYU eventually gave students $30 of delivery credit per day as a way to get dinner for the remainder of the quarantine period. They continued to serve breakfast and lunch throughout that time frame.
Considering that NYU students pay over $38,000 per semester for tuition, housing, and other expenses, the quality of the meals they were getting is shocking. It’s also bringing the value of expensive college fees into question, especially during a pandemic.
If expensive schools are serving low-quality meals, limited access to amenities paid for through tuition costs, and transitioning to online learning, then what are students really paying for? A place to stay to take online classes?
The cost of an online course is about $1,200-$1,300, and monthly, one would spent about $350 in food and $1,000 in rent per person in a 2-bedroom apartment. This means that one could go take 4 online classes at home, in a semester-long timeline, and pay under $10,000 to do so.
It’s understandable that the pandemic has changed how everything operates, including college. Given how much money students are paying schools, however, NYU should serve as a case study of what not to do to ensure student nutrition during a pandemic.
To learn more about the full debacle, check out the entire Foodbeast video on the NYU quarantine meals at the top of this story.
There’s so much to unpack about this year. We have a raging pandemic, an unsuitable President in the position of leadership, and record high death and unemployment. Overall, a melting pot of unrest, fear, anger, impatience, stewed with a strong sense of feeling unacknowledged. Sirens, explosions and chants soundtrack the nationwide protests. Determined to be heard, those on the front line brave tear gas, rubber bullet and baton.
As we begin our second consecutive week of city-wide protests here in Los Angeles, efforts are being made globally in support of not only justice for George Floyd, but the many lives taken at the hands of police brutality for generations. Black and Brown, White or Yellow, and everything in between; each of us are experiencing first hand what lies behind the veil; a slow reveal of systemic oppression. While intersectionality has existed in many forms over the years, today, our access to witness police brutality in real-time has sparked an overwhelming intersectional, international response that has never before occured.
Fighting for a cause is not easy. It takes courage to voice an unpopular opinion about injustices, to challenge the status quo and to attempt to inspire change in your fellow human beings. No one likes being told what they believe is wrong, especially if they’ve believed it for most of their life. Systemic racism runs centuries deep, so to educate another about its impact requires lots of patience. It requires lots of self-education as well.
Protest doesn’t just reside in the streets, it also has a place in our daily interactions with friends and family, at home or over dinner. Being accustomed to our social routine makes having those “dinner time” conversations challenging. We all have that overt racist relative that for all our lives, we’ve made the excuse, “Oh that’s just how they are.” Other times the racism is less overt and more rooted in a misconception of class inferiority and privilege. Nevertheless, we can no longer allow fear to impede the change we know deep down is necessary.
I’d like to share a quote from Margaret Renkl of The New York Times, “And the problem with writing off people who don’t recognize this country’s pervasive and enduring culture of white supremacy, much less the ways in which they themselves benefit from it, is simple: Being called a racist almost never causes a racist to wake up. Being called a racist almost never causes a racist to say, “Oh, wow, you’re right.”
So how do we have these uncomfortable conversations with close friends and loved ones? How many more family dinners can we have where we allow racist remarks to go unchecked, simply for the sake of not ruining everyone’s meal? These are some questions we’ve asked ourselves here at Foodbeast. With our unique family dynamics and cultural experiences, there seems no single way to approach this conversation. Thinking more about this, I felt that maybe by just sharing personal experiences, we could help to inspire others who are similarly wanting to speak up but unsure of the best method. This is a convo many of us have had or will need to have, so I decided to reach out to close friends as well as fellow Foodbeast fam to share their uncomfortable dinner conversations:
“Yesterday, our city had a scheduled peaceful protest. This was the first time that I really paid attention to my parents’ media consumption. They only have Facebook and watch traditional news from Spanish TV channels. I realized that they haven’t seen any of the peaceful protesting, the policemen that instigate violence, the white looters who destroy cities in the name of BLM, the repeated incidents throughout the country. I took some time to show them some things on my Twitter feed, and reminded them that this stuff is coming from real people on the scene, whereas the stuff that they’re watching is coming from sensationalized news. Although they were surprised, I think I was the one who had a bigger moment of realization. Members of my immediate and extended family are not consuming the same news that I am, and it’s my responsibility to direct them to those sources. As light-skinned Latinos, we don’t have conversations about colorism or American racism in regards to the Black community. I’m now actively responding to them more on Facebook & sharing more about BLM.”
