For the past decade, Bini Pradhan has cooked her way through every crisis in her life with her young son by her side. In the last few weeks, Pradhan, chef-owner of the popular momo business Bini’s Kitchen, has endured anxiety-ridden days of despair, sleep-disturbed nights, and a lot of tears. In early March, her catering business plummeted, along with sales at her two San Francisco locations, as large companies encouraged employees to work from home due to concerns over COVID-19. Last week, another blow: The San Francisco shelter-in-place order prohibited dining in at restaurants, placed a halt on group gatherings like Off the Grid where Bini’s beloved Nepalese dumplings are a big hit, and shuttered schools, which will now be closed until at least May 1. Forced to lay off her staff of 18, Pradhan launched a GoFundMe campaign for her workers at the same time she had to take on more responsibility for her son’s education: explaining fractions, checking spelling, and taking him on long walks through Golden Gate Park for much-needed physical activity.
Pradhan is seeking small-business assistance, asking her landlords for a break on rent on her two restaurants, and in discussions with investors about loan repayments. At the same time, she and her sister continue to make frozen momos for loyal clientele, available for curbside pickup, at her Howard Street restaurant to keep hope — and a business she’s poured her life savings into — alive. She agreed to take time to talk about trying to keep her food business viable in the middle of the pandemic while her son is being homeschooled. But could the call wait until she finished helping her 10-year-old with a history assignment?
It could. Her child, she says, is doing just fine. “This crisis has taken a tremendous toll on all of us, but caring for my son, who is very independent, self-sufficient, and understanding, is not my most pressing concern,” says Pradhan, a single mother who has endured plenty of adversity in her life, including fleeing from Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Her son, Ayush, accompanies Pradhan to her SoMa restaurant most days from their Inner Richmond home, conscientiously working his way through a packet of school assignments compiled by his teacher while Pradhan makes momos and juggles myriad operational and administrative duties. A straight-A student in the fifth grade, Ayush keeps in touch with his teacher and classmates through text, email, FaceTime, and Zoom. Pradhan is never far away, though, ready to answer questions, offer encouragement, or participate in video school meetings for parents and students.
There is a global crisis, the bottom is dropping out of the restaurant industry, and culinary professionals like Pradhan are trying to keep their heads above water. At the same time, they are expected to care for their children around the clock and continue their education. In the midst of this unprecedented health and economic emergency, on both sides of the Bay, restaurant owners who are parents — some of whose businesses are temporarily closed, while others remain open for takeout and delivery with skeleton crews — say homeschooling children or having their children underfoot 24/7 isn’t a hardship they’re prepared to complain about right now. Still, some restaurant owners feel ill-equipped to handle the demands of serving as a substitute teacher for what could be weeks or even months. Others feel torn between the crushing urge to save their businesses with the equally compelling desire to tend to their children, many of whom are showing signs of distress, boredom, or abject fear about the future.
“One night last week we had all of them up at 4 a.m. with nightmares,” says Kantine chef and co-owner Nichole Accettola of her three children, who range in age from 9 through 18. Accettola’s husband is holding down the fort at home while she endeavors to keep their Scandinavian-inspired cafe, which remains open for takeout, afloat. “He’s trying to be there for me, as well as the kids, during a time when there are no playdates or other outside activities,” says Accettola, whose Market Street cafe is known for its sweet and savory porridge, smorrebrod (open-faced sandwiches), and brunch boards. “He’s playing so many roles so I can go to work and put my head down.”
That’s what Pradhan is trying to do too. An immigrant from Nepal, in 2011 Pradhan escaped from a marriage marred by abuse; she left her Central Valley home with Ayush, then a toddler, and sought refuge at a domestic violence shelter. With the help of her sister and brother-in-law, she started over. In 2012 she joined La Cocina, the kitchen incubator that’s now scrambling to raise money to keep its family of businesses from going under. Her son knows the nonprofit’s kitchen well. “Ayush has always been a part of the business — he came with me in the car when I did my own deliveries in the beginning; we’d bring a bag of books and toys along for the ride,” says Pradhan, who had to let her babysitter go last week for the time being; because of the current crisis, there is no need for someone else to supervise her son or take him to after-school activities, which are also on pause due to the pandemic. “He understands the seriousness of what’s going on, and that we all have to stay safe, help each other, and be patient until this really horrible thing passes.”
