Brooke Williamson | Courtesy Brooke Williamson

LA chef Brooke Williamson talks lockdown and customer generosity on Eater’s Digest

A funny thing happened at Playa Provisions, celeb chef Brooke Williamson’s LA restaurant, a couple weeks ago. When an order came through to the kitchen, the ticket featured the following note in the field for allergies or special requests: “Here’s the deal. We live in Texas, but back when traveling was a thing we loved you guys. So we want to buy someone breakfast today. If someone in [sic] staff is hungry, let them eat or just pick someone.”

Touched, Williamson posted the message to her personal and restaurant Instagram accounts. Followers started sending in more orders from around the country and then around the world. Some requested the food go to the next person who came through the door, some to staffers, some to people in need. In the end, over 200 customers participated in this burst of good will, allowing the restaurant to donate hundreds of meals.

“I think it was just such a testament to what people wanted to be seeing, and wanted to be involved in, and how people really just wanted to be part of something bigger and genuine,” Williamson says on this week’s episode of Eater’s Digest, where she tempers this feel-good story with the reality of the hardship restaurateurs like her are facing as they try to keep their businesses alive and staffers paid through the pandemic.

After we talk to Williamson, we discuss how Starbucks is helping with vaccination in Washington, Biden’s $15 minimum wage plan, the latest in the state of winter outdoor dining in New York, and more.

Listen and subscribe to Eater’s Digest on Apple Podcasts. And read the full interview with Williamson below.

Amanda Kludt: We have chef and restaurateur, Brooke Williamson with a feel good story, something that I’ve been craving all week. So Brooke, welcome to the show.

Brooke Williamson: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

AK: So, there’s this funny thing that happened that I saw on Instagram where a customer, I guess, bought your staff a meal, and then that spread to more and more customers. Can you explain what happened?

BW: Yeah. So, it was a Sunday morning and if you order directly through our website, it basically sends the tickets directly into the kitchen. And so, we got a ticket for a breakfast sandwich and the explanation on the ticket in the modifier section, where normally you would write like an allergy or a sauce on the side or something. The modifiers said, “Here’s the deal, we live in Texas, we won’t be picking this meal up, but we would like to donate it to someone who needs a good breakfast, whether that be a staff member or…” I don’t remember exactly what the ticket said, it’s posted.

Anyway, basically the gist of it was that they would not be picking that meal up and they wanted to donate it. And, they also ordered some cocktails. They ordered some canned cocktails, which came in through a separate ticket. But, it was such an unbelievably sweet gesture of someone who really just wanted to support one of their favorite restaurants from afar, and pay it forward to someone else. I posted a picture of that ticket on my Instagram, and people immediately started following in their lead, and it started this crazy snowball effect.

AK: That’s so cool. How many people ended up buying meals and writing in like that.

BW: Over the course of the next, I’d say three days, we got over 200 tickets.

It started sort of in a across the country way, and then it moved all over the world within… By the end of the first day, we were getting orders from China, and Africa, and Norway and Germany. It was insane how quickly this post spread and people started sharing with each other. And, I think it was just such a testament to what people wanted to be seeing, and wanted to be involved in, and how people really just wanted to be part of something bigger and genuine. And, within the first three days we got a lot of tickets, but then after that, we started seeing, we were being tagged in people placing orders to other restaurants all over the country. Which is really kind of where I hoped it would go, was that it would turn into a much larger movement than simply supporting us in our immediate community. But, that the voice was heard all over the world, really.

Daniel Geneen: What did you do with the food?

BW: Well, that first day we didn’t foresee it happening for more than one day.

The first day, there were a couple of tickets that specifically said like, “Please give this drink to the next person who walks in the door or…” And, we tried to follow that direction as much as possible, but there were a lot of orders that said, “Just give this to someone in need.” That first day we bought lunch and dinner for our local Playa Del Rey fire department. And then, I realized that this was something that would need to be sort of thought of on a slightly larger scale. And, I immediately put together an order of a couple of hundred meals to be delivered to a local hospital, so we did that like three days later. We also were able to send our staff home with a lot of food, and welcome staff in who are not currently employed to come in and pick up meals.

We’ve tried to offer that all along, but at this point we could actually afford to do that, so that was nice.

AK: Wow. That’s really fantastic. For context for our listeners, your restaurant Playa Provisions is in Los Angeles, and I imagine you’re still under a lockdown of no outdoor indoor dining.

BW: That’s correct. Yeah. Just take out and delivery right now, so.

Yeah, it’s been a trying couple of months. Our last day of service was the day before Thanksgiving. And so, we’ve been sort of waiting patiently, and cutting back on staff as we need to, waiting for that second round of PPP to be approved, but that’s where we’re at with no immediate change insight.

