Chefs and Restaurants
Erin Wade Continues to Feed the Oakland Community, One Bowl at a Time
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Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Homeroom Chef/Founder Erin Wade would hear from irate customers if she took anything off the menu at her Oakland, Calif., mac and cheese restaurant. Now, after she is limited to just takeout and delivery, they are just grateful she’s open.
For 10 years, Wade has been serving warm, gooey bowls of white Cheddar, smoky bacon and Buffalo chicken mac and cheese to the community, while implementing progressive businesses practices designed to empower her staff, which is made up of 95 percent women and people of color. The former lawyer’s sexual harassment prevention system, called Not on My Menu, has been adopted by the EEOC as a national best practice. Wade’s focus continues to be on keeping her staff safe and healthy and making the most of her thriving takeout location to serve hot meals and keep her employees paid.
How are you managing both locations of Homeroom since the pandemic started?
We were fortunate in this crisis because our dine-in restaurant was required to close, but we also had a location that was fully dedicated to takeout and delivery. We were left in a comparatively better position than most restaurants out there, but even with our takeout/delivery location still operating, we had to completely reengineer our business overnight. We still have two rents and a lot of shared overhead, so we had to figure out how to be very lean and efficient. Even though we were open [for takeout], we didn’t want to be hemorrhaging money. Our dining room is closed, but that location had to be boarded up because a lot of windows are getting smashed in the neighborhood.
How did those factors affect your menu?
We cut our dessert offerings down to three, only keeping the ones that were easier to make in large volume. We went from having 12 to 14 mac and cheese options to eight, so we aren’t ordering as much or sitting on as much inventory. We’ve reduced our sides, and are only selling bottled beverages as opposed to things like our limeade. We don’t want labor being spent to produce a lot of different things.
Have you added anything to the menu?
We’ve added some basic grocery items. Our fourth best-selling item is toilet paper. Oddly, a lot of those distribution channels aren’t being interrupted for restaurants the way they have for retail customers.
What about selling family meals?
Family meals are something we’ve tried many times in the past, but it was never met with success. But we just released new family meal packages that feed a family of four. It offers two types of mac and cheese, sides, and our Oreo cookie dessert for $40. We know people are watching their pennies right now, so that seems more important than having widest possible variety at every meal.
How are you handling delivery and pickups?
We are currently using third-party apps, but are excited about the opportunity to do delivery through our own app. At the moment, we haven’t had the bandwidth to start yet, but it’s a huge part of our business and something we’d like to be able to control in the near future. If there’s a customer service issue, we can handle it versus someone through an app. It will be nice to have that direct connection and relationship.
For takeout, we have a line that forms outside, and people wait six feet apart on the sidewalk. There is a greeter who calls customers through our PA system. Most have usually paid in advance, so they are out in a matter of seconds.
How much of your staff is still employed?
I did have to let 30 percent of our staff go, but it was only the folks who were immunocompromised or lived with someone elderly or didn’t feel comfortable coming in right now. We are committed to keeping everyone else employed on some level, even if it means reducing hours.
We were already offering health insurance and a 401K, and are committed to keeping those benefits going. Our GoFundMe helped raise a few thousand dollars, which didn’t amount to a huge number per person, but we were delighted the community cared, and every bit helps. We’ve added hazard pay through shelter in place, so all of our hourly folks make an extra $3 an hour. We are also offering grocery boxes that employees can take home.
What have you learned so far from all of this?
I’m incredibly grateful for our staff and how resilient they are. This is a really hard time to be in the world period, and we’ve always been a really employee-driven company. Honestly the only reason we’re able to operate is that we have such a dedicated, amazing staff that’s willing to roll with the punches. Everyday we’ve had to do something different, be it stay on the edge of health and safety issues, deal with customers, or try to accommodate employee childcare needs.
Where do you think things will be when this is over?
I don’t think the world is going to look the way it did for quite some time. It’s been an honor to be able to be brought into people’s homes—some for the first time—so I’m grateful that we’ve had an opportunity to do that. I think we’re going to see people being very cautious and continuing to heavily use takeout and delivery for a while. I do think that sadly many restaurants aren’t going to be able to pull through this. But the sit-down restaurants that do [survive] will be more important than ever before. I think it will feel special and celebratory and meaningful for people to go and connect in person again after not being able to do so for such a long time.