“I call out my family on pretty much everything. Asian families have a deeply rooted anti-Blackness, so anything involving Black people they blame it on them – saying how they’re scary, they’re violent, etc. I try to educate by talking about the bigger picture, how the media frames black people as antagonists, how it’s unfair how we are so anti-Black without questioning why. Of course I’m either met with silence or resistance.”
“The conversation was with my boyfriend and mom regarding looting and rioting. I had to explain to my boyfriend the dangers of telling a non-Black person that you don’t agree with the looting and rioting. Now my mom thinks, “See he is Black and he doesn’t like it either.” Well obviously he doesn’t want his neighborhood fucked up like the riots and Black and Brown business owners suffering from it, but when my mom hears that, she hears “He hates all looting and rioting.”
And I make my case for why looting and rioting happens – deeply embedded in the country’s history, wealth gap, history of ownership and private property and the disparities for Black and Brown folks. And my boyfriend is like, “Yes I get it but I still don’t think they should be fucking up OUR shit.” So I’m like, “You need to make that very clear to my mother.” And my mom said, “No, I get it.” And I know her ass doesn’t.”
“Whenever I have these conversations with my mom, she meets it with resistance (from deeply rooted racism), but the more I talk, the more I explain, the more she listens. But I do remember an instance where she responded to my conversations with, “Oh so now you’re gonna go date a Black guy?” and I got angry because she missed the point. But with more conversations, more calling out, the more I see her think. I had a more broad talk with her when we were talking about the COVID protests, how white people use their privilege to protest their “rights being taken away”, the way that they haven’t been oppressed and how that’s the main issue at hand. It’s never been about how Black people are “bad,” it’s been about how society responds to privilege and the layers of systemic racism. These convos are just going to have to keep happening for change to happen.”
“I talked to my friend who only dates Black males and wasn’t doing anything about this movement that was uncomfortable. She ended up listening to me but I told her, “Hey you’ve only dated men of color the entire time I’ve known you and you are dating one right now…and you’re letting all of these things happen and you can’t even show up when I ask you to come with me to make a difference. It makes me mad that you complain about white people all the time but at a time that it really matters you care more about yourself and your own comfort.”
“I have a friend that used the n-word while I was on the phone with them, the catalyst being a hit-and-run accident on the freeway while raining.
I’ve never had the courage to talk to them about it. I’m deathly afraid because I fear it will destroy a friendship of hundreds of positive experiences together. A friendship that’s had an insanely positive impact on my life.
I believe I’m gathering the courage, but to be honest, I’m so afraid that I can’t stop crying while writing this.”
As you can see, there is no perfect way to go about broaching the sensitive subject of racism. The conversation you have with your elders may be different than the one you have with those in your age group. The common thread in all of these stories is that it requires patience and persistence. Your food might get cold in the process.
New information uproots, shifts and transforms. How that experience feels to us is dependent on our willingness to accept change. Equally important is the messenger. We’re experiencing probably one of the most pivotal moments of our lifetime where if we want real change, it requires real action. Not selfish action, but mindful action. At Foodbeast, we’re working each day to learn how to better support that change. Below are some links that discuss ways to help you break the ice as these necessary conversations are had:
The bounty of a buffet has always been the crux of its appeal: all-you-can-eat, get your money’s worth, it’s the American way. Whether it be the high end flourish of a Las Vegas buffet or the comforts of a local Hometown Buffet or Golden Corral, folks have always used the linchpin of a seemingly unending feast to maximize their dining experience. Yet 2020’s pandemic has crippled the restaurant industry, and with the restrictive nature of the new norms, the buffet concept has fallen victim to it.
With social distancing and forcibly limited dining capacities being implemented as the U.S. slowly reopens different segments of business, the future that buffets face has been bleak. Dwindling interest among millennials pre-pandemic already had buffets trying to steer themselves into relevancy by experimenting with different models. But a covid-19 reality these days has universally constrained restaurants, forcing them to take-out and delivery options only, a pivot that doesn’t fit the model of a buffet at all, though places like Golden Corral and Old Country buffet have turned to them for their survival.
However, the challenges the pandemic has brought on buffets have been insurmountable to some, namely the company Garden Fresh Restaurants, owner of AYCE salad bar concepts Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, who recently filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
In the latest episode of Foodbeast’s The Katchup Podcast, hosts Elie Ayrouth and Geoff Kutnick, along with myself, wax poetic and eulogize just how much Souplantation meant to them, while also exploring the immediately unfortunate prospects buffets have post-pandemic.
