Michael Schlow, 55, runs restaurants across the country. He’s been in this business a long time, from the landmark destinations Radius and Via Matta, now closed, to branches of Alta Strada along the East Coast (a Logan Airport branch is now delayed) to Tico in Boston and Washington, D.C., to a pizzeria and an Italian restaurant at Time Out Market in the Fenway. He’s seen ups and downs, but he’s never see anything quite like COVID-19.
How has this affected your business?
I’m doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances. This is an unprecedented time, obviously. And, as information continues to come in, we have to act nimbly and quickly. Actually, the business trains you to do this. As of last week, we were all sending out messages: “We’re here for the community! There’s a run on food in supermarkets; we’re open and using the best sanitary practices like we always do, and we’re here for you.” With each day and each hour as this information continued to worsen in hot spots, we made alterations, whether just doing takeout or not opening at all. You have to be nimble in a matter of days and hours; we had to change on the fly. The industry trains us for this — not in this severity, but this is how our daily lives are. We’ll be at work, we’ve ordered a bunch of food, and there’s a giant snowstorm; what are we going to do? As a restaurant worker, you never know what’s going to come at you. Consistency is not part of the business. It’s always up in the air. You don’t know if the phone is going to ring, if it’s going to rain and people will stay home, or if it’s a beautiful day and people will barbecue. That’s a small example. This is a giant example.
How did you get your information about closure protocols?
In D.C., friends in government might be hearing what the Senate is working on. We get stuff from the restaurant associations. But we’re all getting information in the same manner. We don’t have any secret back channel.
How do you run a business when you don’t know what will happen next?
As of today, we follow the leads of what our government officials tell us we should be doing. They are doing their very best. Three times a day, I have phone calls with leadership — once in the morning, afternoon, evening. We have to do it three times a day, because information could change three times a day. When we say a fluid situation, that’s an understatement.
How has it affected your staff?
Well, I don’t know if I can properly describe it. In the hospitality industry, we’re the first to try to respond to people in need, whether it’s looking at the work that Jose Andres does, local food banks, whatever it is that we can do as providers — we always are trying to think of others first and ourselves second. This industry will be in serious need of financial help. The landscape is going to change dramatically. It will take creative thinking and bold initiatives to help people; I think I saw that David Chang created a hashtag: #toosmalltofail. If small businesses are truly the backbone of this country, we’re going to need help. For morale — and this it’s only so temporary and quite honestly is fleeting and won’t have long-lasting impact — but we made a big family meal at every restaurant. We didn’t sit together, but I cooked for them at Tico and gave them food to take home from the fridge and freezers. I am trying to be positive. If we try to do the right thing, it will end quicker.
Have you laid off anyone?
I have had to lay off hundreds of people. I cannot even properly express how disturbing that is and how sad that is. These are people I have worked side by side with for years, and to tell them we have to close. . . . They understand; everyone’s in this together, and it’s a time we need to come together without physically coming together. We need to emotionally come together to support one another, and to be there, not place blame. We need testing to be done, but we need people to do the right thing.
Money was never a driving force for me; it was creativity and the social aspect. I’m not sure how we get back into this. That part of the path is foggy to me. At this point, I don’t think it is short-lived. I don’t know how long [this will go on]. I can’t possibly guess. I wouldn’t have guessed we’d be in this situation two weeks ago. I thought people would stop coming out to dinner and business would be slow two weeks ago. The most important thing is nobody gets sick and that we don’t help it spread.
When did you know that things would change for your business?
There was a rumbling. I’m not a doctor, and I don’t know anything about infectious diseases, but I never could have predicted when those cases were in Washington that: a) it would spread and b) so quickly. It hit home for me when the Biogen cases went to 70-something. It felt like we were a hot spot immediately.
Some people are spooked to do takeout; what would you like the public to know?
It’s part of our health codes not to get the public sick in normal times. To give you an idea of the efforts we make normally: [In Washington, D.C.], the Riggsby has tablecloths. The person who would be doing silverware for service washes their hands, disinfects the silverware, puts gloves on, and then they’d make roll-ups with a napkin and then unroll it instead of placing silverware on a table [with their hands]. Take that and amplify it.
Many people are looking for ways to help businesses in trouble. What can they do?
I think the most important thing is that the hospitality industry is in need of help. It will take government support, making things faster and easier. We can’t make people have to jump through hoops. . . . People are going to need money. [There should be] no waiting period for unemployment, for example. It should be waived.
For customers, what you can do is buy gift certificates. We’ll find a way to give the proceeds to people who have been laid off. But there will be restaurants that won’t reopen. It’s a sad fact. They run on slim margins. They’re only going to be able to last so long with no income.