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One of the World’s Best Restaurants Might Not Reopen for Business

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 5/5/2020 Kate Krader
a dining room table: The main dining room at Eleven Madison Park before Covid-19 struck. © Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images The main dining room at Eleven Madison Park before Covid-19 struck.

One of the world’s most famed restaurants might stay closed, even as others are trying to figure out how they might return from lockdown.

The future of Eleven Madison Park in New York, named the No. 1 restaurant in the world in 2017, is uncertain, says chef-owner Daniel Humm. “There is definitely a question mark over Eleven Madison Park—if it will reopen,” he tells Bloomberg Pursuits during a phone interview on Monday, May 4. “It will take millions of dollars to reopen. You have to bring back staff. I work with fancy equipment in a big space. I want to continue to cook with the most beautiful and precious ingredients in a creative way, but at the same time, it needs to make sense.”

The closing of the luxurious, 80-seat restaurant in mid-March was unexpected for the chef. “At EMP, we’re in a bubble sometimes, but we were literally full, up until the end. Then we got word we had to shut down,” he says. In the beginning, he thought it would be for just a few weeks. “But when Danny [Meyer, chief executive officer of Union Square Hospitality Group] furloughed his team, I realized how bad it was. He always goes down all the paths in these situations.”

Humm had to let his employees go, with about 30% of them in the United States on visas. “They all had to go home without anything. It pretty much broke my heart.” He considered doing delivery, then rejected the idea: “We were thinking, should we do some sort of to-go box? But it was so intense in New York, it didn’t feel to me that the world needed Eleven Madison Park food in fancy boxes. I knew it wouldn’t make so much money. Anyway, I didn’t want people to be exposed; delivery isn’t what we do.”

Instead, Humm says, he rode his bike around New York for a few days and decided he could start fighting the escalating issue of hunger in New York through Rethink Food. As a board member of the nonprofit that uses leftover food from restaurants and corporate kitchens to provide meals for people in need, he had the kitchen, contacts to suppliers, and the ability to raise money. “I went to American Express and said, ‘I need $250,000 in two days to get this started.’ And they came through.” In early April, Humm transformed EMP into a commissary kitchen and began producing almost 3,000 meals a day to feed hungry people around the city. He calls it “the biggest lightbulb moment.”

If EMP were to reopen, Humm says, he will continue to use his restaurant to feed the homeless and hungry, along with the very fortunate. “The infrastructure to end hunger needs to come out of the restaurants. Any way that EMP reopens—and it’s like a blank canvas right now, we would need to redefine what luxury means—it will also be an opportunity to continue to feed people who don’t have anything. I don’t need to only feed the 1% anymore.”

The industry’s comeback in a city such as New York is going to bring a harsh reality, Humm predicts. “Restaurants,” he says, “are going to need to charge more money. It will be slow, and there won’t be jobs for everybody. But I am hopeful we will come back.”

Related video: How long can restaurants survive without dining rooms being open? (provided by KUSA)

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