When we can’t dine together as we did before the pandemic, what does it look like to find community through food?
The role of restaurants as a community space has shifted significantly in 2020. Amid a struggling hospitality industry and with continued health risks and restrictions on indoor dining in many states, restaurants have been forced to re-envision the communal experience of food. VICE asked chefs and restaurant owners: Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, what has finding community through food looked like for you? These conversations took place in late July and early August, and the situation for the restaurant industry continues to change quickly.
After Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker announced the statewide shutdown of bars and restaurants on March 15 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, chef Diana Dávila quickly pivoted Mi Tocaya Antojería, her three-year-old Chicago restaurant, into a to-go operation. But with unclear guidelines and a shortage of information, Dávila decided to close the restaurant after just one day. In May, Dávila reopened Mi Tocaya to participate in Erik Bruner Yang’s Power of Ten initiative, a Capital One-sponsored program that funded restaurants to partner with local organizations to feed communities nationwide. Working with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Dávila and Mi Tocaya provided free meals for families at local elementary schools.
With Mi Tocaya’s participation in the initiative over, the restaurant is currently doing to-go food and minimal outdoor dining, despite state regulations allowing limited indoor service. Dávila told VICE about how the initiative helped her and her staff better understand their community, and what survival for Mi Tocaya might look like.
“We opened back up [in May]. A friend of mine who lives in D.C. started this project called the Power of Ten initiative. He got funded, and it was about small business owners giving to the community. Basically, they gave us money as if it was a catering order, and we got to hire a couple people, we got to help our community out, and the business gets a little bit of money, too. Obviously, we did apply for PPP [loans], so it kind of came in all at the same time.
I feel like [the Power of Ten initiative] really changed a lot of [our] employees; I almost feel bad about how good it felt. So many times—especially in this industry, as cooks who work long hours—there’s not a lot of community work that gets done. We were doing more than 1,000 meals a week, and going to different locations—not just preparing the meals, but [also] delivering them and being with people; that’s when you can really understand [your community]. There’s nothing like giving something with no desire of receiving anything except for their enjoyment of the food—their enjoyment of what it is that you’re giving.
This is our community; let’s try to make an impact here in our community first.
It’s extremely rewarding; that’s what I mean when I said that I started feeling guilty about how good this makes me feel. We all sort of had that feeling, but meeting and interacting with people in our community and in our local schools felt really amazing. I think it really made everyone want to do more.
What does it mean to actually be a part of your community? Sometimes you just kind of forget. Why is it important for you to be involved in your community, and know what its strong suits and what its weak points are? [This idea] is really what is going to make you a better contributing [member]. Almost none of [our employees] are married, none of them own their houses, and there are only a few that have children. I always want to call them kids, and they’re not; they’re in their 20s, and a lot of times they have all this stress and anxiety about, oh, the world is all gone to shit. It really does start this like: What is it that you can do to help? That’s how you get to learn about all of these systemic things that we talk about every single election.
I didn’t know where I wanted to do this. I was like, Should we do first responders? Should we do this, should we do that? Should we go to the South Side? But you know what? There is a need here in our neighborhood. This is our community; let’s try to make an impact here in our community first. I live right by the restaurants, my children go to public school, but you never stop learning. I had never actually paired up with a nonprofit organization in my own community [continuously].
That saying that it takes a village to raise children—100 percent, it really does. We’ve kind of gone into this like: What happens if you don’t have family that can help you out? I love children; it sucks that sometimes, we’re not able to take care of them as much as we should. If I can do something to help families in that regard, where you don’t have to get shitty food from a place that is not good for your children’s nutrition, [I will]. The food that we make is vegetables, protein—good for you, and it tastes delicious.
Being a chef, you can do so many things; it doesn’t mean you have to have a restaurant. For me, I have always been in love with going out to eat. Right now, with patio [dining], we get to have that. We have a really cute patio right outside our restaurants. We lean more on the side of safety: All we have is four tables, and we don’t accept any tables larger than 4. I think it’s nice, and these guests never have to come inside.
Right now, we’re trying to figure it out, because we still haven’t been able to be stable. Just in these weeks, it’s been whether it’s to-go food only, but then, [the city is] opening up patios—and then our to-go business went down—and then after that, we had everything that happened with the beginning of the protests with George Floyd. All of these things have created instability. Now, [restaurants] can open dine-in, and our to-go business dropped again.
When we want something, when something’s important to us, we do our everything to be able to make that happen.
I feel a responsibility to protect my employees as well. I have no idea where [guests] have been, if they take [the virus] seriously, because there are people out there who don’t. For me, I’d rather lean toward safety. I feel comfortable with the four tables on the patio; I really don’t feel comfortable with people inside.
Right now we are starting to wean off of this PPP, and match our labor to the average sales that we can get at this point. Our team is very strong right now, and everybody has been helping everybody. We pay everybody a fair hourly wage, and now, tips get distributed to everyone. It’s all of our jobs to do this; it creates a stronger team.
My husband and I are pretty dogged—we’re persistent. When we want something, when something’s important to us, we do our everything to be able to make that happen. I don’t want to close. I want Mi Tocaya to survive, and I’m going to do my absolute best to try to make that happen. But, you also have to know when it’s not going to work. You have to be prepared for both.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.