Opinion: Ten Days in March at L’Oca d’Oro
Living wages and paid sick leave are built into L’Oca d’Oro’s DNA. But without a government plan in place – for testing, sanitation checks, financial relief – co-owner Adam Orman explains why they’ve had to close their doors... for now.
I’m not a public health expert. But, for the last two weeks, I played one at L’Oca d’Oro, the restaurant I own with my business partner, Chef Fiore Tedesco, who knows a lot about the bacteria that makes miso but as little as we all did a month ago about viruses that cause pandemics.
The day before the city closed the dining rooms of bars and restaurants, we laid off our 25 employees. We had no news from our landlord, our SBA lender, the TX Workforce Commission, or any other authority as to what would happen next, but it was our choice to close. That changed with Judge Sarah Eckhardt’s order the following day. The city's partial closing was in the interest of public health, which we support, but there was still no plan in place for our near future. So many of our restaurant friends here and across the country reached out for support, advice, a pathway, a life rope. The resulting email flood was more anxiety-inducing than comforting. No one knew anything.
The first day of takeout, I was a bad father, keeping my 11-year-old son, whose life had been canceled, at L’Oca d’Oro for far too many hours as I tried to figure out how to be a good boss in this new reality. I was chasing my tail.
Our employees needed to know about the status of their direct primary health care access, about our takeout service, when they’d be working, how they’d be paid, the unemployment process, if they could access their sick leave. We did our best to give clear answers from the abundance of half-truths, misinformation, and lack of guidance that was available.
We scrambled to defer our loan, renegotiate our lease, stop deliveries, consolidate items and turn off refrigeration, and process food to reduce waste. We dismantled our business while also setting up a new takeout business. We built and promoted an online ordering system, changed the menu, created new health protocols.
The first five days I passed through all five stages of grief every 15 minutes. I listened to many war stories. I explored too many resources about connecting farms to customers, connecting employees to jobs, connecting food to the hungry. A nation of hospitality workers were trying their damnedest to be hospitable, from a distance, and we were wearing ourselves out.
We also researched. We read the city’s orders, the CDC guidelines, and focused on informative journalism, not horror stories or political gossip. We talked with L’Oca d’Oro’s doctor and watched an episode of Last Week Tonight because John Oliver had no incentive to mislead us and he’s funny. So many people who were not elected officials agreed: Without tests and targeted quarantines, America needed to stay home. It was in the best interest of our staff and our customers if we closed temporarily and stopped encouraging them to come in.
Running takeout softened our fall and increased food access, but allowing every restaurant in the city to put food in a box or cocktails in a plastic bottle is not essential. We did not want to be the restaurant owners who found out a week too late that we’d been serving food while one of our employees had the coronavirus. We were not comfortable taking our employees’ temperatures. We were concerned that no one was confirming our sanitizing practices or anyone else’s. Without a sufficient plan in place, the country is haltingly coming to the conclusion that we just have to stay away from each other until this thing dies. It’s a boring end to this monster movie in which we’ve found ourselves.
That’s where we are now. We’re applying for loans that we may qualify for and that will probably be forgiven by the government to pay the landlord, the bank, the employees, and the utilities companies who are still waiting on the same definitive information that we’re waiting on. Customers still regularly make me tear up with emails about their last lasagna and pictures of themselves drinking to-go Negronis in their backyards. They buy generous gift cards for fresh mozzarella that we won’t be able to serve for many weeks. Someone posted, “We love L’Oca d’Oro because you supported sick leave before it was cool.” Fiore and I look forward to reopening to a restaurant scene in Austin where L'Oca d'Oro is not at all cool because sick leave and living wages and health care and counseling are the norm. Then, all there will be to talk about is pasta.
Adam Orman is co-owner and general manager of L'Oca d'Oro, an Italian-inspired restaurant in Mueller known for sourcing from sustainable, humane farms and paying One Fair Wage.
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