Running a restaurant is difficult under normal circumstances. During a pandemic, it's almost impossible.
For Houston chef Chris Shepherd, it's been "an all-out hustle" to survive after local officials limited restaurants to takeout and delivery, a business environment that has become the new normal for most eateries across the U.S. as part of efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Shepherd's had to make tough, emotional choices, including closing three of his four restaurants and furloughing most of his 170 hourly workers -- people he considers family.
The elegant dining room areas at Georgia James, where customers once ordered aged steaks and wine, have been transformed into assembly lines. Stacked chairs sit unused. Ready to heat and eat meals are packaged inside oval plastic trays lining rows of tables.
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Shepherd said he and his staff are trying to focus on their work and do what they can to preserve what they've built while also helping feed people during a time of crisis. Nearly everything the restaurant is now selling is premade and can be quickly heated at home. The "take and bakes" have proved popular, helping "keep the lights on," Shepherd said.
"I think everybody (in the industry) is trying to figure it out," he said Wednesday. "At the root of it, we know how to cook. We know how to service our guests. That's the best thing we're trying to do right now."
Most people who become infected with the new coronavirus have mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in a few weeks. But for some people, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can lead to pneumonia and sometimes death.
For the restaurant and beverage industry, the viral outbreak has been financially devastating.
Since March 1, the industry has lost more than 3 million jobs and $25 billion in sales, according to a recent survey by the National Restaurant Association.
Nationwide, the industry has about 15.6 million employees, around 10% of the U.S. workforce. A $2.2 trillion economic rescue plan that Congress approved Friday is expected to provide some relief for restaurants and their workers, including unemployment benefits and loans.
But the financial relief won't be immediate.
"We go day by day, really. It's all we can do," said Shepherd, who won the prestigious James Beard culinary award in 2014.
As he surveyed his revamped restaurant, white sheets of paper taped in the kitchen listed the day's "take and bake" meals and specials, including wagyu meatloaf and chicken tenders with mac and cheese. When an order comes in online, the packaged meals are taken out of refrigerators, bagged and taken outside to customers waiting in their vehicles.
Amid the sound of music and the stirring of metallic pots, Anabel Medina made lemon vegan cookies. One of the few hourly employees still working, Medina, 41, is grateful but wary of losing her job.
"That's a fear we all have. We don't know if things will get worse or better," said Medina, who has worked at the restaurant for seven years and has three sons.
In a private dining area, Stephanie Velasco, the event manager, scooped Lamburger Helper -- Shepherd's take on Hamburger Helper -- into trays set up in rows atop tables.
A 20-year veteran of the restaurant industry, Velasco, 36, said she's trying to stay optimistic.
"I think when everybody kind of wants to go into quarantine and hide, this is our way of giving that little bit of hope that we'll still be here," Velasco said.
Even as Shepherd and his remaining staff work, their furloughed colleagues are never far from their minds. Every day, Shepherd prepares meals for them. On Wednesday, it was rack of lamb, along with a bag filled with fresh fennel and carrots.
When the employees pick up the meals, Shepherd checks in on them.
"At least I know that they're OK for today and that I can see their face," he said.
Shepherd's Southern Smoke Foundation is among several nonprofits in the U.S. providing financial help to industry workers.
As he stood inside a back room that serves as a butcher shop, Shepherd pulled out his cellphone and read some of the recent applications for help, including one from a severely asthmatic woman from Massachusetts who was laid off and had her heat turned off.
"We have 4,000 of these," said Shepherd.
He paused as he read another application, from a woman struggling to pay for the funeral of a family member who had the coronavirus.
"Somebody in the industry lost somebody in their family to this and we need to take care of them," he said. "We'll get through it, as a community, as a city, as a society, as people in general."