Wolfgang Puck on the restaurant industry crisis and the solution
Wolfgang Puck is one of the most famous chefs in the world. Arguably the first celebrity chef, he built a culinary empire with a catering company and dozens of restaurants. In Los Angeles, the Austrian chef is known for helping to start a dining renaissance in the 1980s with restaurants Spago and Chinois. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing shutdown have pushed him into politics, with a seat on President Trump’s economic council alongside chefs Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
We spoke with Puck, who is quarantining in Los Angeles, about the crisis facing the restaurant industry and his thoughts on a solution. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s happening with your restaurants?
Most of the restaurants are closed. We are supposed to open in Singapore soon. In Istanbul soon too. Here in L.A., we’re doing takeout at Spago, a little takeout at Bel-Air Hotel and a little takeout at Chinois. With all the overhead of a restaurant, I hope that when we reopen at Spago and Chinois, with some customers coming in and takeout, it will be enough to actually stay alive.
How was the transition to takeout?
I really believe that for every problem, we have to figure out how to solve it and make something through innovation. When we started takeout at Chinois, we were working with DoorDash. They charge 25% to 30% for every delivery. That is OK if you have a fast-food restaurant where the average check is $10. We changed to Tock, where people can put in the order and pick up at a certain time. That helped a lot.
I wanted to give people the restaurant experience, so instead of ordering a la carte, you get six dishes for $40. Some people send me pictures of how they plate things at home. At Spago we started selling fried chicken. You have to have enough ingenuity because people at home want change. If you see the same menu, even if it’s a good deal, it gets boring.
During mandated dine-in closures, these restaurants are offering takeout and delivery as the coronavirus pandemic keeps Los Angeles close to home.
Tell me about your work on the president’s economic council.
We’ve gone through many bad spots in our industry and we get through it. Hopefully I think Washington thinks the same. If not, we have to get politically organized. We employ more than 50 million people. It can be a huge political force.
We are supposed to go to Washington — I don’t know if I’m going — on Monday. We’ll see if I get an agenda and everything. I just don’t want to hang around to kiss somebody’s butt, it doesn’t matter who it is. I think if in Washington they can hear us and know what a big problem the restaurant business is in, and if we can be the spokespeople for so many people out there who have no voices.
The last time we talked with the president I didn’t know how many people were there. They had everybody from Jeff Bezos to the head of Walmart. Sure, against them we are just little fish. Totally unimportant. When we talked the first time with the president and talked to him about insurance, talked to him about the stimulus program, he was very interested in it and very much for it. I told him to send me an agenda [for Monday] and who is going. If there are 40 people meeting there at a long table with masks on, I don’t know if I’m going to go.
What would you say to people who criticize the president for choosing four chefs who are in charge of large brands to be on his council versus chefs who better represent small businesses?
We are using our voices because we can be heard. Chefs became really well respected, not just as good cooks but as business people. So I think for a small guy who has a little restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard or down in Long Beach, how is he going to call his congressman? The congressman has never heard their names. It’s very difficult to get something done. So we can speak for everybody and become more politically involved and really push harder for things that should be done for our industry.
For me, my life won’t change that much. If tomorrow everything falls apart, I can sell my house and then I’m still OK. But there are so many people who live from paycheck to paycheck. We are there for these people.
The people who criticize, I want to know what they are doing. I just got off the phone with Congressman Fitzpatrick. I talked with Thomas Keller this morning. I just did an interview on Fox. Why? Because they all watch the news in Washington. So I think if I can hit it home that we need an insurance payout and a stimulus, maybe they will act.
What’s the solution? What will actually help restaurants?
I know a lot of small restaurant owners who own little places with 10 to 15 employees and that’s really their livelihood. It’s not like they are going to make a lot of money. If they weren’t super successful before the virus, now it’s going to be really difficult to get out of it.
