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Food

The week everything changed

A detail from an illustration for Sunday’s Food print edition.
A detail from an illustration for Sunday’s L.A. Times Food print edition: Closed eateries meant sudden unemployment for many in the restaurant industry.
(Clay Hickson and Liana Jegers)

It took less than a minute for everything to change.

On Sunday night Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti addressed the city, telling everyone to do their part to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus through social distancing.

And then he did his part: He read off a list of new restrictions on life in Los Angeles that he had signed into law. In about 51 seconds, he outlined new prohibitions that turned the world we cover on its head.

In seven words — “banning and closing our bars and nightclubs” — he put an untold number of people out of work in an instant: bartenders, bouncers, dancers, porters and barbacks.

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He stumbled with the next part.

“Restaurants will be closed for dining inside those restaurants. But they will be places where we can get takeout, have delivery from or drive-through. And I encourage all Angelenos to help support these critical small businesses — the restaurants we love — in our neighborhoods by continuing to order from them and getting pickup or delivery.”

During mandated dine-in closures, these restaurants are offering takeout and delivery as the coronavirus pandemic keeps Los Angeles close to home.

This was a little after 8 p.m., when those critical small businesses were in the middle of dinner service. For the front-of-house staff — the hosts and servers, the sommeliers and those busing tables — the message was clear: You are now out of work. For cooks and kitchen workers, their ranks would be thinned, their hours slashed; in a matter of hours, many were laid off. Restaurant owners broke out their abacuses and called their lawyers and tried to understand what they could and couldn’t do.

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My colleague Andrea Chang wrote about how restaurants around town, many of which had never done takeout or delivery, were scrambling to think of new ways to make money.

“Chefs are used to stressful situations: long hours, razor-thin margins and the changing whims of the dining public. In the last few days, they’ve rallied: heavily pushing delivery and takeout as an obvious first step but also developing meal kits and taco ‘survival packs,’ encouraging people to buy gift cards and branded merchandise, boxing up unused inventory for sale, offering no-contact curbside pickup and flipping restaurant spaces to become retail shops.”

But as the week pressed on, everything felt like it wouldn’t be enough.

This slow-motion tragedy affecting every single food service business in Los Angeles — and, sooner or later, around the world — happened against a backdrop of everything in everyone’s lives being upended.

Street vendors were told to close. ICE executed raids. Farmers markets in Los Angeles County were given a reprieve, but small farms began to feel the effect of the sudden evaporation of restaurants as customers, and larger farms were confronted with new immigration restrictions that might leave cherries and strawberries rotting in the field.

Unemployment websites were overwhelmed, not working, a dead end. Dozens of efforts to organize arose — to raise money for the displaced workforce, to get leaders to pay attention and make a real plan to help small businesses and not just bail out airlines and cruise lines — but there was little feeling that any real help was coming.

And, then, both surprisingly and not, things got worse on Thursday. The entire state was put into some version of shelter-at-home, a term that meant little to most of us two weeks ago but now defined our daily lives now. It will be, at earliest, April 19 before normal looks anything like it used to in dining rooms and bars around the city. But with the decree from Sacramento having no official end date, no one knows for sure.

We have done what we can to cover this new reality. There are more questions and fears and uncertainty afoot in the food and restaurant world than I have ever seen in 20 years of working around it.

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We have no answers, not yet.

But we have you all in our thoughts. We’re doing what we can — I think lots of us are — but the feelings of helplessness and powerlessness are real.

Check on friends, take care of yourself, be kind. Somehow, some way, we’ll get through this.


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