Portraits From a Pandemic: Woon Kitchen
In Los Angeles, Keegan Fong of Woon Kitchen shares his experience as a restaurateur during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Editor’s Note: In an effort to provide context through first-person experiences as the situation evolves, we present Covid Diaries: an ongoing series in which food business workers from the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic share their experiences and insights as the industry continues to adapt. The following account is by Keegan Fong, owner of Los Angeles’ Woon Kitchen with accompanying film portraits of Fong’s staff by Amber Maalouf.
Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020
Six months to the day after we shut down Woon Kitchen due to Covid-19, my friend Amber texted me a medium-format portrait she had then taken of me in our empty dining room. She had come by that day to pick up some of the produce I was giving away to employees and friends, in hopes of avoiding waste. We’d been planning to throw our one-year anniversary party the weekend prior—a celebration meant to be filled with free booze, tattoos, music—the whole shebang. It ended up being a very different reality.
But before I jump to the present to provide more context here, let me share a tiny snapshot of what the beginning of this pandemic looked like for me. On the exact night we were to have that party (Saturday, March 14th), we had a break-in at the restaurant. It happened to be the one and only night that the alarm wasn’t set due to a miscommunication between myself and an employee. The intruder, under the influence of methamphetamines, managed to figure out our sound system, set up tables and chairs on our front patio, and hung the restaurant keys around his neck on a lanyard. He convinced my cleaning lady that he was an employee and asked her to leave and come back later. He hung out in the restaurant, smoked, drank beer from our draft, and sat under an outdoor heat lamp for over six hours.
The next morning, my prep cook, Glendy, arrived and the intruder told her he was a new hire before threatening her, demanding that she leave. I woke up to a call from Glendy and rushed out of bed, but it took an hour to get to the restaurant while on the phone with 911, as it just happened to be the morning of the LA Marathon. My prep cook’s husband, Wilmur, had to back her up, and the scene culminated with a physical confrontation that featured a cleaver before the LAPD showed up, guns blazing.
Five days after that, on March 19th, I received a call from my roommate saying that because of my work at the restaurant, he didn’t feel comfortable sharing the house with me. I had just finished a hectic service and decided to close the restaurant and discontinue takeout service altogether, not knowing if we’d ever open again. I was saddened not to have the ability to offer work for my staff who rely on their paycheck, and to top it all off, I had home to go to. I called my sister and soon was crashing at her house with her family, sleeping in my four-year-old nephew’s bed for the next two weeks until I found a sublet for the following two months.
Front of House
Hollyanne Sparks McCart
Front of House
This is the series of events that came back to me when, after six months, sitting in our empty dining room, I received the text of that portrait Amber. It sparked emotions that brought me back to that day, reflecting on the half a year that has gone by in a blur. I couldn’t believe we made it that long, that a customer hadn’t set foot in our dining room all that time, that this has become the new normal, and yet somehow that my staff powered through, that our community has kept us alive, and that we’ve still accomplished so much in that timeframe.
I feel very fortunate to have made it this long. I credit survival partly to my lack of experience in this industry, and a reliance on my staff to support my decisions. I was still learning how to operate a restaurant before Covid hit. Everything was new to me, and, thanks to my background in digital marketing and content strategy, trying to come up with new ways of doing things is not foreign. We were able to “pivot” quickly, to build an online ordering platform, expand our delivery service, start producing in-house consumer packaged goods, and do what I knew best—which is to market the shit out of the brand.
Beyond that, keeping things manageable and efficient has been the theme of Covid-19. We cut our operating hours by sixty-percent. We live in such a stressful world now; the benefits of keeping that pressure manageable far outweigh trying to work ourselves to the bone. As long as we can find a balance, at least for now, to keep everyone happy and paid, that’s all that matters. Obviously, keeping our customers happy is a priority as well, but we can’t do that unless our staff is happy.
Thankfully, we’ve also built an amazing community of followers who have been willing to adapt with us. Still, I am not one to rush things. I’d rather take one step forward and remain, than to take that step forward and have to step back again. That has been our model, which I believe has allowed our employees to feel in control of anything new, and we can operate at a pace that allows our customers to adapt more easily. When we decided to reopen after being closed for two weeks, we did so with a limited menu. We’ve since expanded that menu to ninety-nine percent of our original menu, but that took time. We introduced new items only when we felt like we could manage the prep and execution with the resources we had. We’ve slowly introduced in-house products such as our Mama’s Way hot sauce, stir fry sauce, seasoning salts, cold brew teas, snacks like our “Peanuts + Sea Moss,” as well as others. And we’ve slowly implemented more seamless workflow procedures, too.
Front of House
Front of House
In turn, we’ve gained amazing customers and supporters who believe in us and our story, and most importantly, in our food and people. We have one customer who places a standing order every week, and hasn’t missed a Wednesday Woon since we started them over a year ago. Every time we see his ticket, we yell “WOON WINE WEDNESDAYYYY,” and try to sneak in a bonus item in his bag. Little things like that keep us going.
This place relies on every single person doing their respective duties. If one falls short, the entire operation follows. I’ve asked Amber to shoot a portrait series of the entire staff. Medium format film only, each individual in their environment. I hope each one of them can look back at these portraits one day and remember how fucking nuts this time was, and how awesome it has been that we’ve been able to keep the lights on, to keep serving our community as a team.
We’re now operating with pick up and delivery, and the option to eat and/or drink on our patio*. Within the last week, we’ve offered ordering at our window, and bringing back Woon Wine Wednesday specials again (ten dollars off bottles, ten dollar glasses). Is this new model sustainable? It depends how you look at it. I don’t think this industry as a whole is very sustainable; it’s meant to turn profits without sacrificing quality. But, I believe it is a sustainable goal to continue serving our community, to keep our staff paid while sharing my mom’s story, evolving the ways in which we can bring people into our home.
*On November 25th, 2020, Los Angeles Department of Public Health banned all forms of restaurant dining, including outdoor and patio seating.