“It was what we call staff meals,” Ms. Llanes-Diaz said. “A bunch of veggies and things in a pot.”

By mid-April, Mr. Danaher was inquiring at pizza joints and even a Dunkin’ Donuts, but got no takers. He scouted out grocery and retail stores. Toward the end of the month, he briefly took a contractor gig making syrups for a company that sold cocktail kits, but the work died down a few weeks later.

Around the same time, the industry was staggering back to life. In Chicago, the Michelin-starred Elske, known for its moderately priced tasting menu, began opening three days a week to offer takeout.

“Our first meal was Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes and cucumber salad,” said David Posey, the chef who co-owns Elske with his wife. “We thought we’d go through that in a week. It was enough for one day.”

In Nashville, Tony Galzin, the co-owner and chef at Nicky’s, revved up his coal-fired oven and sold housemade pizzas and fresh pasta to go. In Washington, Cork Wine Bar, an early fixture in the city’s booming 14th Street corridor, did a brisk business in Seder boxes.

Later, as dining restrictions eased and government aid flowed, many restaurants found they could come close to breaking even while paying workers fairly. Instead of resuming traditional table-side service, Mr. Galzin asked customers to order from a counter. Several former waiters took on other jobs, and Mr. Galzin distributed tips evenly to all staff members, who earned between $16 and $20 per hour, more than many had pre-pandemic.

Elske limited its menu and served customers on a patio as well as inside near the windows. Alison Miller, the restaurant’s former assistant general manager who became a server this summer, said she took home at least $1,000 most weeks.

Still, the restaurants could rehire only a small fraction of their workers. Nicky’s eventually brought back just over half of the 34 people it once employed; Elske brought back about half of its 16. Diane Gross, a co-owner of Cork, had to lay off nearly two-thirds of her pre-pandemic team of 30.

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