Will Guidara is back with the new show we all need in our lives right now. Weekly Specials is an online broadcast that puts some positivity back into the coronavirus-hit hospitality industry.
Where many restaurateurs saw disruption and devastation, Guidara saw opportunity, and he has decided to share his message with the world at large. The idea came to him after he was forced to cancel his annual Welcome Conference, a day of talks and networking that brings together some of the most inspirational people in hospitality.
“We had to make a decision not to do it in June,” says Guidara. “It was hard to swallow for a number of reasons. One, we spent so much time working on it, this year’s conference was going to be spectacular. Two, it’s like one of the highlights of my year – just getting people together and getting the energy that comes out of that day, to the industry. And three, the Welcome Conference is such a creative outlet for me.
For Guidara, service is of the essence, whether he is welcoming guests to the number one restaurant in the world, or sharing good news hospitality stories. And it’s a quality he looks for in his staff. “There are people who like to receive gifts during the holidays and there are people who like to give gifts during the holidays,” he says. “I always try to hire the people who like to give gifts, but let’s be clear, they’re both just as selfish. Because the ones that give gifts, the gift that they get is the reaction from the people that they’re giving to.”
Conventional service has been all but obliterated by the coronavirus crisis, and many hospitality workers have found themselves at a loose end. But Guidara’s Weekly Specials are aiming to sharpen their focus and give them hope in a time of despair. “Sometimes it takes a little jolt of perspective to help get you out of the funk. So during a time when people are living with so much uncertainty, there is opportunity, but it’s almost like the stages of grief. First it brings anxiety and fear, and I think you can only really see the opportunity if you have the ability to compartmentalise that anxiety and fear.”
Around the world, people in the hospitality industry are facing great upheaval. Livelihoods have been lost and nobody knows what the world will look like the coming months. It can be very difficult to see any silver lining, yet Guidara says it can be seen across the resilient resaurant sector.
“Weekly Special was just our attempt to give people in the industry the opportunity to have a smile or a laugh,” says Guidara. “But more importantly, to let people see other people who aren’t just letting this happen to them. They are choosing to happen to it. It’s an effort to inspire people to see that perspective, and to figure out what it means to them.”
In an industry where mental health issues have taken their toll, Guidara understands the need for reflection and grounding. “When you’re competing at a high level, going in for service and the accolades and the award ceremonies, life starts to feel like such a high that normal starts to feel like a low. I think that’s why there’s so much depression in our business. One of the silver linings is the restoration of normal, to normal. Normal shouldn’t feel like a low. It should feel kind of beautiful.
“I also think there’s something beautiful - and you’ll see it in these pivotal moments - that the world is accepting of half-baked ideas at the moment. I have a lot of friends who work in tech and we always have this conversation. In tech, you build a product to like 10% and you put it out into the world. It’s glitchy, but you understand that and people mess with it and you see how people react to it, and then you build it and build it. The thing with hospitality is that you have to build it to 100% before you even know if people like it.So now we have this period where people are given grace where you can put something out into the world that is perfectly imperfect.”
Weekly Specials is putting good news stories out there with three main themes – thoughtful creativity, altruism and community. There are plenty of examples of triumph over adversity too, like the Seattle fine-dining restaurant Canlis, which pivoted early, closed its dining room and opened a drive-thru bagel shed. When it was no longer safe to have people queuing outside, it started supplying meal kits. Then it pivoted again – to bingo.
“So, the brothers [Mark and Brian Canlis], with every order that went out, they put in a bingo card. Every night they went online, and everyone who had ordered from Canlis logged on to play bingo. So they created community with all these people at home under quarantine, who felt like they were part of something. They’re one of the most revered fine dining restaurants in America and there they are playing bingo.”
Another story of the solidarity to be found in the hospitality industry is that of Brooklyn based Other Half Brewing Co., who collaboratively created a beer called All Together IPA, with all the proceeds going to help restaurant workers. They made the recipe open source, so any other brewery could make the same beer, as long as they did it with charitable intent. Over 600 breweries have made All Together IPA under their different brands. “Any brewery could have done their own recipe and put their own label on it, but instead they put their egos aside and took part in something that is a worldwide collaboration,” says Guidara.
Weekly Specials goes out on the Welcome Conference Youtube channel, Guidara’s own Instagram account to 42K followers, and an already highly engaged community. The short, bite-sized nature of the broadcast optimises its reach. People may be on lockdown, but they’ve probably never been busier. Again, Guidara is serving what people want.
The running order of the show is thus: Guidara opens, followed by The Deep Dive, a long-form storytelling segment. They’re Bored Too gets ‘food adjacent’ celebrities like Neil Patrick Harris and Maria Sharapovainvolved with what they’re cooking on lockdown. Every episode features a segment called This Week in Jose, which follows the work of José Andres and his World Central Kitchen. “He’s just doing so many amazing things that José deserves his own segment every week,” says Guidara.
Will’s wife Christina Tosi gets involved too, with her own segment Tidbits to Make you Smile, and Guidara’s good friend Aaron Raitiere, a Grammy Award-winner for his work on A Star is Born, penned the theme tune and music for the various segments.
Guidara is no stranger to the limelight, but presenting a show to camera in his room with no audience presents even him with challenges. “I love it,” he says. “Everything in quarantine is weird in its own way. I’m very comfortable on stage talking to a load of people, but it’s much more difficult doing it alone in a room in your house. There’s no energy to feed off, that’s like serving tables with no guests at it. It’s just a strange sensation.”
Nobody knows what will happen to the hospitality industry in the near and mid-term. Food and our attachment to it is not going away, but restaurants will have to evolve. The industry is made up of more than recipes and bricks and mortar. It is very much a living thing, made up of people with dreams and aspirations, talent and creativity. Above all, though, says Guidara, they have an innate need to serve.
“People in hospitality is definitely one of the hardest-hit communities right now. But I believe that the people who do this for a living, who derive significant and genuine pleasure out of serving others, during a time when so many people would be justified feeling sorry for themselves, they continue to serve. I believe our industry is full of heroes. Their stories deserve to be told and they deserved to be celebrated. And those stories are beautiful moments to help others reconnect with that sense of purpose and strength that they’ve always had but perhaps feel out of reach at the moment. Also, it’s ok to smile, right now.”