It feels ridiculous to ask Jason Zygmont about pasta right now. When an interview was scheduled to talk about the absurdly good ricotta agnolotti he makes at Setsun — our Eater Nashville 2019 Dish of the Year — the questions seemed obvious. Where’d you learn to make pasta? What’s the weirdest thing you ate while working at Noma? How’s the pop-up business nine months in?
It’s not right to ask those questions now. Or at least, it’s not right to lead with them. As the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold, it seems like months and not weeks ago that Nashville experienced its first overwhelming blow of 2020 when a tornado ripped through Middle Tennessee. When that happened, Nashville’s hospitality industry rallied. They’re still rallying today — albeit in a different way.
Over the past week, Nashville restaurants and bars have taken it upon themselves to close or pivot to a pick-up-and-delivery model to promote social distancing, which slows the spread of the novel coronavirus. Unfortunately, it may also prove to be a catastrophic one for their businesses.
“Nashville is a hospitality town, and half of us are out of work right now,” says Zygmont. “In one week, my host at Setsun lost all three of her jobs. For the foreseeable future — months at very earliest — we’re not going to have people in restaurants. I don’t know if that has really set in across the board. Right now you can stay in your house and drink a bottle of wine and eat pasta, but three weeks from now, it’s going to get pretty ugly out there. And if this goes down for six months, there will be zero independently owned restaurants left.”
What Nashville needs now is swift, decisive action, Zygmont says, and he doesn’t care where that comes from. When the global impact of coronavirus started coming into focus over the past few weeks, the Setsun East team was already in the midst of a pre-planned jump from their weekly pop-up at Sky Blue Cafe to a more permanent home at Van Dyke Bed & Beverage. Obviously, the restaurant reopening is postponed for now, and Zygmont’s team is currently working on a delivery/takeout riff on their “Not Chinese” New Year menu. That food will travel better than the ricotta agnolotti that brought him attention over the past year, he says, but honestly? Takeout food quality is not his biggest worry. That he can fix.
“My main concern is for hourly employees,” he says. “I’ll pay my employees as much as I can until I run out of money. I can have someone help me cook, keep our dishwashers coming in, especially those with kids, and a handful of front-of-house, hopefully working delivery,” he says. “I’m extremely lucky that I don’t have a lease for a decade, or a personal loan guaranteed for a $1 million buildout. We’re not going to fold, but I worry for our friends. I don’t know how any restaurant can close for a month and stay open.”
Zygmont says chefs including Julia Sullivan of Strategic Hospitality and Sean Brock have been talking with lobbyists and representatives, trying to figure out how to get the industry the support it needs. Zygmont believes it’s all going to come down to the economy.
“In a conservative state and administration, the easiest way to get them to give us relief is to convince them to help us save these businesses — to say, ‘Get us funds so we can take care of our employees,’” he says.
The government is considering just that with their emergency stimulus package, which could send two $1,000 checks to many Americans and $300 billion to help small businesses avoid mass layoffs. That’s where you come in.
“If you feel comfortable calling a state representative or senator, call. Don’t let what to say trip you up — you’ll probably get a college senior on the phone who’s tallying these things on a piece of paper,” he says, laughing. “Just say, ‘I want to show my support for hospitality workers in Nashville, and I’d like to see the government do something concrete to help my community.’ It might feel useless, but these calls add up. It takes 15 seconds, and it costs nothing.”
Once that’s done, Zygmont says diners can put actual money where their mouth is by:
- Buying gift cards or merch from local restaurants and bars, and
- Making use of the many pick-up or delivery services they’re offering.
Or taking political action by calling or emailing:
- U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander: 202-224-4944
- U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn: 202-224-3344
- U.S. Representative Jim Cooper: 202-225-4311
“Dining is important, and if it goes away, it will destroy a huge part of our culture here in Nashville,” says Zygmont. “The time for political bickering is over. We need action. Because the other option is a complete fucking disaster.”
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