Think about how much you miss restaurants.
The people. The tastes. The smells. The drinks.
But no matter how much you miss going to restaurants right now. I’m sure you don’t miss being there as much as Frank Stitt misses you being there.
Stitt won the 2018 James Beard Award for the most Outstanding Restaurant in the Country for his restaurant Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Alabama. One of the highest honors in the culinary world and the first time it’d gone to a city of Birmingham’s size. But when the coronavirus shutdown restaurants around the world, Highlands had to close its doors along with Frank Stitt’s other spots.
They’re slowly starting to reopen. Bottega Café is now offering curbside service and Stitt has similar plans for Chez Fon Fon. But this week on the Reckon interview, we’re examining the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on Southern food and restaurants.
Stitt joins us to discuss how closed restaurants affect a lot more than the chefs and staff. It ripples up the supply chain. We also talk about how independent restaurants got left out of stimulus money. How deeply ingrained food culture is in the South. And what Frank is doing to stay sane.
Also, this Thursday at 1 p.m. CT, we’ll have a live follow up conversation with Stitt on the Reckon Facebook page. We’ll also be raising money for the Alabama Food Bank Association. Join us and submit your questions.
Here are a few excerpts from the conversation to get you started.
Frank Stitt on Southerners’ connection to food and restaurants
I think for me, and for a lot of us that grew up in the South, [we] have a personal connection to the farm. In my case, it was my mother’s family. My grandparents lived right outside Cullman just a couple of miles from where I grew up. And that farm experience of going out, and right now we would be going out to pick strawberries and asparagus and getting the garden ready for the summertime. So I think that that seems like it’s in our DNA. Even if you didn’t have a grandparent, you knew uncle or an aunt or a cousin. You were more closely connected to, to the farm.
And to me, that’s really why I think I love what I do so much is that I’m still so excited about that relationship with our farmers and with our fishermen and the people that raise our beef and lamb and chicken. And so those ingredients are what spark my enthusiasm and my excitement for coming up with dishes and it’s always bound by the seasonality and so I think that that expression of the season of our culture in our kind of micro little area here in North Alabama, those things are something to celebrate.
And I think that that’s what drives me and excites me and I think that you know, when we started a long time ago when we would identify the farmer that had the great tomatoes that those were the white truck tomatoes that we would buy at the farmers market. And then we would dig down a little deeper and tell a little bit more of a story of the person that grew those vegetables and that story, the love and respect for the land went into it.
There’s almost a transcendental something that happens where you can feel that love and that respect, come all the way through the cooking onto the plate into the experience of being in our dining rooms.
How restaurant closures affect the supply chain
I was just reaching out to some of our farmers that just earlier this morning and getting a sense of what’s going to be available next week and the week after. And so they really have relied on restaurants so much. They’ve gone to more CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture]. There have been more market deliveries, they’re doing more home deliveries. And so they’re trying to hang in there but, still, I’m sure that the amount of crop that they anticipated selling is way down since the bulk of their sales would go to restaurants.
And so you know, we’re trying to do what we can to help them and to distribute some food for them.
You were talking about local bakers, you know, that’s something else that we really, you know, rely on. Some real artisan bakers. And one of our bakers, as we were preparing food for all of our staff to come and pick up, he made 40 loaves of bread that the mill here in Bessemer provided him with 100 bags of flour and so he was generous enough to bake that and we could distribute that to our staff.
You know, I don’t know how long people can hang on, but I’m afraid it’s going to be a while too and people will find it in their heart to try to help each other out.
How the stimulus package hasn’t worked for restaurants
Well, the [Paycheck Protection Program] is just not working for restaurants. It’s providing lots of money for different businesses. I’ve heard a story about an accounting firm that maybe had eight or ten partners – midsize, small – and that they were able to get $800,000. But they’re still able to do their work. They can work from home.
But for us in the restaurants, there are a couple of things. One is when the date starts that you get your money, assuming you get some money from PPP, then you’ve got to have I think 90% of it go to employees. But then you’ve got all of these other bills, and you’ve got to pay up all of your past bills for the inventory. And so I think that there was something like 67% of the employees in America that were eligible for this were for restaurant people, but 7% of PPP goes to the restaurant world.
It was just written in such a hurry.
And there is also the real possibility that even if we get this, we may not be able to have a forgivable loan on this because of the stipulations.
And really it was not intentional. It was not mean, I don’t think, to single out restaurants for it to specifically not work for.
But so right now the Independent Restaurant Coalition that I’m working with is fighting for stabilization for independent restaurants. But Congress is not going to be able to work on this for another three or four weeks, when they’re back in session. And so now it’s getting very partisan about who gets what.
But the one thing that we do hope is that there’s this carve out for independent restaurant for a stabilization fund. If Congress, when they get back together, we’re going to be fighting for that. Otherwise, a lot of restaurants are not going to be able to reopen. Or if they do reopen, they’re going to not be able to stay open because it is a an industry that is low margins. I think that typically, you know, if you’re lucky, you’re happy to get a 10% profit. But there’s just a whole lot of work there a whole lot of people that go into it, a whole lot of lives.
And one of the things that, on a more human side, is just my wife and I having Zoom meetings with our staff and some of our key management and just the love and excitement and how much we enjoy this crazy work that we do. And how we’re looking forward to being back and working these crazy hours that we do and being with the people that is very much a team.
To hear more about what Frank Stitt is doing to stay active during the shutdown and to learn more about how and why he got into the restaurant business in the first place, listen to the full episode here.