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Vegan Business Owners Share Coronavirus Challenges and Hopes for the Future

Checking in with three small business owners about the biggest changes to their business and what they’re expecting from the future

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Lagusta Yearwood with a staffer in her kitchen. Photos: Liz Clayman for Tenderly

Every restaurant in the U.S. has struggled in the last few weeks to figure out how to continue operations and keep employees housed, fed, and healthy during the Coronavirus pandemic without sufficient guidance or aid from governmental bodies. Vegan food businesses that have made workers a priority even in the best of times — and often struggled with the balance of thriving as a business, providing high wages and benefits, and not asking exuberant prices of customers — are asking questions about the sustainability of an industry that runs on paper-thin margins even when things are good. As Dirt Candy and Lekka Burger chef-owner Amanda Cohen , would going back to normal be good enough?

To understand better what these small vegan business owners are thinking, I asked Chris Kim of Monk’s Meats in Brooklyn, Shannon Roche of Crust Vegan Bakery in Philadelphia, and Lagusta Yearwood of Lagusta’s Luscious, Commissary, and Confectionery in New Paltz and New York City, New York, the same five questions about how they’re conceiving of their work today.

What have been the biggest changes to your business since the pandemic began?

Chris Kim: We switched over to 100% delivery and we revived our original all city delivery model (limited to Manhattan, Brooklyn and parts of queens this time). We did this for a couple years when we were first starting out and it got to be too much work for the money we were making (especially as our pop up events got busier and more profitable). We are turning back to it as a way to (1) keep up our kitchen staff and (2) help our customers stay sheltered in.

Shannon Roche: The biggest changes to our business since the pandemic began is not being able to go to work since our city is under a shelter in place mandate now, and deciding what we can put off paying in order to have more funds to give to our staff and to maintain Crust as a viable business once this is over.

We have always had a fairly easy time getting our accounts receivable paid, but we are currently owed 30K by coffee shops around Philadelphia who are now all closed and we are the bills being put off because they can’t pay us. I’m hoping that money is being used to take care of their own staff, but it doesn’t help our staff either.

It’s also been several years since either Meagan or I have worked for someone else, and seeing a lot of the articles about how staff were treated during this crisis has been a reminder of a lot of things we have been doing right and want to keep growing/pushing in the right direction- PTO, health care, consistent and fair scheduling, equal tip outs, profit sharing, and honestly just transparency. I saw reports of friends finding out their restaurant or coffee jobs closed by reading instagram posts before they were even personally alerted, and we were way ahead all of that and communicating daily with everyone about our plans.

Lagusta Yearwood: Labor. I don’t have many people who can safely work.

What were the biggest challenges beforehand?
CK: The weeks leading up to the shut down of restaurants we’re kind of crazy. We were starting to ramp up to our busy outdoor season and things were looking really good then the warnings started to circulate and business fell off about 40–50% in a week. We were having meetings with our bar partner almost every day about how to tighten up sanitation and be proactive. By the weekend before the shut down, business was off by 60% of the weekend before. People around the bar were starting to wonder if the flu-like symptoms they were experiencing were the flu or covid-19 and our bar partners were planning on closing down that Sunday anyway. I decided to keep the kitchen open because I just couldn’t lay off my cooks and delivery staff. They have no safety net and I can’t afford to pay people for weeks without cash coming in.

SR: Being able to offer health care as a small food business has been almost impossible to date. We finally found a plan that we are able to offer to all of our staff through an amazing group here called Cooks Who Care that was suppose to have coverage begin in May but our enrollment meeting got postponed, and we don’t have a new date for that yet.

Going through a huge growth spurt in the summer of 2019 meant that there were times when we couldn’t prioritize training new staff as effectively as they needed to be and were just trying to get through the holidays, so we have been retroactively making up for it during our slower months of the year and keeping our labor costs a little high to focus on training and efficiency.

We also were facing challenges regarding making sure we were growing the right segments of the business to be profitable. We are 85% wholesale and 15% catering/direct to customer and are trying to switch that up most likely to keep allowing us to grow and give better yearly raises and increase PTO.

LY: Hahaha lol, wringing profit from the gods of capitalism.

How are you conceiving of the future now? In terms of days, weeks, months? How is that affecting how you keep inventory and what you’re cooking?
CK: I’m trying to plan on a new “reality” for the business but it’s nearly impossible. Things are changing every day. No one knows what’s happening economically. And medically, this is just starting here in NYC Where a lot of people thought “this is going to be a couple of weeks”, I know we are going to be shut down for a couple of months and even after, the recovery isn’t going to be back to business as usual. I’m pretty sure Smorgasburg and the big music festivals that are our bread and butter are not going to happen this year or are going to be much much smaller than last year. I’m keeping my menu very small at the moment and trying to sell it in larger portions to move enough produce. I’m expecting that even when the first wave of this ends and we can reopen our dining room, that the restaurant business is also going to change dramatically post-pandemic. Still trying to figure out what that means but I have the feeling that the dominance of packed delivery food is going to be a new norm for a while.

SR: As of right now we aren’t in the kitchen at all, so inventory has been minimized to what will keep for the duration of a few months from now at least, and anything perishable was given to our staff and local food banks. We have put a complete halt on any further inventory purchases in order to spend our dollars on payroll for our staff that cannot currently work instead.

