For Polite Society's Daniel Sammons, independent restaurants are worth fighting for.
Daniel Sammons remembers the moment he braced for the impact COVID-19 was about to have on Polite Society (1923 Park Avenue, 314-325-2553)
. Sitting in the back office with another manager, he listened to news of the first case hitting St. Louis back in March and knew they were going to be in for a ride.
"I remember sitting there chatting about it, and we looked at each other and said, 'What's our plan?'" Sammons recalls. "We talked about taking away the toothpicks and things we leave in the bathrooms for guests to use. I remember asking, 'Do you think we need to take salt and pepper shakers off the tables?' Two days later, we were closed."
Sammons, who is Polite Society's executive chef, describes the disorientation that he and his restaurant colleagues felt at the swiftness with which everything changed. Within 72 hours, he went from being able to stay out after work and have drinks with friends to being on full lockdown. He describes feeling as if things were operating in slow-motion, but he also feels that sense of speed.
"You blinked, and everything was gone," Sammons says.
Since March, Sammons and his team at Polite Society and its sister restaurant, the Bellwether, have been trying their best to figure out how to take care of both their employees and guests at a time when what that means feels different. He admits that the low point was in the early days, when he had to lay off his crew — something he found especially difficult considering these were the people he worked with in the trenches, day in and day out. However, as the months have gone on and the restaurants have reopened, he's been able to bring back some of his employees and move forward with curbside, delivery, dine-in and even a ghost kitchen sandwich delivery service, Sub Division.
As for the guests, Sammons admits that the most palpable change has been the lack of interaction. Hellos and goodbyes are a little more awkward and there are times when he might be busy with to-go orders, even though the dining room is empty. It's an eerie feeling, but he's hopeful it will pass, so long as people realize how important independent restaurants are.
"While chains have their place in the world, there are things that independent restaurants can do that chains can't," Sammons says. "This gives us a way to express ourselves, and as long as there are chefs and servers and bartenders willing to fight for that, it's not going anywhere. There's just such a sense of normalcy that going out to dinner gives you. To lose that — I don't even want to think about it."
Sammons took a break from the kitchen to share his thoughts on what it's like to be in his position in the industry right now, whether he thinks the changes ushered in by the pandemic will be permanent and what gives him hope in the midst of such a fraught time.
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
I think people need to be aware of how much COVID-19 is affecting the restaurant industry in terms of restaurant closures or some places just not able to reopen. It’s sad to see. Also, people refusing to wear masks that come in who might be symptomatic can close a restaurant, causing us to lose all shifts for up to two weeks. Be mindful of the service industry.
What do you miss most about the way things were at your job before COVID-19?
Being busy in the restaurant every day. I also miss being able to shake hands with people and give hugs to friends.
What do you miss least?
I think I just try not to think about how things were before everything. You just don’t mess with that.
What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?
My daily routine has never changed. Even on the days that I didn’t have anything going on, maintaining that sense of normalcy helps me get through the day.
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
I’m a big fan of peanut butter.
What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t want to run out of, other than toilet paper?
Peanut butter, herbs and books to read.
You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick?
It’s actually kind of a tough question. If you were to stay alive or dead, or past or present people, I would definitely say Robin Williams would be one of them.
Once you feel comfortable going back out and about, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
I’d love to go to a movie.
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
Masking and gloves are going to be more involved in our future than we want. I think we’re going to be more prepared for other pandemics if things were to come up or if there are other outbreaks of COVID-19.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
That even in the face of adversity, most restaurants are refusing to surrender. Also seeing other restaurants being successful gives me hope. Finding other ways to be successful, whether that's opening a ghost kitchen or doing more curbside and delivery from places that never did curbside or delivery. I think there's an "adapt and overcome" mentality. There are a lot of great shops in St. Louis. Nothing's going to beat us down!
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