Delivery helped restaurants survive the pandemic, but owning a restaurant is about more than just survival. Restaurateurs are driven by passion for sharing their culture, creating delicious food, nurturing their local community, and so much more. As restaurants start reopening around the country, what does it mean to move out of survival mode and embrace a way of living bigger?
Soul of the City
A recent DoorDash short film, Soul of the City, captures this moment. Directed by Kristian Mercado, the film turns its lens on six NYC restaurants — Caracas Arepa Bar, Tacoway Beach, Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Palma, Peppa's Jerk Chicken, and Sylvia's — highlighting their connections with their communities, and the challenges they've faced in the last year.
You have to be a little crazy to open a restaurant in New York City.
Following the film's premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, four of the restaurant owners featured in the film convened for a live Q&A to discuss their shared struggles, individual joys, and what keeps them going in the face of challenges. Keep reading to learn from restaurateurs Kamal Walters (Peppa's Jerk Chicken), Maribel Araujo (Caracas Arepa Bar), and Andrew Field (Tacoway Beach) as they look back on how far they've come and where they're going next.
Cooking from a place of love
Food is connection, and starting a restaurant is often born from a desire to share that connection. For Kamal Walters, food is a way to communicate care. Coming to America as an immigrant from Jamaica, he saw his family's food as a way to share his favorite part of his culture.
"As immigrants, the only thing we had to offer when we came to the city was our home cooking," Kamal explained. "Once people tried our food that was made with love, it gave them a feeling of release. We want you to come here to have good food and not worry about anything else."
Welcoming people wherever you are
Maribel Araujo also saw her food as a way to share her culture with her new home. Coming from Venezuela, she missed her homeland and had a vision of sharing her culture with her neighbors.
"I wanted to make something to honor my father and to honor my country," Maibel explained. "My business partner and I had zero experience in restaurants. But this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to bring the one thing that deeply connected me to my family and culture, and I wanted to share that with the city. I feel proud to show New Yorkers what Venezuela is all about."
"The hospitality aspect is number one for us," added Andrew Field, recognizing the lengths people travel to get to his restaurant in Rockaway Beach, and the importance of welcoming people in for that experience.
Lessons on building resilience
NYC restaurant owners are no strangers to finding their way through unexpected challenges. "We bounced back from 9/11, we bounced back from [Hurricane] Sandy. We're going to bounce back from this," explains Wilson Tang, owner of Nom Wah Tea Parlor, in the film.
Each restaurant owner brought a different perspective to getting through tough times. Here's what each of them had to say about building resilience, and how that's helped them get their restaurant to a place of reopening.
The reason why we've kept going is our legacy. Here now, in this moment, I realized it's my moment. It's my moment to shine and keep us moving forward, so that my daughter can take up this business when it's her turn.
The main motivation was our family — our family of staff. When my business partner and I moved here with no one, we became a family with our staff. We employ some undocumented immigrants who don't get unemployment benefits, and we needed to open our doors as quickly as possible for them.
Morale is important. In the craziest moments, you pick each other up and look out for your staff. That's what helps us get through the crazy shifts. We also looked for new income streams to help us balance the burnout.
Looking ahead as restaurants reopen
After the trial-by-fire period of the pandemic, all of the restaurant owners see reopening as an opportunity to kickstart new habits and approaches. Maribel hopes this community movement will continue, as more and more people recognize the importance of small businesses and look for new ways to help them thrive.
"I really hope that we don't take for granted the people that stitch together the fabric of the city," Maribel explained. "Not just restaurant workers — it's all the little mom-and-pop businesses too. We need to support our small businesses."
As Chloerose D'Orazio of Palma urges viewers in the final words in the film: "I hope that we retain this lesson of gratitude as a collective, as a community of New York. We remember that you don't need an excuse to celebrate — and sometimes that is a home-cooked meal, sometimes it is going out. Just give people your time and energy, and celebrate."
Watch the Soul of the City film
Want to hear more from these inspiring restaurateurs? Watch the full Soul of the City film.
Additionally, as you navigate the evolving COVID-19 pandemic guidelines, check out our Reopening Guide for Restaurants for helpful information on how to manage mask policies, staff vaccinations, post-pandemic guidelines, and more.