Money is tight. On top of everything else, Pradhan and her sister send money home to cover expenses for their aging father, who was in intensive care recently following surgery. But, like each of the employers interviewed, Pradhan is quick to pivot to talk about the stress of caring for her “second family”: her employees, who now find themselves suddenly without work or with greatly reduced hours, their financial futures a huge question mark as the spread of the novel coronavirus continues to escalate and there is no end in sight for restaurant closures. “While my kitchen may have my namesake, it is not just myself. It is my team of amazing cooks, momo makers, dishwashers, cashiers, and so many more behind-the-scenes support crew,” she writes in her GoFundMe appeal. “These incredible people are much more than my employees. They are like family…We are heartbroken.”
It’s a common refrain right now. “This is a really critical and devastating time for small food businesses and the restaurant industry,” says Alicia Villanueva, who runs Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas, which began as a food cart and now boasts a 6,000-square-foot factory location in Hayward. Prior to the current health catastrophe, which has decimated the business, the factory produced around 40,000 tamales every month for corporate contracts, school vendors, festival events, and catering clients. Alicia’s is a family affair: This mother of three lives in Brentwood with her husband, who works in operations at the factory; two high schoolers; and a 27-year-old son who helps run the company. “This business represents the future for my family. Not just my family — for all the families who work with us,” says Villanueva of her crew of 24.
Normally, her younger children help out at the factory during school breaks, but they are at home right now — Villanueva says she wants them to shelter in place like almost everyone else. “We are struggling to stay positive and be creative. I am so grateful to be doing this with my son Pedro Jr., who works shoulder to shoulder with me,” says Villanueva, who was on the road last week meeting with grocery stores such as Monterey Market in Berkeley and Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco to find new outlets for her Mexican food. Her company is also pivoting to offer family dinner and care packages for pickup or delivery. “Without my kids, my husband, and my staff, I wouldn’t be where I am with this business. That’s why I’m working so hard to try to save it.”
Restaurant people are a resilient bunch. But this is an unparalleled industry-wide challenge with so many unknowns. What each business has in common: a precipitous drop in revenue — from 80 to 100 percent in many cases — with little warning in an industry that already survives on razor-thin profit margins with a minimum-wage workforce that largely lives paycheck to paycheck in the wildly expensive Bay Area. There is very little financial cushion for all concerned, a not-very-well-kept secret outed abruptly by a highly contagious plague.
That holds true for seasoned fine dining establishments run by veteran chefs as well as bootstrapped startups. The virus trajectory at the Michelin-starred Hayes Valley restaurant Rich Table, for example, has played out the same way it has for other restaurants: the initial cancellations by nervous diners, the temporary closure, the mandate to shelter in place until at least April 7, the mass layoffs, and finally, a GoFundMe campaign for out-of-work employees, whose numbers exceed 40. “Please remember that behind every porcini doughnut and sardine chip is a whole team of people who live and breathe hospitality,” reads the restaurant’s appeal. “A porter who cleans the restaurant, a prep cook who breaks down the produce, a line cook working their station, a host who greets you with a smile, a favorite server who guides your experience and remembers your birthday, a bartender who knows just how you like your cocktail, and a dishwasher who is really the one keeping it all moving.”
