Boiling Point: The Fight to Save America's Restaurants

Originally published Thursday, October 15th 2020

This article is Part 1 of our ongoing series,"Making Lemonade: The Optimistic side of the Pandemic,"in which we aim to highlight individuals and organizations and their stories of perseverance throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the initial weeks of the pandemic, before official Stay-at-Home orders were put in place, there was no consistent message to restaurants to help them navigate the unforeseen challenges. For weeks, restaurant owners and workers scrambled to stay safe and were left wondering how they would keep their businesses running.

“There is so little support offered by the government, and by the state, and by the city to to really uplift businesses and provide them with help and the resources that they need,” said Agatha Kulaga, Co-founder of Ovenly in NYC.

Life & Thyme, an independent, reader-funded, global food journalism network, set out to capture the unprecedented events unfolding daily. What resulted was a documentary called Boiling Point that, “chronicles this catastrophic moment through those frontline food workers, while exploring the deep cracks in the system that led to this crisis.”

⁠The film leverages a mix of footage shot on smartphones by the restaurant owners, farmers, and chefs, combined with interviews and statistics to tell the story of what’s happened in the restaurant industry during the pandemic. Many of the individuals in the film detail the challenges of following government orders which forced restaurants to close temporarily, reopen at limited capacity and in some cities like Los Angeles, close yet again when the virus spiked.

Chapter 1 focuses on restaurant proprietors.

Ashley and Tyler Wells, co-owners of All Time in Los Angeles, speak to how they’ve modified their offerings to “show up for what the need is.” For them, that has meant turning their restaurant into a “grocery delivery service that serves hot food,” meaning they now sell the restaurant’s supplies as groceries while offering a limited menu for delivery. As Tyler put it, “there’s no way we could stay open on [just] hot prepared food.”

Chapter 2 is told by the chefs.

Suzanne Cups of 232 Bleeker in New York City had only been open for 3 months when COVID-19 hit and wasn’t prepared to switch over to take out orders so she chose to temporarily close the restaurant. Once reopened, she set up a “retail and provisions” section to maximize space. With sky high property rental costs in NYC, restaurants typically rely on squeezing in as many tables as possible, but with social distancing required, that’s no longer an option.

Chapter 3 focuses on the farmers.

Jennifer Reichardt, COO of Liberty Ducks in Petaluma, California, makes the point that despite a global pandemic, farmers can’t pause their crops or their livestock. Once establishments were forced to close or operate at limited capacity, Reichardt started receiving letters from restaurants saying “we know we owe you money, please be patient with us.” Her wholesale sales were down 80%. So, she pivoted and launched a retail offering to sell meat directly to consumers to try and keep money coming in. Liberty Ducks even provides pickup and delivery options to make things simple for consumers, but shifting their business model to try and make up lost sales during a pandemic was no easy feat. Like most interviewed in the film, she describes sleepless nights, tears, and an overwhelming amount of stress.

The final chapter, Chapter 4, tells the story of the activists.

In mid-March, three bar and hospitality consultants founded No Us Without You, a grassroots movement to feed undocumented workers in the restaurant industry. While there have been grants and efforts to help industry workers, Aaron Melendez, the organization’s co-founder, explains that the relief doesn't reach undocumented workers, and immediately knew that’s where they needed to focus their energy. Within 24 hours, No Us Without You set up a GoFundMe donation page and raised enough money to feed 60 families. A day later, the donations had doubled, and it continues to grow.

Everything is Connected

LittleJohn Produce Box Project aims to serve as a bandaid for many of the issues presented in the documentary. Many of the individuals in the film echoed the same idea, the idea that this isn’t just a restaurant industry problem, this is a national problem. It’s not just restaurant owners or even their workers that are being affected.

“You have to consider the wine people, the purveyors, the growers, and the farmers. The effect is so vast in our industry that it’s frightening,” said Aarón Sánchez, Chef/Owner of Johnny Sánchez in New Orleans.

Dominique Crenn, Chef/Owner of Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, echoed the same sentiment, “We all need each other. We’re all connected.” LittleJohn Produce Box Project strives to keep people fed, provide safe access to fresh food and support farms and restaurants during this challenging time.

Wondering how you can help? Donate a box! On our website you have the option to sign up for boxes for yourselves as well as donate a box. You can set up a weekly, bi weekly, monthly, or one time donation.

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