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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.
While Brian Malarkey may be known to push boundaries with his culinary concepts, when it comes to running his restaurants in recent months, the Bravo's Top Chef alum is happy to abide by even the strictest of rules. “We’re following every guideline to the T and above and beyond in most cases, just trying to do whatever we can,” Brian told BravoTV.com exclusively in August. “A lot of restaurants are seating tables closer than six feet. We feel that’s irresponsible. We really adhere to the social distancing and really follow it with pride.”
With safety measures in place at the Puffer Malarkey Collective's four currently open restaurants, Herb & Ranch, Herb & Sea, Herb & Wood, and Animae, Brian is seeing the impact of their efforts. “I was at Anime and I had a bunch of tables of people a little older in life and they were saying this was the first time they had been out to eat since [COVID-19] and they were very appreciative of us and how responsible we are being,” he recalled. “That was the best news I could hear.”
However, the decision to resume operations didn't come easy. "When they let us come back and start opening our restaurants, we were not really excited to do it," Brian said. "We were the first ones in the Southern California/San Diego areas that closed before the government mandate and we wanted to ease back into it so that we knew more about what was going on, more about what our customers wanted [and] what our employees wanted, so we didn’t jump back into it on day one. We waited."
Taking thoughtful time to resume operations proved to be the right decision for Brian and his team. "We just started doing takeout at one of our restaurants, eased into that for about a month, and then we started opening up just one restaurant," he said of Herb & Sea, which re-opened for indoor dining on June 19 before once again ceasing indoor dining room operations on July 6. "We didn’t know how long or what was going to be the story, if they were going to let us continue to open them. Thankfully that was the only restaurant that we had open for indoor dining when they mandated no more indoor dining."
With an official ban on indoor dining at the time, the group quickly moved to an outdoor setup at Herb & Wood, which has seen notable success. "We were very fortunate we were able to get a patio, so we opened that one immediately and that one’s been sold out," he said. "We’re only open five nights per week, but it’s sold out every night five nights a week."
The team has also been able to add stunning outdoor seating to Herb & Sea and Herb & Ranch as well as Animae, which now boasts a recently-revamped menu courtesy of The Puffer Malarkey Collective's new culinary director, Nate Appleman. "Animae is kind of the crown jewel. She’s really beautiful," Brian said. "[The HOA] is allowing us to use their area for free and we built a spectacular patio out there. Actually, we build it every day. We put it up every day at 4:00 and we take it down every night at 10:00." In addition to the breathtaking patio, Animae is now once again open for indoor dining as of September 1.
However, the excitement of additional outdoor seating and a new culinary director coincides with extremely difficult losses for the team. "We’ve shrunk all of our menus, a little less offering so that we can down-staff the kitchen," Brian said. "We had such large staffs because our menus were all so large. When you go from 150 seats to 60 seats, or whatever it is, you’ll need about half the staff back. We took volunteers and the people that came back are extremely excited to be here. Some made the choice saying, 'You know, I’m not ready to come back to work,' and we respect that also."
Now, with a reduced staff, the group has an all-hands-on-deck mentality. "The team has really come together. It’s never been about us or me. It’s just about all of us. Everybody's just stepping up and doing what they can. It’s amazing," he said. "The GM who was a bartender five, 10 years ago, he’s a GM and a bartender again. Everyone’s remembering all of the things that they came up through the systems learning and all tools apply and we are all helping each other out as much as we possibly can. You may have been a chef, you know, last year, well you’re a line cook now. We’re just doing what we can."
Despite the group's best efforts, due to the financial hardships that the restaurant industry is currently facing, Brian isn't sure what they future may look like. "Our venues are not heavy cash positive. The money comes in, the money goes out. So that’s just what it’s been. We stopped serving food and booze while we kept getting the bills for 30, 45 days. We felt it very important to continue to pay our vendors so it left us very, very cash poor," he explained. "The PPP loan extension has been absolutely a godsend and a blessing to us. What happens when that’s over? I do not know. Just keep your nose above the water right now and you might have a chance. We’re all gonna find out because the future is here."
While he may be uncertain about what the next day will bring, there are a few changes to his business that Brian hopes to see for the foreseeable future. "I am a very optimistic person. I do believe that there will be great things that come of this, and there are going to be some horrible things that come of this, but those who survive are going to reap the reward at the end of the line because the patios we have built, they stay here forever, that’s doubling our sizes," he said. "The option of takeout and takeout cocktails, hopefully they stay forever, which also increases our opportunity."
Additionally, "a great opportunity that we wouldn't have thought of before," Brian says, has been the virtual cooking classes he leads. "That might be the best thing that’s come out of this all for me," he said. "I think it’s something we’re going to have for a long time and something that’s going to stick."
In a current moment when "nobody’s signing new leases and nobody’s planning on the future right now because nobody knows what the future looks like," Brian emphasized the importance of supporting local restaurants, explaining, "The big guy’s gonna survive, it’s the little people we’re really worried about."
He added: "We’re all in a day-to-day battle right now. Our industry has completely changed."
However, when "this is all getting back to normal," Brian thinks restaurants will be more important than ever. "I firmly believe that office and retail space are going to forever be less attractive. People are still social creatures, they still need to get out there and see and be seen and talk and laugh. Restaurants are going to be those gathering places," he said. "Unfortunately because somewhere between 30-60 percent of those restaurants might be gone, the ones that are still standing are gonna be extremely, extremely busy."
Ever the optimist, Brian is more than ready to overcome the hardships and see what's on the other side. "History repeats itself. In 1918, the Spanish flu came across the world and turned it upside down and wiped out industries and did all kinds of horrible things. Two years later, they got it under control and what happened?" he said. "The greatest party the world has ever seen: the Roaring Twenties! We are about to experience the Roaring Twenties part two. We’re gonna have a hell of a party when this thing’s over."
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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