Though Souplantaion and Sweet Tomatoes did not decide to give it a go at pivoting to new business models to keep afloat, other buffets have turned to such alternatives, all with varying results. The following are a number of adjustments they’ve done just to survive. Which begs the question: Would Garden Fresh Restaurants have been able to stick around if they tried to maneuver with the times as well?
Big buffet chain, Golden Corral, has been slowly reopening locations across the country with a new cafeteria-style service model. So think restaurant employees directly serving diners menu items at what otherwise would have been various buffet stations. Also, stanchions are set up as a perimeter around buffet areas, with floor markers indicating where customers can stand safely away from one another. This model also eliminates the prospect of multiple diners touching utensils at once.
Take-out has been the new standard these past couple of months for restaurants to survive. A reliance on third-party delivery apps and their exorbitant fees have proved to be difficult for restaurants to deal with, yet has been enough to keep them afloat, a conundrum in itself that’s brought on separate ethical discussions on the business practices of these apps. Curbside pick-up has also been a helpful option for diners to enjoy their offerings through modified menus designed to coincide with the efficiency of the pick-up.
In this service model, servers treat customers to an “endless buffet” from a selection of menu items. What immediately comes to mind to compare to this would be Brazilian steakhouses, also known as churrascarrias, such as Fogo De Chao, who serve a constant of meats until the diner indicates to stop via a red coaster flipped up. Turning it over to the green side tells servers that they’re welcome to offer more meats to the customer.
Different Payment Options
Before the pandemic, Golden Corral tried to address the waning interest millenials had in buffets by dabbling with different pay systems, namely dropping the pay-one-price model. Further, it was being tested where customers pay at their table, while also being offered three buffet options: soup and salad only, a single trip to the food bar, or unlimited trips. Could experimenting with different pay systems work even better in post-pandemic dining?
Fifteen locations of Golden Corral have opted to stick with the old service model. They plan on adhering to the traditional buffet format with an implementation of rigorous cleaning standards and other precautions such as adding hand sanitizing stations and checking diners’ temperatures before being seated. It’s worth noting that 12 of the 15 locations sticking to the original buffet model are in Florida.
Briana Valdez is a self-described disciple of the restaurant industry. Every day she lives out the crucial tenet of creating a wonderful dining experience for her customers that goes well beyond just the food. Having spent time at legendary chef Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Beverly Hills, CA, Valdez soaked up everything she learned on what it takes to run a restaurant — including maintaining a solid base of integrity for not only customers, but staff as well.
Being from Texas, Valdez had her sights set all along on developing the concept that would become HomeState: a restaurant that would serve as her ode to the Lone Star state’s cuisine. First opened back in December 2013, HomeState has since carved itself into the Los Angeles dining scene by serving up distinctive and memorable Texas staples like queso, brisket sandwiches, Frito pies, and crave-worthy breakfast tacos. Her first customer was her mother. Her second? “[He] was a guy who had just moved from San Antonio a few months before. He still comes in a few times a week and has become a good friend,” recalled Valdez. She continued, “He credits HomeState with staving off homesickness and giving him community.”
Growing to three busy locations across the Los Angeles area, HomeState — and as a whole, the city’s robust dining scene — was thriving. That is, all up until just a month ago. The beginning of March was a precipice that the restaurant industry stood at before the COVID-19 pandemic shoved it into a downward spiral of survival, uncertainty, and upheaval. Restaurants have since had to maneuver through a mishmash of mandates that have forced them to either close indefinitely or turn to new business models and operations as a stopgap to the loss of revenue. What’s more, countless jobs in the industry have been lost, leading to a perplexity and lack of confidence in how the recovery will be.
In the state of California alone, the California Restaurant Association was the second largest private employer, with as much as 1.4 million individuals employed, pre-pandemic. And within that astounding number of people, small businesses and those that keep them running were dealt a piercing blow.
For Valdez, the precarious state of the restaurant industry just as the COVID-19 crisis was hitting the U.S. became something she couldn’t ignore. She began journaling and documenting the series of events that have unfolded for her business throughout the pandemic, from pre-quarantine up until recently. Even before Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s executive order to temporarily shut down bars, nightclubs, restaurants (except takeout and delivery), entertainment venues, and other establishments on the evening of March 15th, she knew she had to take preemptive action to anticipate just how drastic the coronavirus concerns were going to affect her business.