Restaurant couple Evan and Sarah Rich are desperately trying to keep their business on life support by continuing to run one of their fast-casual spinoff spots, RT Rotisserie in NOPA, which is offering its signature chicken, rice bowls, and hearty salads and sandwiches for pickup or delivery. Large orders — such as those for essential service workers at local hospitals — are helping to keep the lights on. Evan is running the kitchen with less than a handful of staff, while following stringent sanitation protocols to protect everyone’s health. Sarah is mostly working from home on administrative matters while tending to the needs of their two elementary school-aged boys and keeping tabs on two aging parents with various health concerns.
Her voice catching as she speaks, Sarah Rich doesn’t sugarcoat how worried she is about her staff and the fate of her restaurants as she adapts to her new role. “Look, I’m not a teacher; there’s a certain structure that kids need to learn, and that’s why they go to school,” she says. “I know some families have already come up with a schedule. I’m not that kind of person.” In the background, her boys are making an age-appropriate ruckus — they are 9 and almost 6 — alternating between building a fort on the dining room table and chasing the family cat in their Outer Richmond home.
Rich counts herself fortunate on so many fronts: Her boys’ favorite place to be is home, her husband is tending their business, regular patrons have donated generously, and she can take care of a lot of restaurant business remotely. Plus, the family has help at home: They hired an au pair back in January to handle after-school child care. “I fought it for such a long time — it sounds so privileged and bougie,” she says, “but we were spending a fortune on babysitters at night when I was doing events and Evan was at the restaurant. This setup is actually more affordable.”
The restaurant couple are trying to maintain some sense of stability during anxious times. “My husband is not a particularly emotional person — he holds things in — and through all of this I’ve seen a different part of him,” Rich says. “When he told the staff we were closing, he had tears in his eyes, and this is a man who never cries. Ever.” Together, she says, they are working their way through the stages of grief over a business they have spent the better part of a decade building. “It’s been a grind, of pushing every day to be the best possible restaurant we can be and always striving to be better. To have that immediately taken away without us having any control over it raises every kind of emotion: denial, anger, depression, all of it.” Her mood can swing, she says, from upbeat at a promising conversation about financial assistance to despair in learning of the COVID-19 related death of fellow chef Floyd Cardoz, all within the space of an hour.
Meanwhile, there are children to care for. She confesses to a “school” day when she and the boys didn’t get out of pajamas. “We are figuring this stay-at-home stuff as we go day-by-day. I like a clean, orderly house, I’ve had to let that go. The boys are ripping the place apart on a regular basis,” she says. “There are a lot of forts. I’m not sure the kids really get it: They know we have to stay inside because people are getting sick, but I think they think it’s a kind of party to skip school and stay home.” Still, there are unexpected positives. “I was working a lot of evenings before this happened: Now I’m home and more available at night. I think they like that and I’m really enjoying spending time with them too, even though the reason it’s happening is awful.”
Rich was working in New York City at the high-profile contemporary French restaurant Bouley when 9/11 happened. The fine dining stalwart had to close, but when it eventually reopened, business was better than ever, she says. This disaster feels similar and yet different. “The hardest part of every day is not dealing with the kids — it’s worrying about whether our industry will survive, our restaurants will continue, and we’ll be able to bring our employees back, who are like our second family, as cliche as that may sound,” says Rich. “I’m trying to stay positive not knowing how this is going to end. And that’s really terrifying.”
The challenges are big and small for restaurant families. Luis Estrada and Zenaida Merlin, another husband-and-wife culinary team, run D’Maize, a Salvadoran restaurant and catering company in the Mission District. Their son, Mateo, has been a constant presence in their food business, popular for its pupusas. Not right now. “He’s always liked to be included in the business. He’s very enthusiastic, energetic, and conscientious; he likes to help us in any way he can, by taking plates to the dishwasher, or tidying up,” says Estrada, who is mostly working solo while his wife stays at home with their son. “He’s a little bit frustrated right now because he can’t be involved. But he gets it.”
