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CH Projects’ Arsalun Tafazoli on Restaurant Life After COVID-19

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The co-founder of the group behind Born & Raised, Ironside, and many more local bars and restaurants shares a personal essay

Born & Raised
Haley Hill Photography

When the city’s dine-in ban came down, one of San Diego’s most prolific and high-profile restaurant groups — CH Projects — moved to temporarily shutter all of its 14 restaurants and bars, save for the Underbelly ramens shops in Little Italy and North Park which are still open for takeout, with all proceeds going to the hospitality collective’s furloughed staff.

With its upcoming projects halted, co-founder Arsalun Tafazoli says they’re focused on supporting their internal crew of 600 employees; all online sales of merchandise and gift cards are going towards a team fund, and Ironside in Little Italy has been set up as a staff grocery.

In the meantime, he’s been reflecting on the current and future state of the restaurants. Here, in his own words, Tafazoli considers how the crisis could bring some positive changes to the industry. In the coming days, we’ll share more thoughts from local chefs and restaurant owners who are navigating this new world.

In some ways, to be in the restaurant world right now is to sit back and watch everybody else get hit by the same truck that already blindsided you. Industry after industry is getting pummeled. You can pick up any credible publication and the talk is about who is going to get bailed out and with how much and when. But even while our industry hemorrhages and talks about rallying our elected representatives to step up and help us, we sort of know it’s not going to happen. Even though we represent a workforce of about 10 million people, and impact supply chains that include tens of thousands more. The question is, why not?

If there’s a known truth about the restaurant world, it’s that it’s a hard business. On a good day, we’re in crisis mode. When we welcome new people into CH Projects, we teach them about restaurant profit margins. “How do you make a small fortune?” the old joke goes. “Start with a big one and open a restaurant.”

Most of us that work in restaurants love the energy and the dysfunction and the challenge even while we know it’s eating us alive. “Find what you love and let it kill you,” as the saying goes. We made a Faustian deal a long time ago to be part of this world. The day-to-day stress and anxiety feeds us in a sick and twisted way.

Arsalun Tafazoli
Courtesy image

But it also keeps our industry fragmented. We put a friendly face on for the public, rooting for each other on social media, showing up for special events. We admire each other’s successes and aspire to do the same for ourselves. But that doesn’t change the fact that every one of us sees every other restaurant as a competitor. You have to when you’re trapped in a cycle of near desperation, trying to balance fragile, fluctuating sales with massive monthly outlays for payroll, sales taxes, rent, and the extra costs associated with state and local regulation. You don’t succeed in the restaurant world so much as survive — and I say that as someone who is considered to be somewhat of a success.

That kind of tension doesn’t encourage real collaboration, or even true connection. And when a situation like this one arises—as unprecedented as it is (and aren’t you getting sick of that word?)—it becomes painfully obvious that you can’t create a united front overnight, no matter how many platitudes you spout about coming together. As big as our industry is, it’s also incredibly shallow. We have no voice in Washington where it would matter most right now, as local and state governments get overwhelmed by competing demands. We’re on our own. As we move forward, which we will, that has to change.

New perspective is the gift of a world where everything has been turned upside down, so maybe it isn’t odd that I feel surprisingly optimistic at this moment. I believe that after COVID-19, the democratic social spaces of restaurants and bars are going to be more important than ever. Community means something different after you’ve spent weeks holed up essentially alone. Bars and restaurants are where we’ll ritualize our newfound, hard-earned appreciation of normalcy and human engagement.

But it’s heartbreaking that not every restaurant or bar is going to get to the other side. So while we look forward and think about life after COVID-19, those of us in the restaurant industry need to think about what kind of world we want ours to be. How can the emotional bond we’re feeling now be turned into something stronger, with muscle and teeth to protect all of us and all of our people in the future? Can we collectivize our security, maybe not just when a virus shuts down the entire economy, but on a day-to-day basis? What would that look like? How do we preserve our creative culture while promoting our professionalism, so that we’re respected as a viable career path and our people as experts and innovators, not just a bunch of drifters en route to their “real” jobs?

I don’t have the answers. But I am excited for the conversation, and inspired by the resilience and ingenuity I’m seeing all around me, hardworking restaurant people doing what we do and finding what ways they can to push forward. Anthony Bourdain once said, “Luck is not a business model.” Neither is being passive. The old world is gone. Let’s build a better one.

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