L’Oca d’Oro Co-Owner on the Future of the Restaurant
Right now, they can’t do what they do – so what’s next?
By Adam Orman,
12:50PM, Mon. Apr. 27, 2020
This week we were invited to a virtual bat mitzvah. A family of regulars was supposed to celebrate the culmination of their daughter’s hard work with a big dinner at L’Oca d’Oro. All their relatives would have flown in to be there. When they asked if we would host the event months ago, I was touched.
We’ve hosted wedding parties and had several proposals, both impromptu and ones that we’ve helped orchestrate. It’s a powerful feeling to have someone entrust you with their engagement plans and to know that they’re about to surprise their future spouse by dropping to one knee. The whole staff gets giddy.
So many anniversaries and birthdays are celebrated in our dining room every week that it truly feels like we’re hosting a nightly party. I sing the first few bars of "Happy Birthday" in my best Tom Waits to try and break the ice for tables that are too embarrassed to sing in public. There’s a couple that had their first date at L’Oca and are now married and come back for both anniversaries every year. There was a couple that came on their due date and returned a few months later as a table for three. They are now a party of five, and their oldest child struts around the restaurant, from the box of crayons at the host stand to the kids’ book shelf in the back of the dining room, like he owns the place. When he gets too restless to sit at the table, I bring him into the kitchen so he can help run food to his family.
We have an intern from the nearby career tech high school whose mom placed a large to-go order as soon as she found out that we were going to have to close. We’ve had families from Houston come in having just escaped Hurricane Harvey, knowing that they will not have a house to return to. We’re around the corner from Dell Children’s Hospital. One night, a couple sat at the bar looking at the menu with thousand-yard stares. They’d forgotten to take off their hospital wristbands. It’s our job to help them focus on ordering mozzarella and a bottle of Etna Rosso, to help them find the strength they’re going to need for the rest of the night. I told our staff the next day that we should assume every customer has just come from visiting their child in the hospital.
Not that long ago, a party of four sat outside and made it known that they had come from the funeral of one woman’s husband and another guest’s brother. They wanted to talk about him, but they also really wanted to talk about what wines they should get and what food would be best with those wines.
Even with all the life cycle events we’ve hosted, the bat mitzvah dinner that didn’t happen would have been a first. I looked at the 13-year-old’s bat mitzvah website and saw that, in lieu of gifts, she had asked her family and friends to make donations to the One Fair Wage Emergency Fund, a resource which was created to aid service industry workers who recently lost their jobs. She wrote about how she had learned of the organization from her favorite restaurant. I was overwhelmed. Right now, we can’t do what we do. We can serve food to-go, but we can’t have the interactions, make the impact, effect the change that is such a vital part of our role.
Restaurant work is not easy. We work nights and weekends when it seems like everyone else, including our own families, is off. Serving food from local farms costs us more. Paying our employees more than the allowed $2.13/hr, and providing benefits that keep them healthy because they are also our neighbors, will never make us rich. It’s the relationships that make it worthwhile. Our customers also want human connection more than the convenience of a drive-through window.
To survive, we need a Restaurant Stabilization Fund. The PPP loans have only gone out to 10% of the nation’s restaurants and, because of the way they are structured, might not still be in our accounts when we can finally reopen to an uncertain future of reduced capacity and rolling shutdowns. We need that money to get to the restaurants that most need it. Working with newly formed Good Work Austin locally, and the Hospitality United Alliance nationally, my colleagues and I discuss caps on sales, caps on the amount of restaurants that one owner can take out loans for, guarantees that minority-owned businesses will not be left behind, and ways to ensure that powerful lobbies don’t get to direct the lion’s share of the aid to publicly traded national chains.
If we don’t work together, the recovery from this pandemic could be even more difficult and lonelier than the shutdown. I am heartened by the willingness of my colleagues across the country to argue and problem-solve. I’m encouraged by the business that Salt & Time, Foreign & Domestic, Texas French Bread, and Farmhouse Delivery, to name only a few, are doing to turn themselves into farmers’ markets and to sell items from their friend’s restaurants. This collaboration will give small, local independent businesses a stronger voice, and it is the spirit that will sustain us as we start to welcome you back through our doors to celebrate your new job, your arrival in a new city, or simply the fact that it’s finally safe to leave your house again.
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.
[Editor’s Note: Orman and executive chef/co-owner Fiore Tedesco have been “preparing a plan to re-open L'Oca d'Oro in a limited way that we determined is safe & responsible.” During a limited order slot, diners can order family meals online at locadoroaustin.com and pick up at the restaurant with “extremely limited” contact. The meals, built around a lasagna with meatball ragu or the vegetarian lasagna all'arrabbiata, come with a lacinato kale & Romaine salad with buttermilk Caesar dressing and fresh mozzarella with tomato jam and basil oil. There are also add-ons like a loaf of sesame sourdough with garlic butter; house tiramisu; bottles of wine and fresh pasta. For every 4 meals they sell, L’Oca d’Oro is donating a meal to the city’s food insecure as part of Good Work Austin’s Universal Food Bank program.]