AK: What are you anticipating in terms of dining rooms being reopened?

BW: Well, I’m anticipating that probably patio seating will be the first thing to be reopened, which we’ll have to rebuild our patio that we took down in November.

And then, I would say probably gradually we’ll open percentages of availability in terms of in-house dining. But, I don’t see that happening immediately.

DG: How are people feeling about it now VS when the initial lockdown orders came out, that people were like so shocked about?

BW: I honestly feel like we were doing a really, really good job of maintaining really beautiful social distancing and safety protocols. We had been inspected multiple times by the County to make sure that we were following protocol. In my opinion, dining patios for restaurants who had to follow certain protocols were some of the safest places to be. Once this last shutdown happened, the city started building out these outdoor patios for people to pick up food and then sit outside.

And, there was no policing those areas, there was no one maintaining safety standards in those areas wiping down tables in-between customers, making sure that people were staying separated, making sure that people were wearing masks when they got up. Those were all things that we had become very good at doing. People did not get up from their tables to use the restroom without a mask on. People did not walk into my establishment without a mask on, but people were doing that all over the place, down the street outside.

So, it was devastating, really. We had kind of gotten back to the point of almost a full staff with an outdoor patio, and we had managed to keep our entire staff healthy through the course of many months. So, it was very frustrating, especially since restaurant patios were shut down, and certain other areas like dining food courts in malls were not immediately.

So, there was a lot to be frustrated about, hence my op-ed that I wrote in the L.A. Times, just because I felt like people weren’t hearing the voice of the restaurateur, they were hearing the voices of the county and the government. But, I think that there was definitely a sort of misunderstanding of what restaurants specifically were going through from the voice of the people who run those restaurants.

DG: Yeah. So, are you moving to Austin?

BW: Not quite yet, I still have one restaurant that I have to follow through with and maintain. I’m doing my best to make sure that our staff has a place to come back to.

DG: How’s delivery been? Have you at least gotten to experiment with some delivery concepts?

BW: Yes. You know what? I can not complain. We are in a very fortunate position to have a lot of eyes on us at any given moment, and we’re across the street from the beach, and people come pick up ice cream and go down to the beach, or pick up food. And, we have a very, very supportive community that we love and appreciate so much. But yeah, like the need to stay exciting and stay relevant in a time like this is definitely there. It’s also very difficult for me personally, to be creative right now when it comes to ensuring the safety and comfort of our staff, and our customers comes first, and then there’s like, “Well, what are you doing for Valentine’s Day?”

It seems like they’re very sort of divided subjects with equal importance right now. But, because people can’t go out to eat at restaurants for Valentine’s Day, so they expect us to be an option, offering something new and creative. So, there’s Super Bowl weekend, and then there’s Valentine’s Day, and then there’s something right after that. And, it’s a matter of coming up with an entirely new menu and different reheating instructions. And, while that’s all fun and creative, it’s sometimes hard to get into that creative headspace one time after another in a moment like this.

AK: Yeah. Especially when you’re in survival mode, and just trying to get through it. That’s so frustrating.

BW: With a very limited staff who are all working very hard trying to pick up 12 jobs,-

DG: Yeah, I can’t imagine. So…What are you doing for Valentine’s Day?

BW: I just had staff meeting yesterday. We were discussing the menu. I think we have it nailed down, but it’s basically a four course menu for two. Still pricing it out, so I’m not sure exactly the price points, but it will be available for pickup on the 13th and 14th. And, it will be provided cold so that people are heating and assembling food themselves. And, that’s kind of what we’ve fallen into doing for all of the major holidays. And, we’ve found it’s definitely a wonderful supplement to our everyday business to be able to offer these special menus, and something that the community also very much appreciates.

AK: Awesome. Well, our listeners can find Brooke at Playa Provisions, or just send a meal to her staff by going to their website.

BW: Can I tell you… Sorry to interrupt. Can I tell you the greatest thing, not the greatest thing, one of the most heartwarming things that I saw from that Pay it Forward Movement, that I’m not sure if people followed up on toward the end of those, like three, four days of us getting tickets. One of the women who submitted, she’s a teacher and on her Instagram profile, she had her Amazon Wish List for her classroom students, or for her classroom supplies. And, someone went and sort of tracked her down, and tried to figure out who started this whole thing. And then, went and purchased her entire Amazon Wish List, and fulfilled her classroom needs. And, several of the other teachers who were involved, classroom needs.

So I got to say that, that whole experience was just so heartwarming and such a light in the midst of a lot of darkness. And, to all of you out there who participated or followed along, thank you. We are beyond touched and appreciative till the end of time.

AK: Ah, I love it. Well Brooke, and good luck with all the special holidays and hopefully patio dining opens soon.

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