Orlando's restaurant industry is in great peril. Here are ways to help

click to enlarge Chef Joe Creech of Hunger Street - Photo by Rob Bartlett
Photo by Rob Bartlett
Chef Joe Creech of Hunger Street
Security, stability and permanence are fragile constructs at the best of times, but in this grave new world we all find ourselves in, well, they've all but shattered.

The economic ramifications of COVID-19 are being felt across every industry from aerospace to publishing, and that includes right here at Orlando Weekly.

"We simply don't have a path forward with our full staff and revenues so severely compromised," said Orlando Weekly publisher Graham Jarrett. (The company hopes to rehire its furloughed staff members once the economy has stabilized somewhat.) It's a sentiment shared across the labor divide, particularly in the restaurant world, where COVID-19's virulence has made the outlook very bleak.

click to enlarge Restaurateurs Sue and Jason Chin - Rob Bartlett
Rob Bartlett
Restaurateurs Sue and Jason Chin
"This has, without a doubt, been the most extreme and trying time we have ever experienced," says Jason Chin, who runs Osprey Tavern, Reyes Mezcaleria and Seito Sushi Baldwin Park with his wife, Sue. "Given the extreme nature of what has transpired, it has left the business with few options to keep everyone employed at the level that we were even at last week."

Joe Creech
, who runs Hunger Street Tacos on Fairbanks Avenue, echoes Chin's distress.

"I'm worried about providing for my family and staff through the dog days of summer. We need people to order takeout and delivery from us and our delivery partners. As it stands right now, we're at one-third our regular business. Can't survive long like that," Creech says.

Indeed, most restaurants (as of press time) have closed their dining rooms to dine-in service and pivoted to a takeout and delivery model. Many are even offering curbside service so customers don't have to get out of their cars.

In fact, it's hard to think of any restaurant in town that isn't going the to-go/delivery route given the do-or-die circumstances in which they find themselves. Even Kadence, a high-end omakase house in Audubon Park, is making the transition, despite knowing it's not a sustainable long-term approach.

click to enlarge Mark Berdin, Lordfer Lalicon, Jennifer Banagale hamming it up
Mark Berdin, Lordfer Lalicon, Jennifer Banagale hamming it up
"Honestly, we can handle this for the next few months because we're small," says Lordfer Lalicon who, along with Mark Berdin and Jennifer Bañagale, runs the nine-seat Audubon Park sushi spot. But he adds, "I can't imagine what it would be like for other restaurants."

Transforming into a ghost kitchen is a stopgap measure at best — no restaurant can sustain themselves on this sort of approach for very long. It's an attempt, and a flailing one at that, just to keep their heads above water.

Momofuku empire's David Chang thinks even making the effort is futile, calling it "fool's gold." He also tweeted, with characteristic bluntness, "We are so fucked."

Naturally, corporate-backed restaurants and those with deep-pocketed investors behind them are in a far better position to withstand the downward spiral. Unfortunately, that could mean a return to a very insipid restaurant landscape.

"What worries me," says James Beard Award-winning chef Norman Van Aken, "is the very real possibility that industrious, talented people in their 30s and 40s will be crushed financially by this pandemic. And it goes to follow that it might terribly stunt the growth of our flowering hospitality business. We need these entrepreneurs to continue the battle against mediocrity and corporate blandness."

click to enlarge Chef Norman Van Aken - photo by Rob Bartlett
photo by Rob Bartlett
Chef Norman Van Aken
But corporate-run restaurants are also in a position to better help their employees at an unprecedented time like this. José Andrés' ThinkFoodGroup, the company behind Jaleo at Disney Springs, has set up an Employee Support Fund e-Gift Card program whereby all sales proceeds from the e-gift cards (currently available at a 20 percent discount) will be divided evenly, with half going toward extending employee pay and benefits and the other half going to the company's ThinkFamilyFund, which provides financial relief to employees and their families.

Others, like Chelsie Savage of Proper & Wild and Sanctum Cafe, are shunning pessimism and despondence and doubling down on their mission and core values to raise the health of the community by springing into action.

click to enlarge Sanctum Cafe owner Chelsie Savage - Photo by Rob Bartlett
Photo by Rob Bartlett
Sanctum Cafe owner Chelsie Savage
"It’s crazy to be at the helm of a ship with 100 employees looking to you for direction as we walk into this unprecedented time," Savage says, "but we’re working around the clock to take care of our community."

"Literally overnight, all three of my restaurants (Proper & Wild and two Sanctum Cafes) reinvented their business models and implemented multiple platforms to do just that."