We are conceiving time in a matter of weeks right now. We are trying to mentally prepare for the worst — so planning to not be in the kitchen for months, but of course we hope for the best.

LY: I am optimistic. We’re small so we can pivot and make things work. My worry is that so much of it is dependent on my health, my energy, my bodily strength, my mental state in ways it hasn’t been in years. If I got sick the system would collapse now, it hasn’t been like that for a while. I’m just going day by day. My menu is just three main items plus a few sides and drinks. We’re just doing what we can manage.

What is your main priority right now as a business owner?
CK: My main priority is feeding my staff. I want to be able to keep our delivery volume up enough to keep people working and keep their families fed. My second priority is to make sure people have food to eat. All the food people hoarded two weeks ago is going to be gone in a few weeks tops and this quarantine is going to last months. There are so many people out of work, I’m trying to provide a certain percentage of what we make to people who are in need/food insecure. It’s hard to plan for with revenue going up and down daily but I’m in the business of feeding people and there are so many people who are out of work at the moment, I know that people need help.

SR: Our main priority is to take care of our staff’s needs the best that we can, which includes ensuring that they have a job to come back to when this is all over and it’s actually safe for them to come back to work. This means not paying ourselves for a very extended period of time and getting creative about potentially selling some ownership in the bakery for cash flow when we reopen, etc.

There’s been a lot of suggestions for attempting to switch to a temporary delivery model, and while we totally understand why many places are doing that- we also don’t want our staff to put their safety at risk trying to get to work and don’t want to encourage more people to place orders for things that are truly not essential and increase the need for more delivery drivers/etc. It’s a tricky spot to be in, but we believe the ethical choice right now is discouraging consumption (surprisingly capitalism probably isn’t the solution to a problem created by capitalism).

We are applying for grants and staying in the loop with what programs and packages are being made available to small businesses. We assisted our staff with applying for unemployment and hoping that some of these bills to assist with sick time laws will mean our staff can have their sick time back to use for the rest of the year.

We are also trying to use this time to stay caught up one some other plans- like completing a B impact assessment, potentially creating some online cake decorating videos or baking tutorials. We are trying to get creative.

LY: Not closing permanently.

When, as we all hope it will soon be, this situation is over, what are some broad changes you want to see in how the food and hospitality industry functions? What support should there be on the state level, if at all? Basically: What do small food businesses that are worker-focused need in order to not just survive but thrive and provide good jobs?

CK: First off, EVERYONE NEEDS UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE. It’s a basic responsibility of a functioning society and it’s ridiculous that it falls on employers to provide it. First off, most small food businesses do not have even a glimmer of hope to be able to afford to cover people. And even if they could, if their business tanks because of an event like this or Hurricane Sandy, all of their employees are left exposed. That’s terrible.

Second, tip-based income is patently unfair. It provides no certainty for employees and leaves them with a very difficult situation in trying to access unemployment compensation. For the other half of the staff, there’s more certainty in a steady wage but they don’t have the opportunity to share in the boom times the way waitstaff and bar does. A widespread profit-share model would be better, but there’s no roadmap for it so it’s hard to sell staff on it. Additionally, profit in the food industry is an elusive thing and most management wants to save for the inevitable rainy days the best they can.

Third, we need to recenter our plate. It shouldn’t be that only the rich can afford higher quality, ethically sourced, fresher food and the poor are offered only lower quality, highly processed foods for cheap. No one can pay a living wage serving cheap food dirt cheap, but really no one can make decent food profitable without charging exorbitantly for the “good stuff.” I’m not sure what the solution here is, but there’s a huge problem with our societal priorities and how we value food in our hierarchy of needs. The fact that food workers aren’t respected yet people take for granted their skill and professionalism (how much is sanitation an issue suddenly?) is pretty obvious too. I’m going to end this rant here, but there’s a lot to unpack…

Fourth, commercial rent is just brutal. It’s nearly impossible to afford a space in NYC and a slow week, much less a pandemic disaster, can put a restaurant in a tight spot. The fact that it’s financially advantageous to keep a storefront empty rather than accept a lower than “market rate” rent is killing retail in this city. The “market rate” is a fiction — the real estate owners can set it wherever they want regardless of the reality of operating a profitable business in that location. It’s a travesty.

SR: In the future we would love to see the value of workers at a much higher tier than it is now. All businesses in food know the drill — margins are low, and the culture of the food industry in our society prioritizes profit over people. We want to see that shift to people over profit. At Crust we place our staff at the top, they are our first priority. Food businesses already have the odds stacked against them with most of them failing in the first 5 years regardless of how ethical they may or may not be. Small food businesses with a focus on their staff should get incentives to help them survive financially.

Tax breaks or supportive government grants would also be a great start. We can’t ask the customer to pay much more than we already do (we are located in Philadelphia, one of the poorest large cities in the US), so the adjustment has to be made on a systemic level. If there were incentives for this action, more businesses would prioritize their employees and the shift would happen on a greater scale. Universal health care would really change things for a lot of folks in the food industry.

LY: Literally everything about it needs to change. We always knew this wasn’t sustainable, will this be the breaking point that makes a new system out of the ashes of the old? We need to move from a tip-focused economy to one that pays real salaries with real benefits. People need to pay A LOT more for food. That’s just what has to happen. Which means that everyone needs to be paid more, so they can afford to pay more for food. We need a rising tide.

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I’m a food writer from Long Island based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Subscribe to my weekly newsletter on food issues:

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