Chef Rick Bayless, MA’75, has celebrated many successes in his long career. He won Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters” in 2009, has written nine cookbooks, and hosted 12 seasons of the public television series “Mexico: One Plate at a Time.” He is also the owner of four award-winning restaurants in Chicago (Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, Bar Sótano, and Xoco). But now, like all restaurateurs, he is experiencing the painful toll COVID-19 has wreaked on his industry.
The pandemic has not only affected him professionally — Bayless and his wife and business partner, Deann, have not taken a salary in a year — but also personally. During the pandemic, Bayless lost his beloved produce distributor of two decades to COVID-19 and his sister to cancer, forcing the family to hold a remote memorial service.
I reached out to my longtime friend in February to find out how he is coping nearly a year into the pandemic.
Moulton: Let’s start with where things stand currently for your restaurants and, if you would expound, the industry?
Bayless: At this moment, all of my restaurants are offering a to-go menu and/or meal kits as well as patio and very limited indoor dining. We are lucky. I think when this is over it will take us at least a year and a half to build back to where we were before the pandemic. But I predict that at least 25% of all restaurants will close by the end of this winter and perhaps as many as 50%. It is going to be the mom and pop places that go first — the restaurants with no corporate backers, the restaurants that are the core of the community. Independent restaurants and bars in the U.S. employ 11 million people. We have also lost some of our top management. They have found jobs in more stable careers. So, on top of everything else, there has been a brain drain in our industry.
Moulton: When the governor of Illinois first shut down indoor dining in March 2020, how did you pivot?
Bayless: We pulled together a little team to run Xoco, which was already set up to do takeout, and continued to pay all 160 of our staff, though at a reduced rate. This was all we could do at the time. The restaurants were running at less than 20% of our normal revenue, and we were bleeding thousands of dollars every week. The only hope we had against quick bankruptcy came in the form of the Paycheck Protection Program. We were among the first to be awarded the forgivable loan, and it got us through several months. Eventually, we figured out how to do “Frontera to-go” and that really took off.
Moulton: Didn’t you also distribute perishable food?
Bayless: Yes. A chef friend of mine connected us with US Foods, a nationwide distributor based in Illinois. They were looking for a restaurant that could help distribute all the perishable food in their coolers to furloughed restaurant workers. We quickly found money from a local donor and hired back some of our furloughed staff to box and distribute the food weekly. The first week, we distributed 400 boxes, each containing 35 pounds of fresh food. The second week, due to the magnitude of the need, we distributed 600 boxes. Then, we added a second day each week. During the 12-week project, we supplied some 150,000 meals to restaurant workers’ families.
- Support your favorite local restaurants by ordering takeout, contributing to GoFundMe pages, and tipping generously.
- All proceeds from Rick Bayless’ YouTube membership channel support salaries for his restaurant staff. “Live with Rick!” includes twice-weekly cooking video lessons and live cooking sessions hosted from the chef’s home. “The Kitchen Club” offers access to the weekly cooking video lessons.
Moulton: And then in June came the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in downtown Chicago.
Bayless: The weekend before we were permitted to open up for patio dining, the riots broke out in the wake of the George Floyd murder. I was eight blocks away, heard explosions, and sprinted to my car to get to the restaurants. Hundreds of people were in the street, most of them looking angry. In the process of ferrying my workers from the restaurants to their cars, I got stuck in my car in the middle of the crowd. I have never been so thankful that I practice yoga and meditation. I knew I needed to breathe deep and stay connected. Then an amazing thing happened. One of the demonstrators peered in the window, recognized me from my TV shows, and ushered my car out.
Moulton: Your restaurants did suffer exterior damage. How did you handle the anger you must have felt?
Bayless: I decided to just read and listen to YouTube videos from BLM advocates, trying to understand the other side of it. Finally, I was able to get to a place where I understood why, after all these years of experiencing institutional racism and lack of opportunities in their everyday lives, these protesters had had enough.
Moulton: Given all the different regulations affecting restaurants during the pandemic, what has been the most challenging?
Bayless: When we first opened several of our restaurants to patio service, it was unnerving. Our sanitation procedures took too long, and everyone, including the guests, felt edgy. Anxiety was now the mood of our normally joyful places. Servers were afraid to get close to the tables, and the guests couldn’t understand or be understood through the masks. When we were allowed 25% capacity inside at the end of January, it felt like Frontera was coming back to life. One of our chefs said we couldn’t let Topolobampo and its staff fade away, so we created a precious little version of our four-star fine dining restaurant in our test kitchen and library. By the end of August, we were breaking even. Then we had another indoor shut down at the end of October. Though patio dining is unpredictable, it has sometimes been quite robust, even in 30-degree weather.
Moulton: How have you kept yourself distracted during the pandemic?
Bayless: I bake cakes. When I was in Ann Arbor trying to finish my dissertation for my anthropology degree, I cooked and taught pastry classes at the café at Complete Cuisine on Main Street. And our first grandchild was born on Sept. 30, a baby girl named Charlie Belle.
Cookbook author Sara Moulton (saramoulton.com) is currently the host of the public television show “Sara’s Weeknight Meals.”