Caroline Glover, chef and co-owner of the nationally esteemed Annette in Aurora and Nelson Harvey (her husband and business partner) reflect on the things they thought were important before COVID, and what they know now.
This pandemic has changed many things about running a restaurant. Expenses are up: Masks, gloves, sanitizer, to-go containers, and a rented outdoor tent are now essential parts of our operation. Revenues are down: While we could previously make up for a slow Wednesday night with a packed three-turn Friday or Saturday, social distancing now makes that impossible. Everything is more difficult: We cook and serve in masks. We move our entire dining room outside each day. Our staff is tested for COVID-19 every two weeks. We run a skeleton crew to minimize our exposure to the virus, but we work that crew to the bone and must close for an extra day each week to recover.
This pandemic has changed our definition of hospitality. We used to believe that hospitality meant that “the guest is always right,” which sometimes required enduring verbal abuse and belittlement with a smile. When a guest threatened us with a bad online review, we would stop at nothing to pacify them, even if that sometimes meant taking their side over our staff’s. These days, we have little tolerance for rude or abusive guests. At a time when we are literally putting our health on the line to feed people, there is simply no room for them here.
And yet, COVID-19 has not changed the basic mission of Annette. We are more committed than ever to our vision of hospitality: to going the extra mile for each guest, remembering their names, lives, and preferences; gladly taking a walk-in at 8:59 p.m. even if we close at 9 p.m.; and staying until 1 a.m. if guests want to sit and talk that long. People need a place to gather, to find solace from the difficulties of daily life, and to celebrate its milestones. We are such a place.
Somehow, before the pandemic, we thought we knew the answers to these questions. We never did.
We do this because we love people. Over the course of three and a half years, we have built a community that gathers each week around food. We are open for them: For the single guy with the mysterious government job who once joked that he would call in a bomb threat if we ever took the egg salad off the menu. For the salty-tongued neighborhood woman who showers us with baked goods at every opportunity. For the retired couple who appears each Wednesday for rosé and popcorn, often bearing thoughtful gifts for our staff. For the elderly woman who calls each week to report her harvest of some obscure garden herb, wondering if we can put it on the menu. For the young couple with four kids who escapes to Annette late at night. For the local acupuncturist with myriad food allergies who is still somehow obsessed with our butter- and sugar–filled biscuits. Our food gives these people pleasure. They give it back to us by showing up each week.
This pandemic has made plain a fact that, while it has always been true, has been easy to forget: There are no guarantees. How long will our current business model work? How long can we stay open? Somehow, before the pandemic, we thought we knew the answers to these questions. We never did. In light of that, we are grateful each day to run a restaurant, to create a place where people can sit, drink and eat, and be our guests.
What is your “why”? Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to email@example.com.