I’m the chef-owner of Sqirl, a small cafe and restaurant in Los Angeles. Our last dine-in service was Sunday, March 15, and this has been a brutal month.
It was a gorgeous Southern California day. Our friends and regulars filled the restaurant as best they could. Some lingered at tables spaced at socially distant intervals along the sidewalk. The pink trumpet trees were in bloom above, pampered dogs slept on the sun-dappled pavement and a line snaked down the street and around the block. We had 45 active employees on our payroll.
The next morning, before Mayor Eric Garcetti gave the official order, we decided to become a to-go-only. Our catering business disappeared overnight. We furloughed some employees and cut hours for others, keeping their healthcare benefits in place. But we were surviving, thanks to our devoted guests and our staff’s professionalism, hustle and guts.
Dodging the virus took a toll on our team. Our restaurant isn’t very big; sometimes we work elbow-to-elbow. We reduced our kitchen staff to create physical space on the cooking line, which meant more work for fewer cooks. Our front-of-house team handled delivery driver after delivery driver. Some of those drivers wore masks and some of them disregarded social distancing guidelines.
So, we decided to close the restaurant on April 3. We didn’t do it because we couldn’t afford to stay open or because our guests abandoned us. (In fact, we were busy — perhaps problematically so — from morning to night.) We made the decision for reasons of the safety and mental health of our team. It was bittersweet. We were slammed on our last day. There was a mad dash for Sqirl-branded merchandise, cookbooks, jam, even the bowls that our rice bowls are served in. We furloughed more employees, still keeping their healthcare benefits in place. Then we adapted … again.
In mid-March, chef Nancy Silverton, legendary chef-owner of Mozza and leader of the B&B Hospitality Group, turned her L.A. restaurant complex into a relief kitchen for unemployed and furloughed restaurant workers. Louisville chef Edward Lee, The Lee Initiative, Maker’s Mark and other corporate and non-profit sponsors staked her play.
Nancy is much to many, and to me, she’s a role model and friend. I had been sketching out a relief project of our own — “Framily Meal” — and planned to open it at my new restaurant in Santa Monica, Onda, when I heard what Nancy was doing with Ed Lee. Sqirl regular Busy Philipps pledged financial support. Industry friends, including Sfoglini Pasta, Split Nutrition, Quorn and Imperfect Foods pledged product donations.
And then Nancy got her positive COVID-19 test result.
She closed her relief operation. Her partner, Mike Krikorian, asked me if I’d like to pick up the baton. I agreed and moved the idea to Sqirl. So, on April 4, the day after we closed our restaurant, we reopened as the updated Los Angeles outpost for The Lee Initiative.
The project has been a lifeline for our local restaurant community. In our first week alone, we've made and distributed approximately 750 meals-for-two: soup, salad, fried potatoes, bread and dessert. We’ll be changing up the menu each week, collaborating with culinary friends. Radburg will be coming in the next few days, then the following week, dishes from Onda.
We want to keep it fun for our cooks and for those who come to “dine.” We’ve also handed out an equal amount of “essentials” bags filled with donated food and household items: laundry detergent, toilet paper, tampons, coffee, fruits and vegetables from our local farmers, cereal, bread, bottled beverages and cheese (really good cheese) from our friends at Cowgirl Creamery.
Our new customers are as diverse as Jonathan Gold’s L.A.: a cook from Universal Studios, a dishwasher from an iconic (now shuttered) diner, bartenders and baristas, sous chefs from nationally-renowned kitchens, an entire family of servers and cleaners from IHOP, a rooftop server who’s also a voiceover artist and ... some of our own employees. Bitter and sweet, both in abundance.
The project has also been a lifeline for our business, our farmers and our other supply chain partners. Jam and online sales are at holiday season levels, but our overall revenue is down 95% since we shuttered our operation. Our 45-person active payroll is now down to eight: two dishwashers and six cooks. Most of them have families to support, in the U.S. and elsewhere. And even though we’re seeking small business loans, we’d have trouble paying our team without the support we’ve received from The Lee Initiative, its sponsors and friends like Busy. They’ve shown up, kept us open and given us a reason to keep cooking.