Food & Drink

Rachael Lowe

Rachael Lowe fell in love with wine when she was working in restaurants while attending undergraduate school at the Art Institute of Chicago. She moved to New York to pursue her graduate degree in food studies at NYU, where she took her first assistant Sommelier positon at the now closed Café Gray. From there she worked at the Mandarin Oriental, and opened Gordon Ramsay at the London. After graduating she moved to Napa Valley to join the Thomas Keller Restaurant group. She relocated back to Chicago in 2010 and in 2014 became Beverage Director for Spiaggia. In 2018 she was promoted to the Director of Beverage for Levy Restaurant Group. Spiaggia is a finalist for Outstanding Wine Program through the James Beard awards for a second year in a row.

What were you working on prior to the shutdown, and how has that been affected?

I am the Beverage Director for the Levy restaurant group. I started as the Beverage Director specifically dedicated to Spiaggia, our one star Michelin restaurant, and now oversee the rest of the group nationally. Levy is one of the most major players in sports and entertainment concessions, the other division of the group. With Covid shutdowns, basically the entirety of Levy has been ground to a halt, as not only restaurants, but stadiums have been shut down, and this is a multi-billion-dollar company, all stopped in basically one day. The only stores that remain open are three restaurants in Chicago, reduced to take out and delivery only. Myself, the GM, our chef and sous chef are the only employees that were not furloughed at Spiaggia, and so now when previously I was solely beverage, I am not really dealing with much alcohol at all, rather packaging up to go orders and running them down to cars. We are also doing our best to maintain our relevance by using social media to do clips such as our ‘Wine Wednesdays’, cooking demos etc. via Instagram. Additionally, locations that I was working on before, such as Ravinia, our nationally recognized out door summer music venue has entirely been canceled, so everyone’s creative was lost for the season. It’s crazy.

How do you think the Pandemic will impact your industry?

It has already had severe consequences as many small independent restaurants aren’t able to hold out and stay open. Restaurants run on incredibly tight margins and this has impacted everyone deeply. People also don’t think about the supply chain, from farms, to wine importers and distributors to butchers, this has slowed down everything. Additionally, I don’t think all the people we had to lay off are considering the impact this will have on our re-opening. If we limited in capacity and land at 25% or even 50%, we will only be able to either bring back everyone in an extremely part time capacity, or only bring back a skeleton staff for the beginning months. Who know how many people will feel comfortable dining out again as soon as the closures are lifted, either? Hard to project how business will be.

“Everyone is struggling and for once entirely on the same page as the other."

What ways do you think the dining experience could be innovated to adapt to the changes caused by crisis?

We already know that tables will have to be spaced six feet apart, we may have a maximum of four diners per table and our general capacity will be restricted. Our company has already ordered custom made face masks for our entire staff, and front of the house and back of the house will be required to wear them at all times, as well as gloves. Our menus are going to be printed on much less refined card stock as they will either be disposed of after each use, or taken home by the guest. Little things like how a guest will navigate a paper wine list has to be thought of, as the integrity of the restaurant needs to remain at the level it was previously, while also minding all the new rules pertaining to Covid. No touch payment and order options have also been discussed.

 

Do you think the crisis will unite the restaurant community?

In some ways I think it will. Everyone is struggling and for once entirely on the same page as the other. People are trying to get as creative as possible in order to remain open and push forward with business. They are also collectively trying to support others in need through various platforms, which is really nice to see. I think things that were previously taken for granted will be viewed in a new light.

...we have all been forced to see what we have so often taken for granted in the past."

What opportunities (if any) do you see emerging from this experience?

Some have suggested that this is a way to overhaul what can be considered an archaic system, where servers make so much money for often very little work, while back of the house makes pennies in comparison and work extremely long hours. I think regardless there will be different approaches of all kind throughout the industry. And at the very least, we have all been forced to see what we have so often taken for granted in the past.