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SAVOR Alpana Singh talks restaurants, show in the age of COVID-19
DISH Dining Guide
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times

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Since the stay-at-home order was imposed weeks ago, the national restaurant industry has collectively been delivered an economic gut punch.

Windy City Times recently talked with Alpana Singh—master sommelier, Evanston restaurant owner and host of the WTTW show Check, Please!—about the state of the industry.

Windy City Times: How are you doing, personally and professionally?

Alpana Singh: I'm okay. It's one of those weird things where you should be careful what you ask for because you just might get it, you know? I get to stay home and cook, and nobody bothers me—and, then, you're [saying], "I take it back. I take it back." [Laughs]

At the end of the day, I don't think anybody in the business expected this. We seriously thought we might be back in two weeks or so. But if I had known on March 16, when we closed the restaurant, that we wouldn't open until June. We're reopening in stages, and I don't know yet if it helps.

WCT: Now, your restaurant [Evanston spot Terra & Vine] is totally closed, right—no carryout or delivery?

AS: Right, but here's the thing: This [situation] will probably exist until there's a vaccine, so I think what operators are looking at is a complete restructuring and pivot. You're basically guessing and hedging your bets because you just don't know. A lot of it's going to have to be adjusted on the fly, but I think things will be split between inside dining and carryout. I see restaurants pivoting to meal kits, meals to go—turning their restaurants into general stores, with cocktails to go. You're just going to have to break down your walls and expand your business so people can take [items] home.

I also think that what's going to eventually happen is this shift toward dismantling the notion of what a restaurant is. People are getting comfortable having Alinea or Oriole at home. There'll be a paradigm shift with restaurants. This one operator was telling me how popular the family meal kits are—like four meals for $50.

It's a horrible situation but, like with any business situation, you have to remove yourself emotionally, look at all the pieces on the table and figure out how to put them together to make the restructuring work, given the new normal.

WCT: When you talked with WTTW on March 26, you said that restaurants needed help from the federal government.

AS: Oh, yeah. The PPP [Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses] is a hot mess. The problem with it is that you spend your money on payroll within eight weeks of it being deposited in your account—but Illinois restaurants are not open for inside dining and employees may not want to return because they don't feel safe or they may be making more with the unemployment payment of $600 a week. Also, if you're operating at a reduced capacity, you can't have a full payroll.

So, by taking this money, it almost seems like making a deal with the devil where it turns into a loan, further burdening a business that has to pay it back in two years. If you don't spend at least 75 percent on payroll, that turns into a loan.

WCT: What do you think of the Illinois Restaurant Association statement urging the governor to have restaurants open sooner than late June?

AS: It's very frustrating for operators—especially when they and patrons look at neighboring states, where people are going out to dinner. Also, operators are looking at month three of this, and we're facing rent and utility bills. But I also don't fault the governor for following science. There's just so much that's unknown.

I'm torn. Part of me wants the restaurant to open so I can make money to pay these bills. But we also don't know consumer sentiment. The governor actually talked about comfort level—and I said, "Well, they certainly seem comfortable in Wisconsin." [Laughs] Basically, at the heart of this argument, everybody is frustrated and has a lot of anxiety—and there's no clear answer.

The other thing is that the restaurant industry represents an almost-$1 trillion contribution to the economy, as well as 15 million jobs. Yet, we're not part of the same conversation as, say, the airline, finance or auto industry. I don't know what we need to do to get officials to understand that restaurants need to be supported. It's a chain reaction—there are so many businesses that depend on us: the produce company, the meat vendors, the liquor industry, floral businesses and even the linen industry.

They're talking about opening sporting events. Sports are fun—don't get me wrong—but if you look at the GDP of sporting events versus restaurants, there's a lot of difference. I get it, but it's frustrating.

[Editor's note: AAfter this conversation, Gov. Pritzker announced that Illinois restaurants can open Friday, May 29—for outdoor dining. (Chicago spots are not included in this, as Mayor Lightfoot wants to hold off until June.) Singh was asked her thoughts on this development.

She emailed: "It's a step in the right direction but, unfortunately—as anyone who has dealt with an outdoor patio knows—scheduling can be tricky with inclement weather. It would be frustrating for customers not knowing if we're open or not with a pending rainstorm. Also, what happens when it rains during service? Normally, we would move customers inside, but would this be allowed with reduced capacity restrictions? If your patio is covered, none of this would be an issue—but, unfortunately, ours is not."]

WCT: If you could go to Capitol Hill and talk with politicians, what would you recommend/say?

AS: First of all, they need to extend the PPP so it starts after restaurants are allowed to open for inside dining. I like what the Democrats have on the table, with it starting after the restaurants open and extending [the deadline] to a year, so that would help a lot. Also, grants would be helpful.

I think the PPP was good, in theory. It's just that the parameters and the application of it—just a disaster. Also, if you could bring down the 75-percent [level] for payroll, that'd be great so you can pay utilities, vendors and other things.

So I think a lot remains to be seen. Opening months after closing when we did will seem like opening a new restaurant. Also, there's the matter of communicating with customers and letting them know what you're doing; we basically have to build a new website.

WCT: And there'll be extra sanitary items to purchase, staff training to [conduct]…

AS: Yeah. It's going to take us basically 10 days to [get ready]. We have to train the staff, install new protocols—all of this take time as well as a plan of action. This is my first pandemic, you know! This business—there's never a dull moment.

WCT: Regarding Check, Please!, is there a timeline set for that show—say, a month after restaurants open?

AS: We've been in communications. I'm not sure what the exact plan is, but we agreed on one thing: Restaurants need shows like Check, Please! more than ever. We encourage people to go out and support these businesses that are so vital to our economy and neighborhoods. Whether you're celebrating something or need comforting, restaurants take care of people.

With restaurants having GoFundMe pages, it's almost like we're holding a virtual bake sale. Imagine if the airline industry had a GoFundMe page—think about that.

WCT: Let's end this conversation on an "up" note. With everything that's happening, have you seen a silver lining?

AS: Yeah—you get to reinvent yourself. Never let a good crisis go to waste.

I'm doing Zoom wine tastings, and Oriole is doing Carolina barbecue—what if that becomes an offshoot brand? Ghost kitchens are really popular right now, and Zoom is another [option].

This is an opportunity for people to get creative.

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