Chef Geoff Tracy is an entrepreneur, cookbook author, and owner of restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area. Chef Geoff’s numerous awards include The Best Neighbor Award (for contributions to the community) and Washingtonian magazine’s “Best Local Chef.” He also served on the executive board of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.
In 2018, Chef Geoff, represented by PLF, sued the State of Virginia over the state’s unconstitutional ban on happy hour and alcohol advertisements. After a nearly year-long legal battle, Geoff was victorious after the state changed its law to permit happy hour advertising. But after Geoff’s legal battles ended, his battle to keep his restaurants afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic began.
PLF fights for entrepreneurs’ rights in court when they’ve been violated by the government, but we also cheer the innovation and adaptation of entrepreneurs during unprecedented times like these. We asked Chef Geoff to explain in his own words how he is dealing—and surviving—with the COVID-19 shutdown.
Owning restaurants has never been easy, but there were fewer unknowns than there has been during COVID. Systems were in place. Schedules were followed. Strategies were implemented. That being said, I had been going through a challenging joint venture for almost two years. Fortunately, (or unfortunately if this whole thing gets worse) I bought him out in late 2019 in order to get my sanity back. I was feeling pretty good about things in the first two months of 2020. On the home front, kids were in school and ready for spring sports. Wife was cranking away at her work.
When COVID-19 hit, the biggest challenges were the unknown. The unknown of what social distanced tables meant in early March. The unknown of how a virus infects people—do we need gloves, hand sanitizer, or masks. The unknown of a delivery/takeout model including implementing and managing new technologies to pull it off. The unknown and unprecedented act of having to fire over 90% of your workforce. The unknown of what landlords will give, offer, or take. The unknown of how to deal with an employee that tests positive. The unknown of an ever-changing PPP system and how to hire back 200 people in a week. The unknown of what to do with all these people in a pandemic. The unprecedented amount of money available through grants, loans, and various programs and the unknown of how to manage them or even whether we needed to pay it back. The unknown of having to return to outdoor dining and deciding how to staff it based on weather forecasts. The unknown two days into outdoor dining of how to deal with massive protests in the streets. Do we plywood the windows like the businesses all around us? We didn’t. We lost only one window but saw hundreds smashed. The unknown of opening for indoor dining.
I describe owning a business in the COVID-19 period akin to being a pilot in a plane that has had massive engine failure. You become very very busy. You are 90% sure the plane will eventually crash but if you get very creative and a little bit lucky, you might have a chance. Every time you make a good choice or get a little bit lucky you buy yourself a little more time. Bad choice or a little unlucky … less time. And to top it off, your family is thrown into disarray. Your kids are battling with remote learning and sports have been cancelled. Naturally social creatures become isolated. Your spouse is inundated by work. And so there is no rest. 100% of the time you are trying to save the plane at work. And 100% of the time at home you are trying to save another plane. It is stressful.
I thought it was going to be a 2-3 week thing. So my fears have just expanded as shutdown orders began to expand. As we realized how bad this was going to get, my best-case scenario was to survive the best I could and potentially expand post pandemic when the over saturated restaurant industry was less saturated. I am not sure we have hit the worst-case scenario of an exponential return of the virus and restrictions returning. The restaurant industry will not be able to handle another shutdown. I am guessing 20-30% of restaurants close by end of 2020 no matter what.
You asked me how I adapted to the shutdown orders, but adapt seems like the wrong word. Adapt sounds like it happens gradually over time. This has been a crash course with information coming from so many sources. It was very challenging because we are in three different jurisdictions. We tried to be as creative as we could to survive. We did comfort meals to feed a family of 4. We did delivery boxes of food for Easter and Mother’s Day. We created a pantry and sold gloves and bleach and gave the proceed to the staff. We liquidated wine inventories. We promoted our sanitation practices. We simplified menus. We sold cocktails to go. We lowered our prices. We implemented technology to handle takeout and delivery. We created pop up kitchens under a consolidated brand to attempt to increase sales and simplify operations. We have made more changes in the last 100 days than we have in the last five years.
Throughout all this I had many different emotions. On the bad side I felt anxious, scared, hopeless, depressed, angry, exhausted, overwhelmed. On the good side: sense of purpose, valued, creative, energized.