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The Sunshine Economy

The Sunshine Economy: Restaurants And Coronavirus

Courtesy of Edgar Leal
Edgar Leal stands in the empty dining room of his Wynwood restaurant, Leal Bistro. He has cut worker hours and created a special comfort food menu as the restaurant industry has shifted to only take-out and delivery in response to COVID-19 closings.

The sounds bounced off walls in empty restaurant dining rooms and cafes.

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Edgar Leal's voice echoed in his empty 50-seat restaurant, Bistro Leal, in Wynwood. Stephen Sawitz would normally hear  "the shells from the stone crabs being dropped in the buckets" in his resataurant, Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach. The bakers and wait staff at El Bagel could easily hear Sheryl Crow singing over the speakers on Saturday morning as they worked to fill online orders.

South Florida restaurants have gone quiet in the battle against the spread of COVID-19. Owners and employees hope the businesses don't go silent.

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Stephen Sawitz, Joe's Stone Crab

When Miami-Dade County decided to close restaurants except for takeout and delivery, it made the announcement at a quintessential South Florida dining room — Joe’s Stone Crab in South Beach.

On a normal night, more than 50 people — wait staff, bussers, and bartenders — would be working the room. "You'd hear the shells from the stone crabs being dropped in the buckets," Sawitz said. "But that's not what's going on right now."

With it's fisheries, processing facility and shipping business, almost 450 people work at Joe's. Now it's 45 to staff the only business it is allowed to operate — take-out and delivery.

"We're going to operate our payroll for everybody for two weeks," Sawitz said. "We have to take care of our employees. Nobody will lose their health insurance at all."

Abe Ng, Sushi Maki

Abe Ng called it the "toughest decision" of his profession life when he had to layoff workers at Suski Maki, the restaurant chain he operates with his wife. Since opening in 2000, Ng has diversified the company with catering, restaurant and counter operations. The catering business has disappeared. Restaurants can only offer take-out and delivery. Some of his counters at local universities are closed, but those at regional Whole Food grocery stores remain open.

"We are on bare minimum staffing right now," Ng said. "We've got one sushi chef, which normally there may be three. We've got a wok cook where usually there's there's two."

Administration staff have taken pay cuts ranging from 10 percent to 20 percent. Part-time hours have been cut and some positions have been eliminated.

"A typical restaurant has dozens of employees for us. And when we're down to six to eight, we're doing our best to keep as many people employed as possible."

Matteson Koche, El Bagel

After running a popular food truck for a couple of years, Koche rented a storefront about a year ago and began planning for a permanent location. But before restaurants were ordered to close except for take-out and delivery, Koche made the decision to keep the public out of his bagel shop, while still selling bagels.

"We opened three weeks ago," he said, "so we were just getting our feet wet and how to run the operation in general and then (had) to kind of flip it on its head."

What he did was turn to technology to stay in business. The store puts on a morning message on Instagram when it is ready to take orders. Customers use El Bagel’s website and pay online. They then get a text message when their food is ready.
"The sales that are coming through are enough to keep us alive and keep all the staff on board for the time being. At this point, we are going to be able to sustain for the near future."

Gone are the lines at the counter. There’s no one inside the shop except for employees who are baking, making sandwiches, bagging the orders and walking bags of bagels to a folding table just inside the open front door. People come up — one at a time, standing at least six feet away — and get their order.

And when the daily supply of bagels is sold, El Bagel sends out another Instagram message. On Saturday, it sold its 850 bagels in about two hours.

Edgar Leal, Leal Bistro

Edgar Leal's restaurant in Wynwood shares his name last, but he pronounces them differently. He said his last name is pronounced "Leel," like it was in New York. But it became "le-AL" in South Florida. "That's a Miami thing," he said.

He, his wife and four employees work at the restaurant he opened a year ago. He created a comfort food menu for take-out when he saw fewer and fewer diners come into the restaurant in late February and early March.

"We have lasagna — beef lasagna, salmon lasagna, and lamb lasagna. We're doing it to order," he said.

He has cut back on employee hours, but hasn't cut jobs. Instead, cooks alternate days so everyone works some hours. Leal has called his landlord to start the difficult conversation about rent before the first of the month. His rent is due by the 5th. "He said, 'Well, we'll speak back in two weeks to see what's going on.'"

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.