As the pandemic began to sweep through Florida, business owners found themselves struggling to understand what their future would hold. The governmental efforts to stop the spread of the disease shut down non-essential businesses; restaurants were allowed to remain open, but only for take-out. Unfortunately, most restaurants were not set up to flip into a take-out based operation; surviving was a struggle and for many, an impossibility. For those who could make it though, the road was not easy. To write the article, I sat down with restaurant owners to discuss their challenges.
“Pizza is essential.” This t-shirt logo was really quite true in the early weeks of the COVID shut-downs; pizzerias were one of the few eateries accustomed to a high volume of take-out orders. That however did not make it easy. Surviving as a business was still a challenge, it came at a significant financial cost, and the potential costs of employee health and safety had to take a back seat to the health of the business.
Phoebe and Jennifer Morales-Reckseit, the owners of Pizza Girls, had two locations in January 2020; COVID killed the West Palm Beach location when the office buildings were empty, the waterfront festivals were cancelled and the late night-life was closed. An 80-percent reduction in profit left the Girls with no choice but to close. All attention and resources shifted to their Palm Beach Gardens location; fortunately, that allowed them to have their downtown staff come work on their expanded take-out business. However, even with the rise of people picking up their favorite pie, the profits still were not there; the first month was strong when the competition was weak, but that did not last.
Moving furniture to create an assembly line to move pizza from the oven to the door for pick-up was one of the changes needed. Despite patrons not allowed to enter the store, every employee was masked and gloved. After a food order was handed off to a customer, new gloves were put on. Significant efforts were made to ensure patrons were served safely. My work is all about employees getting hurt at work, so I could not help but ask whether there was a concern about anyone on their team getting the virus. Like all of us, the Girls had to do their best to be as safe as possible, but like most companies with whom I work, they did not know whether there would be insurance coverage for an employee getting COVID; the answer to which is complicated and long.
While of equal or greater concern, there was simply no time to think about the employees’ actions. Like every restaurant in town, the workers were doing what they had to do to get the food in the hands of the patrons. While most customers were grateful for the effort, patiently waited for take-out orders, and proudly supported their local businesses, not all were quite so understanding. Keeping everyone happy was more important than ever. That meant carrying pizzas through the parking lot and placing them in waiting cars, or walking to the “tailgating” area set up by diners to enjoy at the tables they set up in the parking lot. I’d watched this on a number of occasions and had pizzas put in my car, but I wondered and had to ask Phoebe and Jennifer, “what if someone got hit by a car?” Everyone put the health of the business behind their own safety, workers included, the times demanded it. It does not make them bad bosses or business owners, it’s how we survive a crisis.
While I could have spoken to countless Florida restaurateurs, I chose to focus on Jenn and Phoebe because of a remarkable decision they made, for which I have profound respect. Anyone who enjoys escaping from their own kitchen and eating out knows the re-opening was anything but clear or smooth; the rate of infections fluctuated and decisions had to be made based upon the health of the residents. When the Governor allowed Palm Beach County dining rooms to open up to 25-percent capacity, most restaurants jumped at the opportunity, but not Pizza Girls.
Phoebe’s stepsister and her father contracted COVID, and while her step-sister was sick, he did not survive. It was scary, so the Girls made a decision most struggling businesses would not have considered and did not open; the health of employees, who are like family, and of customers, so many of whom are friends, were more important than the slight increase in sales they may have seen. Some potential patrons may have been upset, but the Girls took that risk; that was far more palatable than putting the health of their family and friends at risk.
Pizza Girls is open today, but not drowning in business. Like most restaurants, they are still feeling the impact of people fearing eating indoors, but their take-out business continues too. Their profits are nowhere near what they had been, but that is also in large part because when money got tight, they chose to pay their employees a livable wage, and not the minimum wage for servers. The safety precautions in place are readily apparent; they have made the patrons happy by going back to regular silverware, but every menu goes through an overnight sanitization process after only a single use, all staff is gloved and masked, hand sanitizers is on every table, the bathrooms are cleaned more often, the food is moved farther back in their open kitchen, and the seating all remains socially distanced.
The COVID crisis has been deadly not just to people, but to restaurants; unfortunately, like the virus, the devastation to restaurant industry is far from over. We must protect the health of our employees, our patrons, and our businesses and hope we survive these difficult times.
Top Photo: Left to Right: Phoebe and Jennifer Morales Reckseit and Amy Siegel Oran, featuring the Pizza Girls Hawaiian Pizza.