Ep. 16: Hugh Acheson on COVID-19’s Impact on Restaurants

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We’re all well aware that the COVID-19 crisis is having a profound effect on restaurants. But not a lot of us understand just how this will play out for restaurants and their staff beyond not being able to sit at your preferred table or get your usual takeout. And many of us are unaware of the efforts that countless restaurant owners across the country are making to keep their staff employed and to revamp their menus to cater to first responders and healthcare providers.

None of this should come as any surprise seeing as how cooking is, more often than not, an act of love. And no one exhibits this more profoundly than chefs. We invited chef and cookbook author Hugh Acheson to talk with us about the current situation and how he foresees it playing out.

And if you’re wondering how to do what you can for your restaurant, Hugh offers his advice. (And if you’re wondering how to contribute to the workers at your favorite restaurant before then, simply reach out to the restaurant and ask.)

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Transcript

Renee Schettler: David, how has everything that’s going on affected your day-to-day work life?

David Leite: It hasn’t really affected my work life in the sense that I’ve always worked from home, for the last 25 years or so I’ve worked from home. Now, the difference is The One is here, so suddenly there’s someone in my space when I’m not used to that. And while it’s wonderful, when I’m trying to work and he decides that he wants to talk about, oh, I don’t know, the color of the paint for the room, it does interrupt things.

Renee: A little.

David: But I’m fortunate that it hasn’t interrupted my life too much. How about you, Renee?

Renee: It’s barely affected my work compared to most people. Right? I’m incredibly fortunate. I mean, I teach yoga as well, and obviously studio shut down, but I’m learning to teach online, so that’s fine. But with Leite’s, again, the mechanics of what I’m doing day-to-day is the same, but I did scramble quite a lot to try to get more and more pantry-friendly recipes on the site for people.

David: And bread recipes too, right?

Renee: And bread recipes. Well, that was the first couple of weeks, until everyone ran out of flour and yeast.

David: That’s very true.

Renee: So then we started putting sourdough starter recipes on the site and gluten-free recipes, right, that don’t contain flour.

David: Smart.

Renee: So we’re just trying to respond in the moment to what people are experiencing and what they’re asking us for.

David: But we’re very, very fortunate because we do work at home. But millions and millions of people are severely impacted by what is basically the shutdown of America. And among the hardest hit people are of the hospitality workers.

Renee: So today we’re taking a more serious sidetrack to discuss the economic impact coronavirus is having on the restaurant industry.

David: Hello, I’m David, founder of the website, Leite’s Culinaria.

Renee: And I’m Renee, Editor in Chief.

David: And this is Talking With My Mouth Full. Our guest today is none other than the dryly witty, vocally outspoken chef, Hugh Acheson. You’ve seen him on “”Top Chef and “Top Chef Masters” as a contestant and judge. Hugh is the owner of three restaurants, all in Georgia. And he’s the author of five cookbooks–four of which along with some recipes, are featured on Leite’s Culinaria. Welcome Hugh.

Hugh Acheson: Well thanks for having me, David.

Renee: So Hugh, we’ve been hearing a lot about what’s going on with you. But before we get to that, what have you been doing besides teaching your dog Dolly how to cook pasta?

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Hugh: Oh, it’s my girlfriend’s dog. But Dolly is a very bright dog. A little puppy centric, but that’s okay. No, we’ve been doing a lot. It’s crisis time, and so every day is a little bit different in my world. But Empire State South, we closed down the restaurants on the Ides of March, on March 15th. So we immediately started pivoting towards doing some pretty lavish to-go stuff at Empire. We’re still doing some approximation of that, more just geared towards the weekends. Not because the market dried up on viability of it, but it’s not really economically viable for the longterm because it’s a paltry amount compared to a regular sales. But what we pivoted to is working with the Blank Family Foundation, who’s Arthur Blank, and World Central Kitchen, and doing upwards of 700 meals a day, as sort of boxed lunches delivered to in-need neighborhoods and the medical and first responders and hospitals and all sorts of different drop points. And we’re doing the same thing out of Five & Ten in Athens, Georgia. So that’s what we’ve been doing. And then just doing a lot of paperwork these days.

David: And what about By George? What’s happening there?

