Entrance to a restaurant in Downtown LA | Wonho Frank Lee/Eater

In a panel conversation, restaurant owners and workers share how their communities helped them get through 2020

Having to deal with muddy, trickled-down governmental guidance — or no guidance at all — was just one of the many challenges facing restaurant owners and workers in 2020. From limited funds to safety concerns, business owners had to get creative and take matters into their own hands to survive the harsh economic conditions.

And they did. Whether it was turning always-booked tables into a space to feed their now-unemployed staff, or using the forced downtime to create a garden of herbs and produce that they could cook once reopened, these folks found inspiring ways to keep their business turning and their communities fed.

We brought together restaurant pros New York pastry chef Natasha Pickowicz; Lakana and Justin Trubiana, the co-owners behind Austin Thai food truck Dee Dee; and Dina Samson of LA’s Rossoblu and Superfine Pizza to shared the ways they got creative this year to help save restaurants and support their communities.

Below are lightly edited excerpts from the conversation, part of our Eater Talks event series, as well as a full video recording. For more ways on how to help the restaurant community, check out Eater’s How to Help guide.

Unexpected downtime could be channeled into charitable work.

Dina Samson: “We laid off our entire team, and it was just myself, my husband, and our other person. So we called out investor for his advice, and he reminded us that we always wanted to get into charitable work. He helped us start a 501(c)(3); he made the first donation and the first thing we did was feed our team. We cooked hot meals and we put groceries together and they’d come by every week to pick those up. So that was our first kind of try at ‘What can we do here?’”

They found new ways to cultivate relationships with diners.

Justin Trubiana: “Before COVID, our regular customers would show up early and form a line, and it would very quickly turn into a 45 minute to 1 hour wait during each dinner service. And the main request we always had from them was can they call in ahead and pre-order, but it was hard to make that work well while serving the people who would show up at the window and line up. But now, since we’ve switched to pre-order only, it’s been a godsend for those regular customers, because they’ve been able to eat with us more often. Their responses have been so great and supportive since.”

Natasha Pickowicz: “I’ve perceived in New York City this incredible surge of support from the guest side of things. And this idea of creating a relationship with your regulars has been really profound for me. I did a six week-long takeover of my dessert pop-up Never Ending Taste at Superiority Burger in the East Village, and that restaurant already has such a following every week. So I saw that just because I was occupying that space, there was an alliance from the regulars and they wanted to support the things that I was doing.

And then all the people from that pop-up followed me to my next pop-up a few months later in Williamsburg. That was really profound for me: That despite limited interactions and everything else, you’re really seeing that regulars and the guests coming to your business are infinitely more enthusiastic and supportive of what you’re trying to do.

There’s value in being open with your peers about your challenges and learning from one another.

Samson: “We reached out to all of our restaurant friends and it has been nice to be able to bounce ideas off of people and to really share ideas and best practices, and that I want to do that so much more. I won’t be so afraid of [thinking], ‘Gosh it was so slow today and I don’t want people to know that.’ Now it feels okay, because everyone is going through some issues. I love being able to heat someone say ‘Oh my god, we were so slow too!’ The camaraderie has been really great.”

Trubiana: “It’s good to see what other people are doing and how they’re handling it. We want [diners] who are being extremely safe and conscious to feel comfortable when they’re coming to us. So we started watching what other restaurants and bars were doing with their social media and messaging, and using similar ways to communicate in a positive way to our guests the things we’re doing for our safety and our customers.”

There are so many creative alternatives to the traditional restaurant setup.

Pickowicz: “This idea of the pop-up within the context of restaurants has been really exciting to see flourish in New York City. It’s a much lower lift then, say, having a lease on a space or having investors; it allows for people who aren’t brand names to have a chance to share their food with communities. And then we’re seeing those pop-ups turn into brick and mortar spaces. So I’m really interested in following that thread which is people being able to develop and establish a relationship with your guests through this idea of an ephemeral pop-up but then eventually be able to transition that business model to something that seems equitable and profitable. Hopefully we can continue to see these flourish.”

Trubiana: “I’m hoping people can see that a small, local business can not only be as convenient as HEB, Amazon, or another giant corporation but actually safer. So instead of going for meal kit at a giant grocer, people can continue to support local businesses in creative ways.”

Pickowicz: “What you’re seeing is a lot of restaurants pivoting to a more market-driven setup, and businesses are creating beautiful gifts for the holidays like outdoor blankets. It feels like a joy to spend money that way on those kinds of places and I think for some of those people that model has been really successful and sustaining.”

Watch the entire panel conversation:

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