As the world changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re examining how restaurant owners and the extended Top Chef family are adapting to new protocols and procedures and what’s next for their business in our series, Restaurant Report.
As Lorena Garcia navigates the heartbreaking uncertainty that has come with running restaurants amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the Bravo's Top Chef Masters alum has maintained unwavering optimism. For Lorena, more time at home means connecting with her family like never before. The inability to host events at her Culinary Loft has led to new opportunities in the "virtual world" that she never imagined possible. New safety procedures implemented at her eateries are far from a nuisance, but instead a necessary and invaluable learning opportunity. As she explains it, "Everything has two sides."
However, after announcing on March 24 that she would temporarily suspend operations at her restaurants, even Lorena couldn't find a silver lining. "I think that it was officially the worst day of my life, the day that we had to close and let everybody go," Lorena told BravoTV.com exclusively in late September. "Along with my brother’s diagnosis of cancer. The two very worst days of my life."
The hardest part of closing the doors to her eateries, including CHICA's Miami and Las Vegas locations and airport restaurants in Miami, Atlanta, and Dallas-Fort Worth, was the impact the decision would have on her team. "Letting everybody go, it’s so many people. With all of my restaurants, there’s hundreds of people that you have to furlough in one week," she said. "Emotionally, not only me, but my partners and the executives that I work with, we all broke. It’s something that you never in your wildest dreams think is gonna happen."
One week prior, as restaurants were mandated to cease indoor and outdoor dining operations in Miami, Lorena and her team moved exclusively to takeout and delivery services at CHICA before ultimately deciding to close. "For a restaurant of that size, [takeout and delivery] is not going to take you anywhere," she explained. "It’s almost impossible. I think it was better to cut everything until we were able to come back and make a decision. We wanted to wait until we were absolutely sure."
The closure of all of her restaurant locations within a single week left Lorena feeling scared and overwhelmed. Still, she was ready to work harder than ever to find a way to succeed, as she explained, "You enter into survival mode: 'What is it that I need to do in order to fix this and be in the best possible position to understand the situation?' 'What are the things we need to do in order to stay afloat?'"
As the first Latina executive chef to open a restaurant on the Las Vegas Strip and one of few women ever to do so, Lorena made history when she partnered with the 50 Eggs Hospitality Group to open CHICA's doors within The Venetian hotel in 2017. The cultural impact the eatery has had is now something that drives her to keep the restaurant at the top of its game while operating safely. "I have always felt a certain responsibility to let everybody know we do as good of a job as anybody else," she said. "[There are] over 4,000 restaurants on the Strip and only a handful of female chefs that have restaurants on the Strip, so we have such an honor but at the same time a responsibility to make sure that we are up there making the best possible decisions for our team and our customers."
Noting that chefs "have to be excellent to be in Vegas," Lorena feels that the traits that differentiate her from other restaurateurs are exactly what have helped her find success with CHICA, where the menu is a celebration of Latin flavors with influences from Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina. "You really have to separate yourself into what makes you unique, believe in it, and stay strong," she explained. "One of the things we have is understanding who we are and what we represent — which is the Latin community — and through our flavors and our culture, being strong and believing that this is what we do. It’s worked so far."
Although she admitted she "didn’t know in March," if CHICA Las Vegas would be able to reopen, the restaurant resumed operations in June and has been "very successful" thus far. The Venetian "has over 800 safety measures for COVID alone," Lorena explained, noting that she has learned "so much about operation of that magnitude" while adapting to the "very, very helpful" new guidelines.
Amid the pandemic, Lorena has redesigned everything from CHICA's digital, contactless menu and ordering process to food packaging to employee operations. "We’re very particular," she said. "Every 30 minutes everybody has to wash their hands, after each service they have to change their gloves, [and wear] masks, of course, throughout the time. We have a procedure for receiving our food, disinfecting it, storing it. We have our set of teams that don’t separate. For example, the same team that goes every morning, that’s the one that’s going to do breakfast and we don’t mix them with the team at night."
"I’m so close to the details when it comes to our protocols," she added. "Following protocol is so important. Everybody [on the team] was committed and I think that’s why we see the results."
While many restaurateurs have seen mixed results in terms of customer reaction to new procedures, Lorena proudly declared of her Las Vegas customers, "I have not seen any resistance when it comes to [wearing] masks or using hand sanitizer as soon as they come to the restaurant."
Lorena will be applying those learned safety procedures when she eventually reopens CHICA's Miami location. However she is in no rush to prematurely open the doors again, explaining, "If we were open and had to close again here in Florida, we would have been in a very bad position. We decided to wait, see how all the cards fall and then really make a decision on the best time for us to open."
However, when CHICA Miami is back open for business, "hopefully very soon," Lorena's role at the eatery will look very different as she takes on the responsibility of enforcing safety protocols. "Sometimes you’re in a rush, you’re cooking, maybe you forget something. Maybe you forgot that this is the time that everybody washes their hands," she explained. "I have somebody [in Las Vegas] that is strictly paying attention to the protocols and reminding everybody of it. That’s gonna be my job here in Miami."
While her Miami airport restaurant, Lorena Garcia Cocina, has also resumed operations, unfortunately "the numbers are ridiculous," Lorena admitted. Although she explained that the current income is "nothing that will really maintain the space," she and her team "stay strong and we believe that slowly things are getting better." With that, as her restaurants "slowly but surely" start to reopen for business, Lorena's job is just beginning. "I continue to work on redesigning the restaurants in terms of capacity, redesigning our menu to something much more accessible," she shared. "From pricing to labor, [I am doing] all of these things that you can do as the owner to maintain the restaurant without losing the quality."
Of course, as things continue to remain in flux amid the pandemic, Lorena looks to the future with her eyes on the bright side. "I’m that type of person that in a crisis I put everything aside and I’m just very practical in doing the things I need to do in order to continue move forward," she said. "I continue to be focused, I continue to absolutely love my career, and I continue to learn. I don’t think that I’ve made it. I continue fighting and working and staying focused to continue to grow. I think that’s key."
Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio is another vocal advocate for restaurant industry support amidst the pandemic. For the latest, most accurate information on the coronavirus pandemic, go to the World Health Organization (WHO) website.
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