Hugh: By George is dark. It’s a hotel restaurant. So the hotel is shutdown right now and the lights will come back on there when the coast is clear. It’s a stunning building and my teams have all been furloughed–but I think we’re dealing pretty well with it. I kind of pivoted towards, a lot of people in the industry who are really advocating selling gift certificates or merch, or doing whatever you can. Gift certificates are a bit of a dangerous game to play because you don’t want to capitalize your bank account to pay the bills and payroll with selling $50,000 in gift certificates that then immediately come back at you when you reopen because then you’re just not getting the cash you need to be running the business.

Hugh: So what we’ve done is over serve a two year period, I sort of reached out on social media with a really simple hand-scrawled post and invited people to prepay for caterings where I would personally do it with one of my chefs in parties of 12 to 20 people kind of all around Georgia, even Spartanburg, one in Austin.

David: Right.

Hugh: At a relatively high price point, but we sold a ton of them. So that really gave us viability to sort of secure our situation and make sure that we weren’t going to drown in arrears and things like that. So yeah, a lot of things like that. And then just pivoting towards planning and strategizing towards reopening the businesses eventually. But that’s so day-to-day. So in the interim, I think we can do a lot for our community and we can do a lot for the heroes on the front line right now, who are not soldiers, but they’re doctors and nurses and hospital workers and FedEx delivery guys and girls and all those people.

David: One of the things, Hugh, that I was very impressed with, is you’re very concerned about your workers, about their welfare and what’s happening to them. So can you tell our listeners, what is happening to those who were working on the line, who were waitresses and waiters in the restaurants? What’s going on with them and how are you trying to help them?

Hugh: We’ve set up GoFundMe pages for the restaurants to assist them, but they’ve been furloughed, so most of the staff, about 95% of the staff at all locations, has gone on unemployment benefits. And that’s the last social net that we really have in this country other than SNAP and what used to be called food stamps. But it’s still a pretty robust situation. Who knows if it’ll be around much longer after this. It’s just costing trillions of dollars to fund it. But they’re there, I mean, we’re going to get them all back, and we’re going to give them the jobs they had. And we’ll see how the industry fairs when we reopen. The biggest concern we have is that upon reopening that it’s going to be slow going to get the crowds back because people are honestly and very smartly concerned about gathering and in larger groups.

Renee: Of course. And you’re obviously concerned about the welfare of your employees and others, but what about yourself? You mentioned in a magazine interview a couple of weeks ago that you had $26 in your checking account.

David: Yeah.

Hugh: I know! And nobody could believe that. But look, I actually don’t take salaries from the restaurants. I get profits when they’re there, and when they’re not, we have a savings fund and things like that. I get paid from a lot of other ventures, like writing books and doing little things here and there. So we have steady sources of income. It’s just not like a salary. I think in that circumstance, I did really have $26 in my bank account, but I was waiting on a pretty substantial book payment. So we’re fine, we’ll get by.

David: Good. And then one of the things many chefs have been saying is that it’s important to keep ordering fresh food–produce and meats–especially from local providers, and not so much packaged goods because we want to keep the supply chain going. Now, do you agree with that?

Hugh: Yeah, I mean, wholeheartedly. I think that it’s all based on where your individual needs are and economic status is. Right now, if you have to live on SpaghettiOs, you go and eat those SpaghettiOs. Nobody is judging right now. But there are wonderful organic farms that we have been supporting over 50 farms in Georgia, that we buy from regularly. And so it’s important to make sure that they’ve got an outlet to sell their product. If they’re just not going to plant a new crop, then that’s really going to impact the next four months from now when that crop is meant to be harvested. So, somehow, our farmer’s market has gone to a pretty robust online ordering system. The restaurants are still able to order from local farms to do to-go food, and to do all this first responders and in-need meals that we’re doing. So we’re not lowering our expectations to the food we want to serve, even given the fact that it’s a box lunch for somebody in an ER.

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David: Right. Now, one of the things you’ve talked about, you’ve been very vocal about the federal government and what they’ve done or haven’t done in this situation. How do you think the federal government has failed the restaurant industry?