And it was the very integrity that she learned coming up that would be her North Star to steer HomeState through the murkiness of this new reality.
What’s resulted is a staggering and intimate glimpse into how the pandemic has affected her and HomeState. And though this example may be an account through Valdez’s lens, such may be what it has been for other small restaurant owners everywhere trying to stay afloat and navigate their businesses through this health and economic crisis.
Below is Briana Valdez’s account from her journaling.
Friday 3/6/20: We received word that SXSW would be cancelled and began reaching out to local bands to play the following weekend on our patio, like a mini South By in LA. Sounded like a great idea at the time.
Saturday 3/7/20: I had family in town. We spent hours catching up on the patio at HomeState Highland Park. It was crowded and overflowing with laughter and good times. Later that night I went to another crowded fundraiser.
Sunday 3/8/20: HomeState celebrated International Women’s Day on our patio by inviting a group of 25 attendees to a panel filled with the women who run/operate HomeState. Later that day, I went to a big Sunday supper at a friend’s house, with no less than 20 people.
Tuesday-Wednesday 3/10-20, 3/11/20: Letters from other companies were pouring in via social media and email. I wasn’t sure what we could say that would be productive or meaningful. I held off on releasing anything from HomeState.
Thursday 3/12/20: With some action items in place we sent a newsletter to our guests notifying them of changes to our operation including elimination of all communal items, free delivery, and curbside pickup.
Thursday 3/12/20: Evening into night I started reading more about the rates of spread and the importance of acting quickly. I couldn’t sleep.
Friday 3/13/20, 3:00am: I couldn’t shake the urgency to do something drastic, like close our three restaurants, in order to keep our teams and community safe. It felt crazy. I came into the office at 7 am, and couldn’t get there fast enough. When our team arrived, I shared my concerns and the conviction to close the restaurants to the public. Thankfully, everyone backed the idea 100% and sprung into action. We decided to close to the public at 2pm that day. That left little time to notify guests or our team. I knew communication would be key to pulling this off quickly, orderly, and with our team’s morale intact. I had to notify our mgmt team, our 150 team members, our investors, and vendors, and most importantly, our guests. – 1:30 pm:We had a crowded dining room finishing their lunch. It was raining outside. We posted signs on the front windows saying “To reduce the spread of COVID-19, we are serving our guests via delivery + to-go only. Thank you for understanding.” We allowed guests to finish their meals and kindly prevented additional guests from entering. As we let our team members know the plan, some were relieved, others were scared, others cried. I related to them all. – 2:00pm:We locked the doors at both locations and immediately pivoted to curbside pick-up and delivery only. I believe no other restaurant in LA had closed their dining rooms.
Saturday 3/14/20: First full day with closed dining rooms. It was raining. We had team members outside wearing gloves and using walkie talkies to communicate with team members inside to avoid contact as much as possible. We were trying to figure it out but knew that we had made the right decision to close the dining rooms.
Sunday 3/15/20: Governor Newsom and Mayor Garcetti issued a mandate that all dining rooms close.
Wednesday 3/18/20, 1:00pm: Got on a conference call with fellow chefs and leaders in the hospitality industry to discuss how this impacts us, our employees, and auxiliary vendors and what we can do to mobilize in an effort of support and relief.
Thursday 3/19/20, 8:45pm-1am: Had a roundtable call with the leadership team to discuss pros/cons of keeping stores open for pickup and delivery. What were the risks and benefits to our team members? What were the risks and benefits for our community? The meeting was held on Google Hangouts so we could all see each other. We kept it brutally honest and tried to laugh here and there. Ultimately, we decided what would best serve the overall community was to radically reduce our menu and launch a General Store. This would achieve our overarching goals: 1. Keep our team employed but provide the ability to keep 6’ apart while working. 2. Continue providing food for our community in the form of tacos but ADDING much needed pantry essentials like eggs, flour, milk, butter, and products our vendors were/are still able to provide.
Friday 3/20/20: We closed our Playa Vista location and set about planning out the General Store menu and operations. ABC (California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control) announced relaxed regulations allowing us to offer cocktails, beer and wine for pickup and delivery. A big boost to our guests and our ability to generate revenue. Margaritas started flowing the next morning, much to our guests’ delight and appreciation!
