By Dominic Patten
Senior Editor, Legal & TV Critic
Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that already has claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email email@example.com.
“What’s been fascinating and gratifying is the regulars who we consider family are reaching out at an exponential rate and they’re just trying to figure out a way to help us,” Craig’s owner Craig Susser says of his Melrose Avenue restaurant, which is pivoting to keep the lights on in this period of the coronavirus pandemic. “They’re helping us and we’re helping them.”
Even before Craig’s opened its doors in 2011, the cozy restaurant was a Hollywood hot spot and has remained so to this day. However, with stay-at-home orders across Los Angeles County to help push down growth in confirmed cases of COVID-19, few industries have been hit as hard as the dining business. Many once-packed joints have had to shutter, lay off staff and cease ordering from suppliers with indoor gatherings severely restricted in cities and towns.
Yet, with a pick-up and delivery menu still on offer (check it out here), Craig’s keeps going.
On another day of juggling this new reality, Susser discusses how they are keeping the lights on, the importance of loyalty to your people and your customers, and some surprises that have emerged out of all this.
DEADLINE: So, how did you first start dealing with this, as the seriousness and societal implications of the coronavirus became clear?
SUSSER: The first thing we had to deal with was how serious is this, and it just got incredibly more serious by the day. So you’re concerned about two things. You’re concerned about your employees and you’re also concerned about obviously all the clients.
You can feel the fear, it’s palpable.
The interesting thing about this is that it really levels the playing field. It doesn’t matter who you are, and it doesn’t matter what you do. It’s being felt across every industry and every person. So instantly it went from social distancing to maybe limiting the number of reservations, to all of a sudden on Sunday the mayor coming out saying all restaurants are closed. So you do food to go.
DEADLINE: Now, you guys have been in the food to go business for a while. Was that a built-in safety net once the lockdown started?
SUSSER: Yes, a lot of restaurants, unfortunately, were not set up for food to go and delivery. For that’s always been kind of a big part of our business in that we’re comfort food. That’s comfort food regardless of whether it’s in your house or in our dining room. So we’re a little unique in that way, so we instantly made the decision to go in that direction.
DEADLINE: What was next?
SUSSER: Then I had to make a big decision, as a business owner, it’s easy to say that we’re all one big family when everything’s rolling, right. It’s really hard to say that when the bottom drops out.
DEADLINE: How did you reconcile the potential two extremes?
SUSSER: I said to all of my employees, look, we’re going to see this through together, we’ll find a way to do it. We’re lucky that we have an income stream, however limited it is.
I basically went to the entire crew and I said here’s the bottom line, if for us to stay together and for nobody to go on unemployment, we’re going to have to ration back hours. I said I will supplement your tips to a certain extent. The salaried employees will take a cut and I won’t be taking anything out of the restaurant.
DEADLINE: What was their reaction?
SUSSER: They got, it, they understood that’s about the only way that it works for us to go forward. It’s really about budgeting and seeing if you can make it. The hard part is not having a handle on when it ends. You’ve got to understand, we were first budgeting for two weeks, then we’re budgeting for four weeks, now we’re budgeting for six, eight, 10, 12, you tell me.
DEADLINE: We’re seeing layoffs and cutbacks all over the industry now, and I know in the restaurant, bar and café business it is even more brutal with the restrictions on gatherings by the city and state as well as the hard drop in revenues. So, I get it as a person wanting to keep your staff, but as the owner of the joint, how do you make it work with the uncertainty?
SUSSER: So, I had to ask myself, how do I, as a business owner, at this point in time, turn my back on them? How do I say, look, the people that have helped make this place, this place, sorry but I got to let you go? Wasn’t going to do that, just wasn’t.
So I had to find a way to make it good for all of us.
I think what we’re doing is the right way to do it. I think it’s good karma. I think it’s also one of the reasons we’re being supported by everybody in the industry and so many people are ordering food to go from us. So I want to honor that and respect that. That also makes us who we are.
DEADLINE: How has it been these first few weeks with all the necessary restrictions for health and safety coming in tighter and tighter from the city and state?
SUSSER: Well, let’s just say that food delivery has increased considerably for us in the past few weeks from what it was before …
DEADLINE: Sounds strong …
SUSSER: Yes, you have to keep in mind food margins can be limiting when stacked against all the other business costs.
What’s been fascinating and gratifying is the regulars who we consider family are reaching out at an exponential rate and they’re just trying to figure out a way to help us. They want to buy food. They want to buy gift certificates. Also, I think when they get a bag of food from Craig’s, it’s something in their day that’s normal. They’re helping us and we’re helping them.
