Hi there. In the midst of all the change, I forgot to reach out to you all with an update. Sorry about that.
We, along with every other bar/restaurant, were faced with a problem and, as chefs, when presented with a problem we are taught to come up with a solution. The instinctual side of cooking kicks in and an immediate response is necessary. Often, it’s as simple as lowering the heat of a pan or adding more salt. In this case, however, the problem was much more severe.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, dine-in restaurants were forced to close but were given the option to offer take-out and/or delivery. To me, part of problem-solving is the ability to adapt, so full closure of Berlu was not even a consideration. As a restaurant owner I have a responsibility for the safety of my guests but, just as importantly, I feel a responsibility for the livelihood of my staff. This was the driving force that led me to adapt and to change our tasting menus to a take-out concept, instead of simply closing. If the concept was able to support the payroll of my staff during this time, it would be deemed a success.
Weeks before any order to close was instated, we were already feeling the effects of the virus. Many of our guests are tourists so reservations made months in advance were postponed due to travel bans. Soon after, local diners were becoming fearful of exposure and they began requesting confirmation of the necessary precautions that were recommended to restaurants by the Center of Disease Control (CDC). Inevitably, their concerns outweighed the risks and we started seeing more and more cancellations. Our policy typically safeguards against last-minute cancellations, but compassion and leniency were necessary for this situation as many were fearful for their health. So, nights that had been fully booked for weeks were slowly reaching break-even points, as we had allowed many of our guests to reschedule those reservations. A change was necessary.
One late night, I got together with a good friend and we discussed my options for the coming weeks. Many states had already issued dine-in closures, so we anticipated that that was to come. A few ideas were bounced around and I ultimately decided to create a bento box to-go. It was manageable for us to execute, easy to be eaten as take-out, and it was something I was still proud to serve as it shared the same ethos as Berlu. The next morning I reached out to the press to make it official and three days later we were serving bento boxes as take-out. Word got out and the bento boxes were a hit, as we sold more than twice the amount expected. Guests were happy, the staff was happy, and I was grateful for the support. Even so, after the first day, I began to feel uncertainty and I questioned morally whether it was the correct decision to stay open.
The necessary measures were taken to ensure the take-out concept would be safe, but what I came to realize was that there were many other variables involved that we could not control.
None of us had been quarantined at that point, as the transition to the bento box concept was immediate. We couldn’t honestly know if we had had contact with the virus and if we could potentially be spreading to others. Cleaning measures were taken, but what we hadn’t taken into account were the variables involved in the staff’s commute to the restaurant, as many relied on public transportation. Pre-paid/curbside pickup may seem like the safest solution for diners because there is little to no human interaction, but with the increased trips in one’s car, comes an increased level of exposure to other variables e.g. the need for gasoline. From what I’ve seen, gas attendants don’t wear gloves or masks nor have I seen them sanitize between pumps.
Realistically, human exposure is inevitable as food & household supplies need to be purchased. The ideal situation is to plan ahead of time and to go to the grocery store 1-2 times per week. This a more efficient trip as it will sustain a person or family for multiple days rather for one meal that I was providing as a bento box.
In the end, I felt as if I was luring diners into unnecessary exposure and uncontrollable variables that could potentially affect them as well as my staff. These became my greatest concerns and the reasons why I ended take-out.
I don’t blame others for staying open nor do I look down on them for not sharing my beliefs. It’s a difficult decision to make, especially since we’ve been given an ambiguous directive from our government leaders. Furthermore, as chefs it’s in our nature overcome, to solve, and to provide sustenance. The ambiguity is also unfair for the diners as they are given mixed messages, being told to stay in while also being told to support small businesses and to help keep restaurants alive.
So, what is the solution? I don’t really know…but what I do know is that the right decisions are usually the easiest to make. For me, once I was able to step away from my role as a chef and a businessman and realize what mattered most, the health of our community, my decision to discontinue take-out was quite easy and much swifter than my decision to adapt to a take-out option.
Again, I am extremely grateful to all of you that came out to support our bento concept, including our new friends and neighbors that have shown up because of it. I also appreciate all of the messages checking in on how I was doing. It’s incredibly humbling to have this support.
In times of struggle, it’s important that we see the good that comes of it. We are saddened by our closure, but we will emerge again with a sense of our community stronger than ever.
With love and care to you and your circles,
Portland, OR 97214