Most days, Colorado-based chef Andrea Frizzi checks in with his sister in Milan, Italy. She’s very worried about him in Denver.
Frizzi runs Il Posto on Larimer Street, as well as Vero pizza and pasta and Tammen’s Fish counter at Denver Central Market. He sounded exhausted, almost breathless during a phone conversation a week after Denver restaurants were shut down for two months in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“She knows that I don’t stop, because I can’t,” Frizzi said of their conversations. “Restaurants are the new American factories,” he explained. ‘We work with our hands, we stand up, we come in. Now bureaucracy needs to run at the same pace as the crisis.”
As of Wednesday, Frizzi had switched his restaurants’ business models more than once just to survive the first week of the shutdown.
He was selling comfort foods like pizza, pasta, meat and cheese and, mostly, wine in order to keep his remaining staff of around 10 people employed.
Those still working set aside their tips to donate to the more than 20 others who couldn’t keep their jobs for lack of work or health concerns. At Denver Central Market, Frizzi continued stocking basics — eggs, butter, sugar and toilet paper — to sell alongside to-go meals.
“For now, we are able to pay people,” Frizzi said. “We can’t pay rent, clearly, with this money. We can forget right now about revenue,” and profit and loss.
Millions more in Frizzi’s position across America were waiting during the second week of the shutdown to hear Congress’ plan to help small businesses and workers who had been laid off as a result of coronavirus.
From March 16 to 19 in Colorado, more than 20,000 people filed unemployment insurance claims, or 1,450% more than the week prior. Restaurant workers make up around 10% of state employment, or 294,000 employees. At least 174,000 of them have lost their jobs as of Thursday, according to the Colorado Restaurant Association.
Meanwhile, the Economic Policy Institute estimated Wednesday that more than 250,000 Colorado jobs could be lost by the summer, primarily in hospitality and retail.
“What worries me more than anything is the complete and utter silence about what (restaurants) are doing,” Frizzi said. “The (government) knows we are in trouble, but they don’t say anything. You know when the silence is really loud? We need someone to tell us, ‘We have your back,’ or ‘We don’t,’ because we are alone right now, completely.”
Late Wednesday evening, the Senate approved a $2 trillion rescue package — the largest in American history — that among other measures would include four months of full pay for laid-off workers, direct checks to households and either small business loans or tax credits for companies that are able to retain employees.
Here is the plan if accomplished every restaurant in America can feed their community for free. pic.twitter.com/gyvwgEhT2G
— Tom Colicchio (@tomcolicchio) March 23, 2020
Frizzi’s desperation in Denver echoed similar industry pleas all over the U.S. in the last week and a half. Writing for The New York Times on Sunday, José Andrés implored the federal government to mobilize restaurant workers and activate restaurant kitchens in order to feed a country in crisis.
“Every industry group should make its case in this crisis,” Andrés wrote. “But only those of us who work in restaurants can help revive the economy while feeding and building our communities at the same time.”
Until help arrives, restaurants are providing what they can.
At Denver’s Olivia (which opened in January), chef Ty Leon said he and his business partners sent 160 meals to hospital staff at Denver Health Wednesday. They also have been feeding their laid-off employees daily, forgoing their own income while continuing to pay five salaried workers. The small team cooked and delivered food to customers, who helped by placing orders for family-sized lasagna and take-and-bake cookies and who are “just wanting to keep us alive,” Leon said.
“Little things like that give us bursts of energy to make us think that we can last all the way through,” he added. “In a situation like this, you have to be optimistic, or else I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning.”
Leon said his restaurant’s sales were at about one-tenth of what they had been previously, but that also takes into account the temporary closure of his sister restaurant, Bistro Georgette, inside the Avanti food hall.
That small success — being able to keep one of two family businesses running — belied what many had already begun facing on a larger scale: laying off all staff and closing their doors completely, if just in the short term.
The Colorado Restaurant Association estimates that 40% of restaurants in the state have closed for now, whereas 2% report closing permanently.
“Last week, we were just running as fast as we could to stay open and keep our staff employed, which was really my number one goal from the beginning,” said Ashley Morrison, executive chef of Jovanina’s Broken Italian, which stopped serving takeout and delivery as of Friday.
“As the days went by, it wasn’t as profitable,” she said of the owners’ decision to temporarily close. “The reality was, we were having to cut everyone’s hours so drastically that we realized it would just be best for the entire staff to go on unemployment rather than work a few hours.”
Morrison and her boyfriend, Herman Robles, were both salaried chefs at Jovanina’s. They were finally able to fill out unemployment applications just after midnight on Tuesday. Morrison also set up a fundraiser for two of her kitchen staffers “who are particularly more vulnerable financially,” according to her GoFundMe description.
“I’m painfully aware of what a privileged place I’m in in my position,” she said. “For the first time in my life, I’ve actually been able to build up a savings to fall back on, after years of living paycheck to paycheck, because line cooks make basically nothing.”
Morrison is worried for those co-workers who will have to buy food and pay rent and bills next week without receiving any relief yet.
“We were really concerned about everyone’s health, ultimately, but (closing) was a really tough pill to swallow,” Morrison said. “I think as chefs, we’re constantly trying to push and make things work … . It’s a fine balancing act between taking this break and also continuing to push and fight for our industry.”