DEADLINE: Normal seems so abstract right now, with everything, even the bottom line, in flux …
SUSSER: Absolutely. Everybody’s trying to figure out how this affects their business and when is it going to open up again. I mean, it’s not just a matter of every person for themselves. It’s literally where is the end of the road? That’s what everybody’s grappling with.
So from a person perspective what’s amazing is the outreach of our clientele to support the restaurant. The amount of food to go through our delivery service is amazing but also, we’ve opened up the restaurant so people can call directly and place an order. Then since our servers are on the payroll, they’re delivering to people’s houses. So not only do you get the food that you’re looking and makes you feel comfortable. You actually get to see a familiar face that you’re used to seeing from the restaurant.
DEADLINE: Is that an approach you would recommend to others who are trying to keep their restaurants and cafes going right now?
SUSSER: Look, we’re one in a thousand. We’re really lucky. There’s a lot of restaurants that aren’t that fortunate to have the food to go business. My heart breaks for restaurants that are newer that don’t have that customer relationship. It’s an incredibly difficult business on a good day. During these times it’s almost unbearably difficult, and you’re just trying to figure out how to make sure to keep you crew together, because we’ve all been together for nine years. You’ve got to remember, I have very little turnover, very little.
DEADLINE: I know, which like you said about familiar faces, is something that I think people love about coming to Craig’s. To that end, another concern that I know lots of people have is about how food that they ordered is prepared. What are you guys doing in that regard?
SUSSER: First of all, what we’re doing is we’re obviously following all safety precautions, all Health Department procedures, and all CDC procedures. So everybody’s wearing gloves, everything’s being packed accordingly, handles are being wiped down. We’re doing contact-free deliveries. So we’re doing all the steps that we can to make sure that it’s a completely safe transaction.
By the way, people should know, that food to go from restaurants is considered one of the safest ways to get food. That’s been well-publicized by a lot of people because we’re used to dealing with food and we’re used to following health and safety restrictions – long before coronavirus became the new reality.
DEADLINE: Italy and Spain, and increasingly New York City, are going into total lockdown. What happens here to you if that becomes the case in L.A. County to get a hold of the spread of the virus?
SUSSER: Then you’re basically putting the economy in a coma and then we’re all in the same boat. So it is a worst-case scenario, but it treats everybody equally. So nobody comes out of it well, it’s like the game of freeze.
So that’s like the worst-case scenario and I really hope that we don’t get there. I hope that the Italy model is not our model. I hope that there is a model in between what’s happened in China and Singapore and South Korea and between Italy and Spain. I hope there’s a gray area that we’re lucky enough to hit.
DEADLINE: The mayor has talked about this lasting up to two months at least in L.A. Now I know Craig’s is in West Hollywood, but I think the same estimations exist. Still, how do you see the place opening up once things are safe?
SUSSER: Oh, gosh. I haven’t even really thought that far ahead. All I’m trying to do is play it day by day.
We’re just literally hitting singles up the middle. I’m hoping that people are ordering food to go. I’m hoping that I can make the next payroll, and I hope that I can keep my team together. My hope, having some people in my family in the medical industry, is you’ve got the entire world and every single resource available working on one virus. I can’t imagine that we won’t get a handle or at least be able to mitigate the symptoms in six months’ time.
That being said, if we can just weather this and see this through then when they do decide to let restaurants re-open, I think it’ll probably be a slow opening. Meaning limiting the number of diners, limiting the space between people, limiting the number of people that are actually working, at least for a little while.
DEADLINE: With everything that has occurred over the past few weeks, where the once unimaginable has become the normal, and all the shifts and changes you’ve had to make to keep the lights on, what has surprised you out of the business?
SUSSER: [Laughs] It’s interesting you asked that. We’ve got this Craig’s vegan ice cream, and we offered it online. What’s interesting is we’re seeing a big ramp-up in online ice cream sales because I think people are just looking for something normal and sweet and fun and something that’ll lift people’s spirits.
Interesting to see in the economy where people are going.
I just got a phone call from Goldbelly where we offer our chocolate pizza. The chocolate pizza sales are doing really, really well. They’re also looking to see if there’s other menu items that we would consider putting into R&D and developing that people love to eat in the restaurant that maybe people can get in other cities.
I get it, as we’re kind of all locked into our places, we want comfort food. We want things that make us feel better. So it’s just we’re doing everything we can and we’re actually experimenting with a few things right now to see if we can’t broaden our relationship with Goldbelly. And, truthfully, we’re just happy to see that the ice cream is putting a smile on people’s faces.
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