Hugh: If I hear one more time from the federal government that this really took them by surprise, nobody saw this coming. Everybody saw this coming. I remember reading in late January about restaurants in Shanghai and they had lost 90% of their business. Shanghai is like 600 miles away from Wuhan. Yet they were feeling this extreme loss of business and going broke. And I remember reading that going, it’s only a matter of time, and it was. And for us not to be ready for any sort of pandemic, for the constantly out of the White House blaming previous administrations…

Hugh: We’re three years into this situation and with this White House, and they had ample time to prepare for this. But unfortunately they threw away all the playbooks. So I think that it’s state-by-state and governors have been running the shows sometimes really well. I live in Georgia. Not sure if that’s really the case, but we’re getting there. I mean, I think that more interesting to me is how regardless of how much you ask of chefs and restaurants, they show up. Even when we were the first industry to completely get annihilated by this, we show up. And we show up by cooking for people and tending to people and providing and doing everything we can in our power to make sure that our community is okay.

David: This reminds me of 9/11, because when the towers went down, the food community just descended upon downtown and took care of the first responders, and it was extraordinary to see this happen.

Renee: That’s a beautiful thing, I think about chefs. At heart, you guys are givers and food connects people in so many ways, especially at times like this. So speaking of when restaurants do come back, Hugh, do you have any idea, what do you think this landscape’s going to look like?

Hugh: Tom Colicchio, who I’m very close with, was initially saying 75% probably wouldn’t come back and because of the PPP and the Cares Act and things like that, they’re going to assist people in coming back and some of their costs are going to be covered. You’re going to see a more successful comeback than just 25% of the restaurant world coming back to work. But I think that the landscape’s going to be completely different than what we’re used to. I think people like ….. at Noma have really called out that they’re going to have to change. They’re going to have to pivot to a much different scenario. I think our ability and want to spend $500 on a meal that lasts three hours long at lunch, it’s kind of out the window. And I think for a while we’re going to need a little more distanced scenarios.

Hugh: I think fine dining is really going to take a big hit. I think to-go food will still be on the rise. But as much as I appreciate the Sweet Greens of the world, I don’t want to lose what I love in this business, which is the people that provide hospitality. I don’t think you can have hospitality truly in a setting that’s not full service. I mean you can, but it’s just not the same. So a little worried about what the return’s going to be like. If we employee 12 to 15 million people in hospitality in the United States, four million of those are not coming back to jobs.

David: Yeah.

Hugh: Jobs just probably aren’t going to be there. So the biggest thing we can do now is provide a massive public works program that changes this country for the better, that we know we’ve got a lot to do. We know we’ve got a lot to build. We know we’ve got a lot to fix. And we’ve got a lot of modernization and progress to make. So we have to put those people back to work in those fields.

David: I was wondering, Hugh, with all of this quarantining going on, so many industries are being reconfigured and rethought. I know for instance, a lot of companies are saying, “Hey, this idea of actually working from home and being productive can actually happen.” Do you think that this quarantining, the way we’ve been, will affect and change basically how the restaurant industry works? Will there be some changes done?

Hugh: I think that you’re going to be looking at sanitation under a much closer microscope, which is good. We’re all in favor of that. We’re all in favor of making sure that’s really analyzed and that has the plans and action plans are really taken into account. I don’t really have the template for that just yet, had a blueprint for how that’s going to go forward, but we’re pretty sure it’s going to happen. So that’s not a bad thing.

David: No, not at all.

Renee: In the meantime, what can we, the public, people who’ve been loving going to restaurants and miss it and want to help support in any modest ways that we can, what can we do now?

Hugh: I think that the smarter restaurateurs who are really caring for their people have furloughed them to make sure they’re well compensated by the government in this downturn. And I think that outside of that, you just need to come back at the end of this. That’s the biggest obligation you have as a customer. If you didn’t try and go back, don’t be confused when that place reopens, then fumbles and goes out of business.

David: Yeah.

Hugh: Buying gift certificates is fine. Buying merch is fine. Buying to-go food is a really iffy scenario, I think. We’ve got a lot of systems in place. I’ve had the same crew cooking every day, five days a week, and there’s no other crew, which means that those people go into work and they go back home after work. They don’t do anything else.

David: Right.

Hugh: They challenge each other and talk to each other about what they’re doing and what they’re doing for safety. They’re not allowed to go shopping. If they need anything like toilet paper, I’ll order it for them through US Foods or something like that, a large distributor. So we’re able to get systems in place that assures safety for them. Temperatures are checked when they come in. Anybody who isn’t feeling well stays at home and comes nowhere near the place. But we’ve been really lucky. We’re feeding them well and keeping them healthy and they’re enthused to be there. And it’s also key to understand that they’re there on their own volition.

David: Right.