Saturday 3/21/20, 8:00am: We launched the first ever HomeState General Store at our Hollywood location, shifting our entire way of doing business and interacting with each other and our guests. It was wild. It was crazy. We got lots of praise and some negative commentary when we started selling toilet paper. We wanted to fill the gap of what was most in demand for the community so we drove an hour to pick up toilet paper from our only vendor who could find any to sell us. Our cost was $2.12 plus the drive. We put it on the menu for $3 and people were outraged, one person even told us that we would “burn in hell.” We all did our best to focus on the positive while continuing the hunt for cheaper toilet paper. We could have just removed it from the offerings but we know people were desperately searching for supply. Thankfully, within a few days, we found a cheaper option and reduced the price to $1. We are learning how to be a grocer minute by minute. Grateful to have found an alternative to closing our doors and laying off our team. We continue to work with incredible vendors who are a pipeline for much needed goods and have workers to employ as well. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Sunday 3/22/20: We strengthened the General Store model with everything we learned on Day 1. Went MUCH smoother.
Monday 3/21/20: Began writing letters to state legislators and local officials about the devastating impact on the hospitality industry at large.
Tuesday 3/24/20: We closed all stores for deep clean, allowed teams to rest while we rolled up our sleeves to get General Store #2 ready in the Highland Park location.
Wednesday 3/25/20: We launched the General Store at Highland Park, offering products like olive oil, whole chickens, ground beef and… MARGARITAS. Can’t make margaritas fast enough. I feel like it’s medicine for the city, helping us all cope.
Friday 3/27/20: Watching live coverage of LA CITY council as they hear from fellow operators. Decisions will be made in the next few days that will have lasting effects on HomeState plus the restaurant industry as a whole, including many of our dear friends. Only time will tell. Now we wait, and keep fighting as hard as we can to survive.
As self-quarantining has led many of us to do awful things to keep busy, I found myself watching TMZ the other night.
It wasn’t all bad though, as chef Giada DeLaurentiis was interviewed and gave some interesting food-based insight on the current global pandemic.
“I think our whole life is going to change. Instead of complicating food, we’re going to stick to the basics,” Giada told TMZ. “I think you’re going to start to realize that certain ingredients can be used in many many different ways.”
Which is interesting, because with the way aggressive shoppers have made certain foods scarce, those who are trying to cook at home, probably have to get creative and work with what they have available.
With groceries going like crazy, it’s a little hard to dig into a cookbook right now and try to use all of Gordon Ramsay’s 17 ingredients to cook a beef wellington.
With that in mind, DeLaurentiis has even simplified her own recipes for the public. Fully knowing that ingredients are a luxury at the moment, she said on Instagram Tuesday:
“Adapted a lot of my recipes on @thegiadzy to use pantry ingredients & omit ingredients that are hard to find in grocery stores right now. I hope it’s helpful for everyone staying in & cooking at home.”
We’ve already seen this unfold, as people have been using what they have or what they can snag at the store, leading to things such as makeshift French onion soup ramen, low effort banana bread, and microwave risotto.
This is French onion soup ramen. You can make it with 4 ingredients. We made a special quarantine edition of Mythical Kitchen teaching people how to cook with the bare minimum of pantry staples. Please check it out. https://t.co/Xft2ie1Wrjpic.twitter.com/mxjekytogF
While off-the-cuff recipes are being done out of necessity of the moment, it’s fair to predict that home cooking could be the new norm, as the way we eat out will be changed.
The combination of both restaurant closures and budgeted spending from consumers after extended work stoppages could very well mean that eating out will become a luxury.
Jonathan Maze, Editor-in-Chief at Restaurant Business Magazine pointed out some of the post-quarantine struggles saying:
“Once this things clears up, we’re probably going to be in an economic recession, and it’s going to be a while before the economy recovers from that. Then you get into a situation where people are really cutting back.”
And even as restaurants try to rebuild in the aftermath, Maze added that they will now have to worry about rehiring its employees, assuming they haven’t found a job somewhere else. On top of that, bringing customers back and letting them know they are open again will be a process that could add another couple months as they try to get back in the flow of things.
We can only hope our favorite restaurants can get through this, and as much as we might want to keep patronizing them, our own personal financial situations will ultimately dictate that. So there’s a chance you’ll want to get used to cooking at home, and getting creative, as that could be the new norm.