Ashish Alfred, owner of Duck Duck Goose in Fells Point, as well as Duck Duck Goose and George’s Chophouse in Bethesda, has long shared his harrowing story of drug addiction. Ironically, he says, in some ways getting sober—exactly six years ago this month—has helped him cope with the COVID crisis.
“People in sobriety are almost better armed for this,” says Alfred. “We are somewhat accustomed to being with our own thoughts and dealing with those things and processing things.”
Hospitality workers are particularly poised for survival, he says. “Restaurant people are some of the toughest people in the world—we will find a way to get all of our people back to work and we will find a way to come back better than before, though it’s going to be a tough road getting there.”
How are you doing?
What’s really tough is that any time you find a moment of peace, the first thing that crosses your mind is your staff. We do our due diligence to make sure that everyone who works for us is within the letter of the law as far as their immigration status goes, but, in spite of that, people are still able to get forged documents and get hired. I worry about that group of people very, very much and it gives me a very uneasy, almost nauseating feeling to think about how these people are getting through. These people have worked so hard, be it a year or eight years, to build a life for themselves. For them to not know where their next meal is coming from is awful.
You’ve had your struggles, you’ve been brought to your knees from drug addiction—has that steeled you to survive this?
I’m not one to preach to anyone, but I would give caution that sooner or later, we will come out on the other side of this. If people don't take steps to care for themselves in the right way during this downtime, it’s going to be very difficult to transition back to regular life at the end of all this. Sleeping all day is not the answer, drinking all day is not the answer. My two cents that I’ve given my staff is to try to find some sense of normalcy.
Everyone I know in my sober network has been doing pretty well, though I’m sure that’s not the case for everyone. For me, it knocked me out of my routine—it messed up my eating, sleeping, and gym schedule. For the first six or eight days, I was unreachable. I was hardly eating. I was lying in bed all day and sleeping. I was super-depressed.
“If people don't take steps to care for themselves in the right way during this downtime, it’s going to be very difficult to transition back to regular life at the end of all this. Sleeping all day is not the answer, drinking all day is not the answer."
I know you emptied your inventory after you closed and gave the food to your staff. That must have been such a difficult day.
It was heartbreaking. I cried in front of the staff. I didn’t know what to tell them. These people have come to me for everything, ‘Can you help me fill out this paper for my daughter’s school?’ Of if they buy a car, they want to bring the car to me so I can see it. It was an indescribable event.
You’ve been outspoken about encouraging consumers not to use dining apps, even making an Instagram video with a plea to consumers. Can you talk about that?
Restaurants in Baltimore and D.C. have done well because we’ve come together as family to support each other. I’m not in a position where I can donate a lot of money to a whole bunch of people, but if I can somehow make a difference and save restaurants from paying super high commissions, then that’s a good day at the office.
[Dining app companies] are saying, ‘Hey help us help restaurants. Order from them now to help them out.’ They’ll say no delivery fees, well that does nothing for the restaurant. I’d like to see them waive their fees until we see our way out of this thing.
You haven’t been offering carryout, but I know you plan to start this week. Why the change of heart?
We’re going to try to do takeout, and, because I’ve made such a stink of it, were going to try to be open without the apps. We will launch this Friday at all three restaurants. People need to realize that the money restaurants are making from carryout is just to support their staff. No one is making money. People are doing this just to keep their staff afloat.
What kinds of things will be on the carryout menu at Duck Duck Goose?
We are going to do foods that will travel well and we will include a set of instructions for heating. We will definitely have our foie gras tournedos. Nothing makes quarantine better than foie gras. We will also have risotto and zero-proof cocktails for people who are tired of drinking or people who are tired of drinking soda water.
“I have learned from this that I am not my restaurants, my restaurants are not me. Life and things will be okay. That’s not what anyone wants to hear right now, but it’s important to remember that.”
What do you think the landscape will look like when this is over?
I had a dinner scheduled at the James Beard house in May, which was cancelled. I had the opportunity to talk to their director, Izabela Wojcik, and we talked for 30 minutes about what restaurants will look like at the end of this. I am sure it will be a little while before people are eager to pile on top of each other into a place, or wait in an eight-by-eight foyer while they are on a 45-minute wait for a table, but I'm sure we will find a way.
Will people leave the profession?
If you’ve been a restauranteur for five, 10, or 20 years, you’re not going to say, ‘I’m going to be an accountant.’ No, you’re going to go right back to restaurants. People will always need a place to go eat.
What have you learned from all of this?
The liberating thing that might be important for other restaurateurs to hear is that this is a very busy business—we give all of ourselves to this, whether you’ve got a bar that serves wings and pizza or a fine-dining restaurant. If you’re in the restaurant business, it really takes up a lot of your time, but I have learned from this that I am not my restaurants, my restaurants are not me. Life and things will be okay. That's not what anyone wants to hear right now, but it’s important to remember that.
What’s the first thing you’re going to do when this is over?
I’m going to hug my mother. And put a post-dated paycheck in the hands of every single person who works for me.