Whether you actually have the virus or not, this pandemic has felt like a shadow cast on us all. We’re fumbling in the uncertainty of this temporary new life, an alternative atmosphere of obsessively checking the news, going through foreign routines, attempting zany craft projects, dusting off old hobbies, rechecking our news feeds, having the attention and energy of our children bent on us literally All. Day. Long. Maybe a little more scrolling in case you missed anything in the last five minutes? We’ve got more time on our hands then we know what to do with, floating in the thinness of liminal space. At least your dog is happy about all the walks.
Meanwhile, the seemingly inexhaustible behemoth of the American economy has bent to a crawl. The ripple effect has spared few, with the food and beverage industry experiencing one of the most instantaneous, acute, and widely talked about shutdowns in the nation. We love our restaurants, but whether it’s a place that’s been around for 50 years or has just opened, the nature of the industry is that we need all of you, real live humans, to partake in what we are doing. Dining out can be viewed as just an unnecessary luxury, but at their best, the places we love to visit are bastions of civility, communal hubs, cultural epicenters, places for joy, relaxation, and pleasure. Surely these are things we’d bitterly hate to lose.
To put it mildly, the last few weeks have been a roller coaster of emotion for all of us who work in food, beverage, and hospitality. How vital and necessary are we really during a global crisis? There are thousands of people who are honored to call this a career here in West Michigan and thousands more who are connected to what we do. We’ve been hanging on every word of every press conference, and watching as our nation’s biggest cities snuff the fires of their kitchens and shutter bars and taprooms. On a national level, as independent restaurants we represent 4% of our country’s GDP and encompass 11 million people. Let that sink in.
As Americans though, do we truly care? We’ve by and large taken the path of cheaper, faster, and more profitable ways of producing and eating food. We grow so much we ship it off to China, waste 40% of what we do keep for ourselves, spend less on food than almost every modernized nation, and then want to pretend how expensive, inconvenient, or hipster it is to support a local, sustainable food system. It’s been well documented that restaurants operate on thin margins, and even in “normal” times it takes very little to upset the whole damn applecart for a lot of us. Is it any wonder then, with the way we undervalue what we consume, that there is little to no runway for these businesses?
For local and independent places in particular, it’s even more difficult; at Sovengard we choose not to use a gigantic food distribution company, opting to pay more for quality seasonal ingredients, support local farms and producers, and offer fair wages to our staff. We’re not alone in these efforts, and many, many places have had to make the gut wrenching decision on whether to batten down the hatches and lay off their entire staff until this passes, or to switch gears and keep going. I never imagined we’d be doing it, but in the past week we’ve made a very fast and uncomfortable pivot to continue offering our farm-to-table food through a takeout and delivery pop-up called Lightwaves. We wanted to do everything possible within the safety and confines of the current situation to keep supporting our purveyors and almost all of our full-time staff, while continuing to offer local food, comfort, and maybe a small ray of hope to our patrons.
Some places just don’t have this flexibility though, and regardless if a decision was made to close or stay open, this ordeal has besieged us; how long can we hold out and take care of everyone inside the fortress, and what monsters await us on the other side of the wall?
Courage, dear heart.
As we continue testing our gravity in the current situation, know that we are slowly, achingly turning toward the light. Dawn will break, and our perseverance will win over this illness and the further challenges facing us down the road. Perhaps this tragedy will even shake some of us to our senses that need to be woke. We’re beginning though, to see the selfless acts, grit, and determination that truly define us as a country. Bars, restaurants, and tasting rooms will survive, and it’s been amazing to already witness our collective creativity and support during such trouble. We are honored to be able to continue providing nourishment to people amongst such crippling conditions.
But we’d be fools if we didn’t learn something from this, weigh what’s really important to us as a society, and act with conviction. How do we come together as a country and world, make a positive impact in our own corners of the community, give every person an equal opportunity for health and prosperity, be better stewards of our resources, and just plain take care of one another and our planet? The way forward may not be entirely clear but we can do it. I know we can.
So, take a little quarantine time now to think and to dream about what’s possible, and allow yourself a few moments for the simple things that draw us together as humanity; the spring sun on your face, how good it’s going to feel to grab a drink and hug your friends again, sleeping in, a hot cup of tea, the laughter of your children, and perhaps, an actual meal at the dinner table with the ones you hold dear.
Rick Muschiana is the founder and co-owner of The Søvengård. He and his family started the business in 2017 to disrupt a broken food system and improve the availability and economy of locally grown and raised food. Prior to this entrepreneurial venture, he worked for 5 years in the craft beverage industry for Virtue Cider and Brewery Vivant, and lots bars and restaurants throughout Michigan, Chicago and Los Angeles. He is a graduate from Kendall College of Art and Design, and resides in the West Side neighborhood of Grand Rapids with his wife, two sons, and one barky terrier.
Photos courtesy Samantha Ruth Photography.