In his new book, Carry Out, Carry On: A Year in the Life of a Texas Chef, Fort Worth chef Jon Bonnell shares his journey as a restaurateur during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bonnell owns and operates Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine, Waters Restaurant, and two locations of Buffalo Bros, all of which managed to survive the shutdown and its unprecedented challenges. Across 72 pages, Bonnell chronicles 12 tumultuous months, from laying off more than 200 employees in one day to launching a successful curbside pick-up campaign that continues today.
TH: The book is written in chronological order by month and even by date in some instances. How were you able to write this book in real time?
JB: I wanted to chronicle everything, especially for my kids for when they’re adults. From their perspective, they were like, “Yeah, we were just home all the time. It was awesome.” I went back and used the emails I had sent out to Fort Worth restaurants. When I started looking back, I couldn’t believe how much stuff happened in less than a year. The book could easily still be going right now, but things are not nearly as dramatic as they were last year.
TH: What has been the response so far?
JB: A lot of people say they remember living through it on the other side, in their cars in the lines, but had no idea what was going on inside the restaurants. A lot of is hard to remember because it was such a surreal world.
TH: Going back to early March 2020, did you ever anticipate a shutdown was looming?
JB: Not even close. It happened so fast. In my mind, this was no different than SARS, the bird flu, or the swine flu. We didn’t close anything, we didn’t change our lives. When they cancelled South by Southwest, that was the first time I said, wait a minute. Ed McOwen and I—Ed’s my business partner—were sitting at Bonnell’s when they cancelled the NBA season. That’s when we knew we were in for some big trouble.
TH: When big events started cancelling, what were your initial thoughts for your businesses and the restaurant industry?
JB: At the same time they started cancelling events, all of our sales in all of our restaurants started dropping by 90 percent across the board. If we had a huge weekend with 150 reservations each night, we’d end up with 14 covers. We had about two weeks with sales just in the toilet. And every single catering we had in the books for the year all called and cancelled. Without sales, you don’t have labor, and you don’t have a product. We knew were going to have to close and let go of a bunch of staff. A few days later they shut everybody down.
TH: How much staff did you have to let go?
JB: I will say that was the hardest day I can remember, other than your mom dying or something like that. I had to go in and fire all of these people. They all knew it was coming. Everybody watches the news. It’s not like it was a surprise. I told them to get on the unemployment website, and it’s probably going to crash. Keep hitting refresh because the whole country is doing it at the same time. I let go of 234 people.
TH: You quickly revamped your fine dining offerings into family-style carry out dishes, which turned out to be extremely popular. How did that idea come about, and how did you execute it so quickly?
JB: To everyone that was left—six employees—I said, “Let’s meet and we’re going to brainstorm.” We couldn’t just do our normal food to-go—it just doesn’t work that well. We don’t even have the manpower to answer the phone. We can’t make this intricate food that’s all usually plated. Maybe fine dining doesn’t even have a place in society right now. It felt guilty to even try. Nobody needed crab legs and lobster tails. We needed to switch gears.
I said we need to feed the most people we can possibly feed for the least amount we can possibly get away with, and just try to keep generating some revenue to keep as many people employed as we can. Forty dollars for a four-pack seemed right. We only had a couple of days to come up with it. We started talking about it on Wednesday and decided our first day of service would be Saturday. I rented one of those big signs with the bright letters—there’s a picture in the book. I put it on Facebook, and that’s when my social media just started blowing up. All of a sudden, we had thousands of followers. Saturday was our first day, and I detail in the book how it was a mess.
TH: At the peak of your curbside pick-up days, how many meals were you selling?
JB: We were feeding 600 to 700 people a day. Now we’re feeding about 200 to 250 a day on average with curbside. The kitchen keeps asking how long we are going to do this. As long as they’re lining up every day, why would we stop?
TH: Are you back to full staff?
JB: Staffing is harder now. Everyone wanted a job when we couldn’t afford anybody. Now we can afford them all, but the pool is just thin. We’re probably at about 220-225 now. We could use some more.
TH: Do you think a lot of food and beverage professionals had to find other careers?
JB: It’s not industry specific; 90 percent of small businesses are short-staffed. It’s a shortage across the country that’s just going to take a while to shake out. I think a lot people either figured out how to stay home and work online, or if they got some benefits, they said let’s just ride these for a while and we’ll talk about getting back to work at some point. You know, good for you. I’m not going to knock anybody for taking benefits.
TH: What are new challenges you’re currently facing?
JB: Prices are going up everywhere. The supply chain is all over the map. One day you can’t get to-go containers and the next we can’t get pork butts. And now chicken wings are somehow the most expensive part of the chicken.
TH: You mentioned the book could still go on even now. How did you decide to end it?
JB: I started putting chapters together, but I didn’t know how to finish it. I finally put a period at the end when the governor said, “OK all restrictions lifted. Y’all go back to business.”
Bonnell’s Carry Out, Carry On: A Year in the Life of a Texas Chef is available on Amazon in hardcover and Kindle version, or at Bonnell’s and Waters restaurants.