Before the pandemic, chef-owner Mark Liberman had 18 employees working at his Oakland restaurant Mago on Piedmont Avenue. Today, just two people run the restaurant — a cook and Liberman himself.
It’s tradition in kitchens, and best practice in general, to divide the labor between preparing and cooking, but in COVID-times with barebones staff, that’s not possible for most restaurants.
“Something like straining stock, normally the commis (prep cook) would do that, or a dishwasher or an intern… but now you have to do that and it adds up. For New Year’s, we did 190 people which, you know, is a lot for three people,” said Liberman, referring to a third cook who was on staff through the holidays, but who has since moved on. Liberman said it’s been a challenge to find a replacement. He added, “I’m now bartending myself.”
Today, restaurant owners and staff are tasked with pulling off an impossible amount of work. And fine-dining restaurants, like Mago, which makes everything seasonal and from scratch, are worn thin keeping operations afloat with limited labor, while maintaining high quality.
The pandemic has further complicated matters, by throwing fine-dining restaurants into uncharted territory — takeout food. For Mago, Liberman increased his production when shelter-in-place closed his dining room, offering at various points of the pandemic rotating multicultural meal kits, a regular takeout menu and a specialty takeout menu. Cooking all these menus is no small feat and Liberman credits his skilled cooks for their expertise.
“All the cooks I’ve worked with over the past year are veterans. They all were typically a chef or sous chef at other restaurants before working here,” Liberman said.
Last week, Liberman reopened Mago’s patio for outdoor dining. Although he had hoped to bring back the meal kits too, Liberman is focusing on doing a “pretty streamlined takeout menu” until he can bring back more staff. Liberman is in the process of hiring for front of house, which can’t come soon enough as Alameda County considers bringing back limited capacity indoor dining as soon as next week.
Fine dining is a business that relies on creating atmosphere and other details that can’t be written into expense books that create regulars out of guests. It’s the extras, like thoughtful decor, ambience and exemplary service, that sets it apart from others and makes it a destination.
Jason Ryczek, the chef and co-owner of Alley & Vine in Alameda, had to open his California cuisine concept in the midst of state lockdowns — before outdoor dining was reinstated — with a skeleton crew. It hasn’t been easy.
“I’ve never had to do to-go only in my entire career,” he said with a chuckle, “[turns out] putting lids and labels on stuff takes a lot of time.”
Where Ryczek, a fine-dining veteran, is used to about a 60/40 food and beverage split of sales, the takeout model is almost entirely food reliant. Part of the challenge is that profit margins on food are much slimmer than alcoholic beverages because of labor and storage costs. And, while ingredients expire, whiskey doesn’t. To keep paying rent on his empty dining room, Ryczek has had to keep staff small.
Ryczek and his two sous chefs, who compose the entire kitchen team at his restaurant, have been working together going on eight years since meeting at upscale seafood restaurant, now-closed Farallon in San Francisco. Without support staff, that shared experience has been integral in running a tight ship during the pandemic.
”We’ve not let our standards go by the waysides; everything on my production end is still there, I’m not shorting myself or any of the guests that way,” Ryzcek said.
Although Alley & Vine now can serve on its outdoor patio, Ryzcek has kept the restaurant’s takeout standards high by tailoring a menu that holds up deliciously once packaged. Think about a bag of french fries steaming and becoming soggy on the way home — to Ryczek, that loss of texture and quality with any food is unacceptable, which is why he offers a braised short rib on Alley & Vine’s takeout menu instead of a grilled steak that he would normally offer on his dine-in menu.
If there’s a silver lining for diners at restaurants like Mago and Alley & Vine, it’s that with chefs doing all the cooking, bartending and plating, the takeout experience is almost equivalent to a chef’s table experience. The trouble, though, is the costs to do this are unsustainable.
“I can’t afford all our salaries so we’ve taken huge pay cuts,” Ryczek said, “[I’ve had] to go to my two sous chefs, who are working so hard, and say, ‘Hey, this is all I can afford to give you right now.’”
Aside from monetary costs, there are other consequences. Liberman had to close Mago for the entire month of January because he and his staff were just too burnt out.
At Wood Tavern in Oakland, manager Jose Ramirez said the restaurant has been very fortunate with business, but still can’t bring back its full team. Before the pandemic, the restaurant had more than 10 employees, now it’s down to six, with many of Wood Tavern’s employees still on furlough.
“It’s heartbreaking, it’s never been easy but we’ve built a family and even have regulars coming by to see how we’re doing. A lot of [staff] still want to come back,” Ramirez said.
To Ramirez, having relationships with guests and staff is why you run or work in a restaurant. Ryczek agrees.
“Nothing feels better than seeing a beautiful plate when you’re done with it and then being able to experience the guest’s reaction,” said Ryczek. “[With takeout], I can’t touch tables by going around knocking on doors asking, ‘How did you like this?’”
What Ryczek and the other restaurant owners and managers we talked to have in common, is missing what happens “off menu” in the industry — hosting people with warmth and generosity, and the energy of a packed dining room. Despite this loss, what’s still there is their love for what they do. That love drives them to hold on and keep moving forward, with hope there’ll be a time in the near future that we can get together for the full experience again.
Mago, 3762 Piedmont Ave. (at West MacArthur Boulevard), Oakland; Alley & Vine, 1332 Park St. (between Central and Encinal avenues), Alameda; Wood Tavern, 6317 College Ave. (near Alcatraz Avenue), Oakland