The Bellwether's Thomas Futrell has had to rethink what hospitality means due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thomas Futrell doesn't hesitate when asked about the hardest thing he's had to deal with in his role as executive chef at the Bellwether (1419 Carroll Street, 314-380-3086)
since the COVID-19 pandemic struck St. Louis.
"I want to say it was the third week of March, on a Monday, and we'd just made our order for the week, but we decided to close the dining rooms," Futrell recalls. "That was the hardest day, laying everyone off — knowing we had to lay everyone off, myself included. You build a team, and they are family; you spend more time with them than your family. We just tried to regroup and figure out what our next step was."
A veteran chef, Futrell has seen a lot of ups and downs during his time in the business, but he has never seen anything like the devastation that the outbreak has wreaked upon the restaurant industry. The speed and strength with which the virus hit is something he is still trying to comprehend. One minute, the restaurant was coming off a great post-holiday season — typically a downtime in the business — and gearing up for what would surely be a great patio season on the restaurant's impressive rooftop. The next, he and the management team were wondering what steps they could take to make sure their restaurant would survive. It's made them rethink everything, including the fundamentals about what it means to be in the business.
"It's strange; we always say that we are navigating this while trying to do hospitality, and the two things don't always coincide," Futrell says. "You can go to a table, but you can't give someone you haven't seen in a while a hug. You can give someone an elbow bump but not a handshake. You can't see our facial expressions behind a mask. Hospitality now is about making people feel comfortable because you can no longer make them feel like they are at home."
Despite the challenges, Futrell feels fortunate about where he and his team at the Bellwether, and its sister restaurant, Polite Society, have landed. The Bellwether was quickly able to pivot to carryout, and he was thrilled with the support the restaurant received from regulars. And now, with two patios open, he's seeing guests slowly come back out to eat, which is made possible by the trust their commitment to creating a safe environment has afforded the restaurant.
Still, he is hopeful that the COVID-19 reality will one day be a memory, and things can get back to where they were.
"There is always that looming around the corner of 'What's next?' but we try not to think about it too much and take things day by day," Futrell says. "I really hope a year from now we can look back on this, but realistically, we could be years into this. I believe wholeheartedly that this will leave our industry changed. If half of us survive...yeah."
Futrell took some time from the Bellwether's kitchen to share his thoughts on what it's like to be in the restaurant business during such a challenging time, what he does to maintain a sense of normalcy, what keeps him grounded and the things that give him hope.
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
This is a difficult question to answer. We are all going through so much right now, keeping our teams, families and guests safe. Outside of all of that, we are operating at 50% (or in most cases less than that) what we were doing pre-COVID-19. You are taught all your career that hospitality is about comfort, and now the idea of what makes people comfortable has completely changed. We (owners and managers) sat and debated before reopening about if we pour the wine for the guests or ask them if they would prefer to pour it. As different as everything feels, this is what I love to do. It feels amazing to welcome people into our doors, to sit at our tables, to enjoy our food and service again.
What do you miss most about the way things were at your job before COVID?
I miss feeling comfortable going to a table to say hi or to talk to people. Table visits now feel more uncomfortable for everyone.
What do you miss least?
I do not miss how unkind people can be. There seems to be more empathy with the guests (that are coming out). There appears to be the old adage that “we are all in the same boat." There is a shared compassion that we, too, are going through the same life-changing events.
What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?
I have a zoo at home. People always laugh, and yes, it can be a little ridiculous. My girlfriend and I volunteer for Serendipity German Shepherd Rescue. We have four dogs of our own, and we currently have a foster dog, to boot, so I have no “free time.” The dogs have been my normal. They do not know what is going on. They still need to be taken on walks and fed. They all need attention all the time, so they are a great distraction. The dogs and my girlfriend keep me grounded in normalcy.
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
I haven’t been stress-eating; you have been stress eating. This is just preparing for a cold winter. I know I have been stress-eating. Can you blame anyone in this? I know I do not need them, but my latest are Peanut Butter Oreos. Where the hell have you been all my life? Really they are ridiculous.
What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t run out of, other than toilet paper?
At the restaurant: Gloves, masks, sanitizer/disinfectant. At home: Dog food, dog treats, dog toys.
You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick?
If there are no rules to this, and I can choose anyone through history living or not, then Stan Lee, Martin Luther King Jr. and Anthony Bourdain. I would love to hear what they have to say about current events.
Once you feel comfortable going back out and about, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
I feel comfortable going out now, following guidelines of course. The first thing that we [Futrell and his girlfriend, Karri] did was go out to a few restaurants. We liked knowing that we could go and support friends and see what others are doing to navigate this.
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
Continuing to make people feel comfortable with dining out. As we have seen we have been allowed to do activities, and honestly, people do not know that we are operating at 50% capacity, so normal activity levels probably will not happen for a little while.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
That we have had people coming out. We can give a little escapism from everything going on.
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