I really believe that we need the help of our federal government. The first thing would have to be the insurance companies. I paid business interruption insurance for the last 38 years. They make an excuse and say the virus is not really included in your insurance. Well, the virus really didn’t shut us down. The government shut us down. They should pay up. And the government should bail out the insurance companies the same way they do with the airline industry. That way the money will go immediately to the people who need it, to smaller restaurants. They can go to their insurance guys and claim business interruption and lost money during this time.
If we get a stimulus program, I think they will be able to survive. If you are a lawyer and you go to Spago for lunch, you can deduct that from your taxes. If everything is deductible, maybe people will be more inclined to go to restaurants and spend some money, which will employ a lot of people. We want people with money to spend their money in restaurants, so that way we can get back to a normal life.
What about the PPP loan program?
Well, that helps the employees for a little while, but what about after that?
The PPP was supposed to save our small restaurants and businesses. But where’s the money?
Did any of your restaurants apply for the PPP loan?
At Chinois we got some money. All of our restaurants are small, individual entities. It’s not like Ruth Chris steakhouse or Shake Shack. Chinois is its own small restaurant. We got the PPP loan because we have to pay the employees. If not, I would have to furlough all the employees. We got lucky at the Four Seasons in Maui. We own the restaurant there. It’s on the PPP program so all the employees are getting paid there. Same thing with Disney World. Thank God we have that [PPP] there. The employees are getting paid while all the Disney people are on furlough.
We don’t own the restaurants in the airports. But we have staff there. We got a PPP loan there but I looked at our bank account and I said you know what, we have enough money in the bank. I sent back $500,000 and said give it to someone who needs it. To me, every restaurant is different obviously, but we have to do the right thing. I don’t want to take advantage of the program if I don’t need it. I want to sleep at night.
What’s happening with your furloughed employees?
Altogether we have over 5,000 employees if you count worldwide. Some of them are furloughed, some of them are on the PPP program. We pay the health insurance and hopefully by the end of June or something we can open most of the places.
What does your plan for reopening look like?
We looked at some of our restaurants to see where we have enough space. At Chinois, if we put 30 people in there, with 50% occupancy that will be it. At Spago we are bigger, so maybe with 50% occupancy we could still seat 100 people. We changed the floor, we are painting and upholstering new booths. I’m going to bring in plants and stuff like that, trees, to make it a winter garden. I don’t want people to walk into a restaurant and see an empty space. I’m even thinking of putting a piano player at Spago so that people can hang out later at night and maybe have a cocktail or another drink. I want to create an ambiance of positivity. I don’t want people to come to the restaurant and talk about the virus all night long.
How has it been in Vegas, where you recently reopened your restaurant in Summerlin at reduced capacity?
People seem to be excited to go out. Families came with their kids. But hopefully we can move forward and keep our employees and our guests safe. If we can’t do that, we will relapse and go the other way. I’m really worried about that. That we can get enough testing. We have to test employees every day and take their temperature. Maybe we have to hire a doctor and every week he does random testing and we still take temperatures every day. Maybe we need a doorman outside to open the doors. Maybe we have to take customers’ temperatures. Obviously we have to have social distancing. Our employees are going to be wearing masks.
Amid new state and county guidelines, restaurant owners have little idea when dine-in services will resume.
What do you want people to know, and what should they be doing?
Support your neighborhood restaurants. Go to the small bars after they reopen. The big chains, the McDonald’s and so forth, will always survive. The small neighborhood restaurants are such a big part of the fabric of a city or a village and you don’t want them to disappear. We don’t want to have all of a sudden only big multinational restaurant companies. Go support local businesses and go often.
At Spago, someone picked up food for like $200 and left a $1,000 tip. One lady sent us $5,000 to Chinois and $5,000 to Spago for the employees.
What would you say to someone just starting out in the restaurant business or someone who just got out of culinary school?
The thing is, you have already experienced the worst thing ever. It’s like being born during the war. This is as bad as it will be. This is as hard as it can be to get a job with so much unemployment out there. Stay positive. It will get better.
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