In addition to offering to-go orders, curbside pickup and delivery – executed by the restaurants' in-house employees, not a third-party delivery service – Savage launched realdamngoodfood.com, an online ordering platform for family-style and pre-packaged bulk meals.

click to enlarge Henry Moso - Faiyaz Kara
Faiyaz Kara
Henry Moso

Henry Moso, the James Beard Award-nominated chef of Kabooki Sushi, says he's in survival mode. Moso closed Kabooki Sushi Sand Lake this weekend after business dropped by more than 80 percent, and focused on a one-time gig feeding 600-plus employees of a large seafood plant in Tampa.

"If I can do this on a weekly basis, then great. At least I can employ a couple of my cooks," he says.

But COVID-19 has also led to the cancellation of conventions, large gatherings and events, which has really hurt food truck operators like Jimmy Nguyen and Chau Vo of Hot Asian Buns.

click to enlarge Jimmy Nguyen & Chau Vo - Photo by Rob Bartlett
Photo by Rob Bartlett
Jimmy Nguyen & Chau Vo
"Pretty much all of our events are canceled until June," Vo says. "We don't have any other source of income besides the food truck. We just signed up to all the delivery services, however, processing time is taking longer than anticipated due to an influx of new accounts in their systems."

Hot Asian Buns will launch on Grubhub March 20, and is looking at offering takeout and pickup orders, but their plight just underscores the great need for immediate financial relief for food truck operators and restaurant owners alike.

"Governments should cease sales taxes, payroll taxes and utilities until we can operate normally," says four-time James Beard Award-nominated chef Hari Pulapaka of Cress Restaurant in DeLand. "Landlords should give rent concessions or waivers, especially if the government aids them in turn with stimulus discounts."
click to enlarge Hari Pulapaka - Photo by Rob Bartlett
Photo by Rob Bartlett
Hari Pulapaka
This week, the National Restaurant Association has asked the federal government for $145 billion in direct aid to restaurants to help pay employees, as well as deferments in lease/rent/mortgage payments, $100 billion in federally backed business interruption insurance (many business policies exclude pandemics), $135 million in emergency unemployment assistance, $45 billion in affordable loans and $35 billion in community development block grants.

Some other modes of financial relief for restaurants:
But as with any loan, navigating through an application can be a byzantine process. Kevin O'Donnell, who runs the Local Butcher & Market, The Porch, Big Fin Seafood Kitchen and the soon-to-open Russell's on Ivanhoe, is thankful for any economic assistance, but remains cautious.

"How much red tape will be required to receive assistance for affected workers? What is the real time frame? With the current environment, small business owners and their employees don't have the luxury of time."

Time is also of the utmost importance to Justin Kim, a restaurateur who's opening a sushi concept in the old Tasty Wok space on East Colonial Drive. The coronavirus has him rethinking his plans.

"It's making me reconsider. What worries me most is not being able to time our opening and not knowing when this pandemic will end."

It could be weeks, it could be months, but amid all the uncertainty, restaurants need our assistance and support now more than ever.

Here are ways we, the restaurant-going public, can help these vital meeting places in our communities:
  • Continue patronizing restaurants. Practically every restaurant in town now offers takeout, curbside pickup and/or delivery. Some even offer pre-packaged meals and family-style portions.
  • Avoid third-party delivery services as much as possible. They may offer free delivery to the consumer, but they take a hefty commission from restaurants. Many restaurants have their in-house employees execute deliveries, so call the restaurant first before heading to Uber Eats, Grubhub, Doordash or Postmates.
  • Tip generously.
  • Buy gift cards and restaurant merchandise.
  • Reschedule restaurant reservations for a later date rather than canceling them outright.
  • Consider signing this petition imploring government leaders to Save America's Restaurants.
So what does the future hold? Who knows, but I will say this: No one in the industry, not for one second, believes COVID-19 won't forever change the complexion of the city's restaurant landscape. The unfortunate reality is that some of our favorite establishments will shutter for good and things will get a lot worse before they get better.

It's an awful truth.

Says Van Aken, "The shape of our social lives is being transformed in nanoseconds, it seems. What was unthinkable a week ago is the new normal. And it ain’t my kind of normal."

Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, all bars and nightclubs in Florida were closed on March 17 for 30 days. As of March 18, Central Florida restaurants are still open for takeout and delivery, and grocery stores are open during limited hours. Follow CDC guidelines and Orange County advisories on staying safe.

About The Author

Scroll to read more Food News articles
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Orlando Weekly Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.