Chef-owner Dilsa Lugo of Los Cilantros has much more time to spend with her three children now, after she temporarily (she hopes) closed her restaurant at the La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley. She is trying to remain upbeat for her family and employees in deeply unsettled times. Like other restaurant chefs interviewed for this story, keeping the kids on course hasn’t been too difficult. She is worried for her employees and their families, though, and how they will pay the rent. Once the shelter-in-place directive hit, it was harder for some employees to come to work — they had young children or grandchildren to care for. Mostly, though, Lugo was afraid that her customers or staff could get sick; she made the hard call to shut her doors. “It’s just really, really scary right now. And really hard for everyone,” says Lugo, who counts herself fortunate to have a husband who is still employed; he works in construction, which is considered an essential service for now. “I talked with fellow female chefs and my staff before deciding to close; I wasn’t sleeping at night, I was so worried all the time. It was so sad to have to close. I just cried.”
At home now, she has turned to cooking as a comfort: She wants to learn how to make gnocchi. Her 9-year-old daughter Julieta wants to perfect gyoza. Her 15-year-old son Alvaro is eager to tackle croissants. The entire family, she notes with pride, already knows how to make tamales, sopes, and other Mexican staples. “Restaurant people never rest. We never sleep late. We are always moving and doing. To not be able to work in my restaurant is strange,” she says. “I cannot wait until things are back to normal — whatever that means now — and I can welcome back my staff and open my restaurant again.”
Few saw the COVID-19-induced dining industry nosedive coming. “This has been an incredible test for all small businesses: We have been working furiously to keep up with the mandates and changes, to stay in touch with other restaurant people, and think on our feet as fast as we can,” writes Oakland chef Romney (Nani) Steele, via email. Steele co-owns the Cook and Her Farmer, a cafe, oyster bar, and wine bar, with her partner, Steven Day. Hers is also a family affair: Her children, who are in their 20s and have extensive restaurant experience, have helped out from the start and stepped up during the crisis. “My adult children have been hands-down amazing,” writes Steele. Her son, Trevor Hudson, who lives in San Francisco and is dealing with a shift to online classes at UC Berkeley, handles a lot of operational details. Her bilingual daughter, Nicoya Hudson, arrived at the restaurant last week with her two young children in tow, ready to assist staff, most of whom are most comfortable communicating in Spanish. While Steele has focused on keeping the restaurant kitchen going, her children have created a GoFundMe page for staff, put an online store in place for takeout orders, and boosted social media messaging to alert customers to restaurant updates. “The whole experience has been surreal and yet also encouraging. Their moral support has kept me grounded,” Steele writes, “when I have felt like I’m about to implode they are there with reassurance: ‘Mom, we’re going to get through this.’”
While the kids reassure their mom, they are dealing with their own immediate needs. Nicoya Hudson, who has worked part-time at TCAHF since having two children of her own, was laid off along with much of the staff last week. Her husband, Gerardo Avila, was building a following for his pop-up and catering business Tacos y Chelas, which is also temporarily closed due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. A veteran sous chef, he is currently looking for work at grocery stores and cannabis clubs in what his wife describes as a humbling experience. Hudson spent last week helping her fellow TCAHF crew apply for unemployment and find sources of financial aid. “Having to let each and every one of my coworkers know that we can no longer offer them hours was heartbreaking,” she writes via email. “Technically, my mom did this part, but as a first language for all of my coworkers is Spanish, I often lead the communication. It hurt and even though I am in the same boat, I felt like I was letting everyone down.”
Meanwhile, at home, with child care not an option right now, Hudson is trying to create a sense of normalcy and routine, keep everyone healthy, and stay present for her children at an extremely stressful time financially. Next month’s rent due date is looming large. “It’s scary to not have foreseeable income, and it’s more frightening when you have children depending on you,” she writes. “We have accepted that we will depend on a credit card. We are grateful that we have resources available to us. We are keeping faith that things will get better… We are not alone in this, and our experience is not unique. So much of this is out of our control.”
Sarah Henry covers culture through the lens of food. She is the co-author of The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook: Indian Spice, Oakland Soul.