Hugh: I’ve said to my crew, who’s working there right now, “You have every opportunity to call me and say, I don’t want to do this anymore. We don’t want to do this anymore. We’re done, we think it’s too dangerous.” If they want to throw in the towel, I will support them 100%. But they’re keeping on because they see a need. And right now we’re fulfilling a need of getting food to populations that are just not getting it. At the end of the day, if you’re making podcasts and you’re speaking on a mic and all sorts of stuff, you probably have the ability to get by.

David: Exactly.

Hugh: And a lot of Americans don’t. Last week, in Athens or my local hospital, there were a number of people who were admitted for signs of malnutrition and starvation. They had nothing to do with COVID-19, but these are elderly people who barely get by and don’t know many people, and they’ve been sitting terrified in their houses for two weeks. And that, to me, is something in this amazing nation of splendor and wealth that it blows my bloody mind that that happens.

David: No, especially in this country. So, Hugh, let’s talk a little bit about something more hopeful, I’d say. Seed Life Skills. Tell us a bit about that.

Hugh: Yeah, it’s a program we initiated a number of years ago to really redefine home economics and how it was being taught. We think there’s beauty and importance in producing good citizens and public education in any educational system. And what Seed Life Skills, was sort of analyzed it like looking at a Lego set. I’m a good cook, and one of the reasons I’m a good cook is I just have a lot of pieces of techniques that I can assemble. My Lego set is bigger, culinarily, than most people. But I’d still want every citizen to know how to, when they’re in fifth, sixth, seventh grade, learn how to roast a chicken and cut vegetables and make a salad dressing from scratch and make a simple soup.

Hugh: And it’s not about prizing important, fanciful ingredients, but it’s about teaching really retainable life skills. So everybody can say these three magic words when they get to be 18, 19, 20, which is, “Life’s difficult, but I got this, I got this.” So I think that, that’s somehow generationally, we lost a whole generation of cooks. So I started the Seed Life Skills a number of years ago. It’s a charitable organization. It’s kind of not very active right now, but what it did is they’d succeeded in getting a complete curriculum up online, that any school district in the world can download for free. It’s got ancillary print matter that you can get printed as notebooks and sticker sets and all this stuff. But really it’s just teaching kids how to be good nourishing stewards of their own existence as opposed to hoping for the next Happy Meal.

David: See, and that’s what I was so fascinated by, is that any school now can use that curriculum, use that information to be able to have that Seed Life Skills program in their own schools, in their own communities.

Hugh: Yeah. And it’s a STEAM and STEM-oriented program. So if you teach kids how to cook, I think you’re teaching them about math and ratios and understanding of science and multiplication, and all these things that are so entwined into cooking that those are such attributes of STEAM and STEM learning that I think it’s important. But again, it’s about retainable life skills. It’s like the fact that the world really ever invented instant minute rice and why we have things like crumbled feta and like, “Can you not crumble Feta?” It’s pretty easy. And yeah, and bouillon cubes and all this jazz. But everybody says, “Well, cooking from scratch takes time.” And it does, sure. Going through their Chick-fil-A drive-through also takes about 15 minutes.

David: Yes it does.

Hugh: And I can cook you a good meal for a lot less money in 15 minutes at home, and you can too, and everybody can. And that’s just an empowering thing. So it’s just about a matter of getting kids to think differently about food.

David: Well Hugh, it’s been a pleasure speaking to you. There’s so much more we need to talk about in the restaurant world and also how we all can help each other. But thank you for this conversation.

Hugh: Well, thank you, guys. It’s been a delight to be on and I’m going to go deliver some meals.

Renee: Hugh Acheson is the owner of several acclaimed restaurants in Atlanta and Athens, Georgia. He’s also the author of five books, including the James Beard Award winner, A New Turn in the South. He appeared as a contestant and judge on Bravo’s Top Chef and Top Chef Masters. You can find him on all social media platforms, and at HughAcheson.com, where can also learn more about and donate to Seed Life Skills.

David: This podcast is produced by Overit Studios, and our producer is the indefatigable Adam Clairmont. You can reach Adam and Overit Studios at overitstudios.com. And remember to subscribe to Talking With My Mouth Full, and listen to us wherever you go.

We’d like to thank our sponsor, Abbio Kitchen. You can try Abbio right now by going to abbiokitchen.com and using the code LC15 for 15% off all Abbio cookware.

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