Wolfgang Puck Started Preparing for the Coronavirus Outbreak Months Ago — and Now He's Able to Offer Welcome Relief to His Staff Around the World
Hourly and salaried workers across Puck's empire will receive full wages during the coronavirus crisis, as restaurants convert to temporary employee food banks.
Spago, an institution among Beverly Hills' fine-dining scene, is suddenly—and possibly briefly—a bargain. Call ahead, pull up curbside, and it's possible to take home multicourse dinners for two (at $49) between 4:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. daily. The meals, sold at cost, are Wolfgang Puck classics, including spring pea soup, his famous smoked salmon pizzas, handmade agnolotti, and roasted Jidori chickens. It's all a result of Puck's strong buying power and foresight into the pandemic.
"We foresaw the closure of countries, and how that would impact the import and export of food product, so over a month ago we were able to get out a lot of the last products," corporate chef and son-of-Wolfgang, Byron Puck, tells me over the phone from the Spago kitchen.
A month and a half ago, he ordered 450 pounds of Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy, “just in case,” and lately he'd been traveling to farms from Santa Ynez to La Jolla to secure produce. Puck found farmers so concerned about the food shortages seen on television they were begging him to take their produce for free just so people don't go hungry. "Of course, I could never do that in good conscience," he says. "We need to support each other as much as possible."
For Wolfgang Puck, whose empire includes more than 30 locations from Logan Airport to the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, restaurant closures began more than a month ago, beginning with the Shanghai outpost of CUT steakhouse. Meanwhile, Spago and CUT remain open in Singapore, as the outbreak there is managed, so it’s no wonder the company didn’t anticipate things would go wrong so quickly in the United States.
In Las Vegas, Spago is closed at the Bellagio while CUT is open at the Venetian, the decisions at the whim of casino owners rather than local government. Meanwhile New York and California have become more decisively restrictive on a daily basis as the impact of the virus comes to light. The restaurants shifted service to takeout-only faster than they predicted, finding themselves too well supplied.
Wolfgang Puck restaurants haven’t closed all together because as a group they’ve always remained one step ahead. "We started weeks ago with in-house training for all employees and have covered everything from creating distance between tables to increasing the number of hand sanitizing stations, cleaning crews, and deep cleans," Puck says.
Now the focus is on their employees. Wolfgang Puck ceaselessly expands his empire to keep his staff in the family, rewarding chefs by promoting from within to new outposts around the world, so he sees it as his responsibility to take care of them as best he can through the rough path ahead. Every hourly and salaried worker, regardless of how long they've been employed by the company, will receive full wages as restaurants reduce hours or temporarily close. It's a decision that will have to be reevaluated on a weekly basis, but in the meantime plenty of the restaurants' overstock will go home with them as well.
"We're going to offer free to-go meals for employees, as well as extra supplies and produce—if they can't go to the supermarket, they can come to Spago," Puck says.
CUT steakhouses around the country are soon to follow suit, this week developing curbside options and temporary employee food banks while continuing to serve hotel guests, like at the Four Seasons Downtown in lower Manhattan. On Monday morning, Wolfgang Puck encouraged all his employees who still wish to cook after the food runs out to volunteer their time with longtime partner Meals on Wheels, while receiving pay.
For now, however, the company is focused on keeping open whatever it can, in whatever capacity, until the government takes broad definitive action. "We contact city officials to get a leg up, but ultimately we're all in the same boat," Puck says. "We find out the same thing at the same time whether it's from Mayor Garcetti or the President."
"We're just at the beginning of this, and we're trying to gather information," Puck says, acknowledging "lobbying will come into play if things get worse."
Things have already gotten worse at airport staple Wolfgang Puck Express, where sales have taken a dip as non-essential travel comes to a slow halt, but Puck is determined to be hospitable to the very last passenger. He knows people who are still in the air every day, “and I can't imagine denying them a meal."