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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

The Current State of Affairs

March 18, 2020

March 17, 2020 Good morning, everyone. We are living in strange, and scary times. The atmosphere around the restaurants is very surreal. It’s almost as if we are living in a movie— and not a lighthearted romantic romp, a whacky screwball comedy, or even a big-business drama— but a disaster movie about a heretofore unknown virus spreading rapidly across the globe.

A few weeks ago, life was normal. There was vague talk over a virus in China, but it barely made a blip in local newscasts. I’ll bet if you polled 100 people back at the first of February maybe five percent would have known the term COVID-19. Then a case reported on the West Coast, and now, this situation.

I hesitate to describe what “this situation” is because it is changing by the day, and sometimes by the hour. As a 40-year veteran of the restaurant business (32 as an owner), I have absolutely nothing to compare with this current pandemic. September 11, 2001 was a world-altering tragedy, and things in our country were changed forever that day. But the results of that tragedy were more patriotism and resolve. In this current national emergency people are rapidly changing the way they live their daily lives.

The situation is changing so precipitously, it’s hard to describe what the current status is, because this column goes to print in two days (some newspapers run it six days from now) and there will be a new normal. Based on the rate the state of affairs are changing, our world, and the way we go about our day-to-day lives, will likely be substantially different than it is right now in a couple of days.

I write this column at our breakfast restaurant while sitting on my usual stool at 6:45 a.m. But nothing is usual about this morning. For the past week we have made wholesale changes in the way we operate our restaurants. But this time next week, this restaurant might be closed due to a government mandate or closed due to lack of customers. Both scenarios are possible, and both could realistically come true tomorrow, the next day, or the next. So, the odds are high that when you read this my world, the world of my family, and the world of the 300 employees that work for our company and their families and loved ones will have changed in considerable ways.

Strange days, my friends. Now is not the best time in history to be in the restaurant business. It’s obviously a great time to be in the hand sanitizer and/or toilet paper business, but we press on. We are acting quickly, decisively, and with the health and well-being of our team members and guests in mind. We are being responsible operators and have quickly put into place dozens of health and safety precautions in our daily operating plan.

The health of our employees and guests is our number one priority. It always has been, and it always will be. It didn’t take a global pandemic for us to implement a plan on how to take care of our co-workers and guests. We have a long and storied history of doing just that. However, we did immediately start changing the way we conduct business as it pertains to customer contact, front and back-of-the-house sanitation, the handling and use of condiments, and the sanitary upkeep of hard surfaces, door handles and the like.

Under normal circumstances, I would be writing this column this morning while working in Spain touring 25 people across that country while filming the sixth season of our television show, “Palate to Palette.” Though as we all know, these are far from normal circumstances, here and abroad. I cancelled that tour, as well as four Tuscany tours that were to take place immediately after the Spain tour. It, too, was a situation that seemed to change by the hour in the weeks prior to the planned departure. The situation grew so dire in Italy— so fast— that it went from a level of “all go, no problem” to a nationwide lockdown in a matter of days.

The current situation is such that I don’t feel as if I have the words to give help or advice. C.S. Lewis, a very wise man, and much more devout man than I had the perfect words 72 years ago. The situation was different. However, the solution was the same.

“In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. ‘How are we to live in an atomic age?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.’”

“In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.”

“This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

One thing I do know is that this is not a permanent situation. I think, all too often, we go through a major life change and we can’t see an end to it. This will end. There is hope, because we are a resilient people. We are resourceful, and we have proven time and time again that the American people step up to the plate in times like these and we are up to the challenge.

Push onward. Pray. Be strong. Stay safe. Love one another (but from a distance) and wash your hands.

Strange days, indeed.


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