Photo Lindsay Tusk _ Credit Kyle Johnson for WSJ Magazine
Restaurateur Lindsay Tusk and chef husband Michael Tusk, of Michelin-starred Quince and Cotogna fame in San Francisco, have poured a lifetime into the hospitality industry.
When the coronavirus pandemic took hold and restaurants across the state of California were forced to shut, Lindsay she knew the world they had spent years building up, was about to crumble, if not the industry as a whole.
Instead of giving up, she has evolved, diversified and lobbied hard, seeing the "shake up" from the pandemic as an opportunity for positive change in the industry, from abolishing gratuities, to paying restaurant workers a fair wage.
We caught up with Lindsay to find out how she has navigated these turbulent waters of change at a local level, and about her efforts to support independent restaurants as a whole.
What’s the current status of your restaurants and the industry in San Francisco?
To run a restaurant right now is to play the kind of ultimate and most intense version of build-your-own adventure, and it’s both challenging and exciting. Our restaurant ecosystem is constantly changing, and I'm sure that by the time this interview is published, things will have evolved again. But as of the beginning of August, we've reopened all of our restaurants in different, new capacities.
Verjus has always been both a wine bar and a neighbourhood market, and over the past few months we've really leaned into and expanded the market side of the business. We serve wine and charcuterie at outdoor tables during the day, but we have also built out our market offerings. In-store and online we sell produce from Fresh Run Farm - our farm in Bolinas - as well as charcuterie, bread, and gelato, all house-made.
At Cotogna, we created a brand new outdoor dining room. Our friends Evan Shively and Madeleine Fitzpatrick have a salvaged wood business, Arborica, and helped us source beautiful local, reclaimed wood for the space. Madeleine added a green touch as well by placing olive trees between tables, which add character and help us maintain social distancing to keep our staff and our guests safe.
Rather than try to approximate Quince as we knew it before the pandemic, we've relocated the restaurant to West Marin for the summer. The farm is spread out over twenty acres, so we are able to space the tables at a comfortable distance from each other. Mike's meals will be simpler than his previous Quince menus, prepared almost entirely with vegetables from the farm. We wanted to make sure that dining here is as
much of a special experience as dining at Quince, so each meal includes a farm tour, a set menu, and u-pick produce to bring home with you.
Tell us more about your Feed the Future campaign …
We founded Feed the Future because of an immediate need: our restaurants were suddenly closed, and we couldn't provide jobs for most of our team members, some of whom were unable to collect employment benefits and urgently needed our support. Through the foundation, we provided grants to servers and cooks from our restaurants who were dealing with financial uncertainty.
Soon, though, we began seeing the downstream effects that the pandemic was having on our supply chain. Some of the purveyors we have worked with for years were at risk of losing their jobs or their businesses. So we expanded the mission of Feed the Future to provide ongoing training and support for farmers and small business owners whose livelihoods were hurt by the widespread closure of restaurants.
How do you think the restaurant industry will evolve as a result of the pandemic?
The pandemic is so pervasively impacting every part of our daily lives, both personally and in running our business, that it can be hard to think past the next week or month. It's impossible to imagine the innumerable ways that the pandemic will impact the restaurant industry, but there are a handful of existing initiatives and trends that I am almost certain will be accelerated.
In the short term, I think that more restaurants will eliminate gratuity as a step towards paying every restaurant worker a fair wage with benefits. I also think that restaurants will begin to diversify their revenue streams, offering packaged goods and provisions for sale, and more robust takeout and delivery services. I don't think these new offerings will disappear once we are able to dine indoors again.
Lastly, I hope that local governments pass meaningful legislation to make it more viable to operate an independent restaurant. The pandemic has laid bare how challenging and unstable it is to run a restaurant, and we need legislative support to get us to the other side of this crisis.
What other industry campaigns are you involved with and why?
I’m a member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, the lobbying group formed after the onset of the pandemic to advocate for governmental intervention to save the restaurant industry. Our industry is in a very precarious position, and in order to make sure that fewer businesses shutter we need government intervention.
How have your professional relationships evolved during the coronavirus pandemic?
We have spent our whole lives in this industry, building long-lasting relationships with our customers, staff, purveyors and communities. What we are realising every day is the extent to which each of those people and each of those businesses is vulnerable. At the onset of the pandemic, many restaurants created GoFundMe campaigns to support their unemployed workforce. At first I bristled at that approach because I wanted to be able to support my team without asking our customers for aid, but I've since come
to terms with the fact that these are extenuating circumstances, and we are so fortunate that our wonderful, loyal customers want to help.
What industry changes would you like to see coming out the other side of this?
Where do I start? Fundamentally, I would like to see all restaurant workers, regardless of their position, paid a fair wage. To do this, independent restaurants need to become financially viable businesses. The goals of running a restaurant profitably and compensating workers fairly cannot continue to be at odds. Yes, to make this kind of change requires a lot of work - regulations and behaviours have to be rewritten and
relearned, on a large scale. If not now, though, when? The rules for running a restaurant are being rewritten, and in order to make significant change we need to embrace this kind of shakeup.
Any projects in the pipeline?
In a few months, we are planning to launch Quince & Co, a line of packaged goods including items made and packaged in our restaurant kitchens. We are hoping that they'll make nice holiday gifts at the end of what has so far been a very tumultuous year.
Bottura's Modena bistro has launched an online food shop and delivery service in Italy, featuring dishes from the restaurant as well as produce from like-minded producers and restaurants in the Emilia Romagna region.
The pandemic has taken takeout and delivery to a whole new level, and while concepts like the 'makeaway' continue to rise, so does the art of meal packaging for restaurant brands across the world. In the UK, Fine Dining Lovers spoke to some top restaurants at the forefront of the trend.