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As Restaurants Close, A Chef Considers What Can Be Done To Help

Driftless Cafe Owner And Chef Shares Ideas To Help Local Restaurants, Farmers

restaurant, closed, coronavirus, COVID-19
A bar is empty on St. Patrick’s Day, Tuesday March 17, 2020, in Milwaukee. Morry Gash/AP Photo

The restaurant industry has been hit hard by the growing spread of COVID-19 in Wisconsin following Tuesday’s directive from Gov. Tony Evers to shutter all restaurants and bars and gatherings of more than 10 people in the state.

On Wednesday, Evers announced plans to issue an emergency order that would waive work search requirements and change unemployment benefit rules to address economic fallout from COVID-19.

Luke Zahm, chef and owner of the Driftless Cafe in Viroqua, said his restaurant had to lay off 64 employees earlier this week and asked them to file for unemployment.

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While the economic fallout will likely continue for months, Zahm says there are opportunities in the meantime for community members to help those economically hit by the outbreak.

Zahm recently spoke with WPR’s “The Morning Show” host Kate Archer Kent.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Kate Archer Kent: How is Driftless Cafe doing?

Luke Zahm: There’s a lot of feelings. I think first and foremost, there’s heartbreak because we definitely pride ourselves on being a focal point of community and gathering and sustenance and love for the people around us. But we also felt for the community we serve, it’s the responsible thing to do.

Our staff came in yesterday and we cut the paychecks and set out all the perishable food that we had in the cafe so they could take it home. It’s some of the best food in the entire United States. We have the best network of farmers that we pull these sources from.

KAK: Mortgage abatement and rent abatement have been floated to try to help these restaurants from not folding completely. What other measures might help?

LZ: The suspension or even the partial reduction of payroll taxes by the state and federal government or the suspension of credit card processing fees, those are huge.

But other than that, it really comes down to being able to support your restaurants locally. Gift card campaigns are humongous right now. And the one thing that I do absolutely want to plead — and we have been overwhelmed in our gift card sales over the last few days, which is amazing — is for the diners who want to come and experience their favorite restaurant, it’s going to be imperative that you pace the utilization of those gift cards, and maybe not in the first couple weeks that those businesses reopen.

It’s going to be crucially important that there’s cash in the facility to make sure that we can buy food, support local farmers. And we worry a little bit about this huge knee-jerk reaction to buy, buy, buy and then redeem so quickly.

KAK: Are you concerned that your employees will be forced to find other jobs?

LZ: Yeah, absolutely. The most frustrating thing is in an industry where we are one of the largest market sectors in the United States for employment, that we can’t provide affordable health care for a lot of employees. It’s not going to be a surprise when people decide, ‘You know what, I’m going to use my time to do something that is valued at a higher level in our society.’

People are going to make the decisions that are best for their families, that are best for their communities, that are best for their lives. And that’s just an unfortunate reality at this point.

KAK: What effect is the shutdown having on the small farms that supply many of our state’s restaurants?

LZ: It’s astronomical. I was speaking with my banker yesterday and asked him, ‘have you seen a lot of farmers come in yet?’ And he replied, ‘no,’ because that’s not the first wave. The people that are immediately out of work, the restaurant food service, hospitality industry, we’re going to be the first wave of people really displaced. But as this progresses, the farmers are going to come into an era of hardship as well.

But more than anything, if you have an interest in local food, check out the Fairshare CSA Coalition because this is a time where you can put that money into a small farm and buy a vegetable share, a meat share, whatever it may be, and really, really impact that bottom line of the farmer and keep them on their land, and keep them farming, and keep this country moving.

KAK: What advice do you have for people cooking at home?

LZ: Try and cook a Julia Child cookbook start to finish. I know that people kind of laugh about that, but it’s something to do and that lady knew how to cook.

Right now we’re going through Vivian Howard’s Deep Run Roots and finding recipes that we can adapt and modify to ingredients that we have on hand. I’m being pretty staunch and firm about not having to go to the store to get accessory ingredients to make something. That’s how you learn, making that modification to suit what you have and the pallets that you have in the house.