UPDATED: 3/19/20 4:30 p.m.
For the past two days, chef Ferrell Alvarez and his partners at Proper House Group have analyzed every penny coming in and going out of their four Tampa Bay restaurants.
His group, like others locally, has been hit hard by a global coronavirus pandemic that threatens the livelihoods of countless cooks, bartenders, servers and dishwashers worldwide.
“We’ve been looking at everything, arguing, agreeing and crying as we try to make the most sound decision for everyone on our payroll,” Alvarez, 41, told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, but we need to be leaders, and try to make sure this company and its employees can make it through the storm.”
Alvarez’s pain comes from the news he delivered to 41 employees who learned, this week, that they are being laid off from Proper House Group restaurants including Seminole Heights’ Best of the Bay-winning Rooster & the Till and Nebraska Mini-Mart, plus downtown Tampa and Lakeland locations of Alvarez’s Gallito taqueria.
Before the layoff, Proper House was home to 53 employees—not including ownership. Alvarez said that one of the Rooster servers he let go had been working with him for more than 10 years, since his days at Cafe Dufrain.
“We unfortunately had no means to provide a severance,” Alvarez told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “Our focus is to sustain our company so the employees we had to let go have something to come back to eventually rather than sustain them for two months and cannibalize ourselves all in all.”
So now Alvarez, his partners and the remaining management staff—which is now being paid a fixed amount per shift—are doing everything they can to bring each employee back under the Proper House roof.
Starting Thursday, Proper House Group is turning Rooster & the Till—located at 6500 N. Florida Ave.—into the hub for an operation that will deliver items from three concepts—Rooster, Nebraska Mini-Mart and Gallito. The new endeavor is dubbed "Rooster Re-Dux."
The meals will be delivered directly to customers via curbside pickup, meal delivery apps like UberEats and GrubHub plus direct from Proper House team members themselves.
“We’re still working on the radius, but if you’ve ever wanted me to deliver food directly to your door, I am doing it,” Alvarez said, adding that his Proper House Partners—Ty Rodriguez and Chon Nguyen will also hand-deliver food. Even the partners’ wives—who manage national retail chains and marketing for food tech companies—are helping run food in their vehicles.
“Our goal with this initiative is not to make money as a restaurant. We’re looking to build revenue in this unique way because it’s our responsibility to do everything we can in order to provide some sort of income for the employees we had to lay off,” Alvarez said, adding that he’s been inspired by the approach taken by chef Brady Williams.
The James Beard-winner recently changed Seattle restaurant Canlis, into a drive-thru, curbside operation in response to the way coronavirus has swept through Washington state.
“Brady is one of the most talented chefs in the world, and he basically said, ‘Fine dining isn’t what Seattle needs right now. He switched to making simple and approachable meals that can be picked up on the fly with minimal contact,” Alvarez explained.
In a post announcing the change, Canlis wrote, “This is one idea for safely creating jobs for our employees while serving as much of the city as we can.”
“The Canlis model spoke to me because it offers a way for Proper House to create an unofficial severance for our people who are without work at the moment,” Alvarez told CL.
“My hope is that what we’re doing catches fire in Tampa and people go out of their way to support this effort, which will directly support the people we laid off—Proper House desperately needs to bring our laid off employees back one-by-one somehow. This could be a great approach if it’s embraced by the community.”
Alvarez told CL that the quality from his other restaurants would obviously be packed into each delivery and meal, but that his team isn’t trying to reinvent the culinary wheel.
“We’re trying to give Tampa Bay a proper meal in an affordable and timely manner,” Alvarez said, citing the fact that Canlis’ new menu is made up of just four items: a burger or veggie melt with fries, a salad, an ice cream sandwich, and a citrus soda.
Alvarez told CL that the delivery hours will be from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. seven days a week. You can even call Rooster & the Till (813-374-8940) to place an order.
The Rooster meal is priced at $20 a person. It’ll include a cucumber-tomato herbed salad, and ask diners to choose between Rooster’s famous short-rib gnocchi or roast chicken thighs served with cauliflower and twice-fried potato wedges. Dessert will be double chocolate chip cookies. Alvarez said that the Rooster team may also be able to make something on the regular menu depending on ingredient availability.
By 4 p.m. on Rooster Re-Dux's first day open, the kitchen had taken over 60 orders.
"Some were very very large, Alvarez told CL. "The response is very encouraging."
“We want to make customers happy; we’re going to be flexible and do the best we can because it’s the right thing to do,” he added. “Mix and match what you want, we want to make it happen.”
Items from the Nebraska Mini-Mart include the bulgogi Korean cheesesteak with kimchi and gochujang mayo, the fried chicken sandwich, and the vegetarian-friendly sloppy Joe nachos. Gallito lovers who frequent the Sparkman Wharf and Lakeland Joinery locations can choose from four different tacos, street corn and street corn and Masienda tortillas chips with a choice of guacamole or queso (menu is available below.)
“I’m not necessarily trying to reinvent the culinary wheel here, and I’m not trying to win awards” Alvarez, who’s been nominated for a James Beard (Best Chef South 2017), told CL.
“I’m just trying to do right by our employees, who we view as family, and I need to do everything I can to get them back.”
Full disclosure: From Oct. 2014-Aug. 2019, this writer worked, on a barter basis, with Proper House Group in helping coordinate its social media efforts.
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