While it might not be a household name for the average San Francisco diner, the Back of the House restaurant group is one of the city’s most prominent — and one of its most prolific, as it’s behind spots like pizza destination Beretta, upscale vegan spot Wildseed, and burger mini-chain Super Duper. Last week — prior to Monday’s region wide shelter-in-place ordered by public health officials to slow the spread of new coronavirus (COVID-19) — the company employed 1,281 people. Now, only 154 staffers remain.
According to former employees of the company who spoke with Eater SF, the first inkling they had that they had lost their jobs was a message from HotSchedules, a hospitality industry scheduling app. That the bad news was delivered without a personal connection was dismaying to many, one former worker says. “Why couldn’t someone have called me?” one asks. Others ask why the message was delivered only in English, given that much of the support staff doesn’t speak the language — nor do all have access to email. “It feels like they forgot their values,” a 7-year, now-former employee with the company says.
Adriano Paganini, who founded Back of the House in 2009, admits that the outreach was not ideal, but says “what about [the current crisis] is?” He says that the company’s first goal was to let workers know as swiftly as they could, and given that 88 percent of Back of the House’s vast staff had to be notified, the app was the best first step. After that, he said, chefs and managers knew to ensure that their workers heard the news, via phone calls, text messaging, and other platforms. “It is true that a lot of people did not hear directly from us,” Paganini said, but “my greatest fear was that we would miss someone and they would come out to the restaurant when they should be safe at home...and it’s not even open.”
Though the message included a link to where workers could apply for unemployment benefits, staffers say they were still in the dark regarding benefits and sick pay — and remained so until an hourly staffer circulated a petition (one that was signed by over 150 people, workers say) demanding more information. By Wednesday evening, the company had sent out a second message. This one asked workers to email requests for paid sick leave, but emphasized that official regulations on its payout aren’t clear, and that “from a financial perspective, the payout of sick leave is not something the company planned for, and the new guidelines have forced us to make difficult financial decisions in a very short period of time.”
According to Paganini, the company’s first priority was ensuring every worker was paid. It’s true, paying people for the hours they have worked is, indeed, the law, but in a time of crisis (an in an industry where, one insider recently put it to Eater SF, “even the big companies are living quarter-to-quarter”), even well-funded companies suddenly find themselves unable to make payroll. While Back of the House managed to issue final checks, sick leave for a vast number of workers felled by, say, a global pandemic wasn’t something the company had put money aside for. And now, he says, “we have no sales, and the bills are piling up. Rent is due at the end of the month. How are we going to make that?” It’s a question most workers and some (but not all) bosses have on their minds. No one seems to have an answer.
Out of Back of the House’s scores of restaurants, now only a few are open for takeout. Before this week, the group had eschewed delivery apps, but a deal with Caviar is apparently now in the works. “Everyone is scrambling,” says Jacob Cross, Back of the House’s vice president of marketing. “We never expected anything like this,” Paganini says, a phrase that feels almost like the nation’s motto this week.
Though the circumstances are out of his control, Paganini says that he still feels like “I have betrayed people...some of these people have built the company with me.” He says that the last thing he wants to do is lose hope, and that the current situation “breaks my heart.”
In addition to the financial insecurity, the layoffs, and the overarching sense of dread anyone in a coronavirus-impacted region now feels, there are new worries for him to manage. The company is just “trying to what we can to survive and not go bankrupt,” Paganini says. It needs to “stretch every little bit of cash” until it can reopen, but even as it pivots to a carry-out model, Paganini says he keeps asking himself, “Am I doing what’s right?” For example, he says, “I woke up last night because I had a worry about people touching the walk-up window and infecting a worker.”
The tension is evident in his voice, as it was in the voices of the workers to whom Eater spoke — and in every other voice any of us have heard this past week. But unlike past crises, like San Francisco’s 1989 earthquake or 9/11, Paganini says that “this feels worse.” After those calamities, he says, “People could come together, you could give them a hug. Now you can’t. We’re all isolated, and we’re all alone. When will we be able to connect again?”