Somewhere around St Patrick’s day in 2020 I was among the millions of hospitality workers sent to the unemployment line by Covid-19. I had the day off, and I learned of my upscale Manhattan restaurant’s closing in a social media post from one of the food media outlets a few hours before the restaurant notified us of our impending canning.
This wasn’t a surprise of course. I had witnessed the cover counts dropping from the upper 200s to 100s to sub 100s. I saw our private dining room chef working the hot line with us for dining room service one night and I asked her why she wasn’t in her usual spot upstairs in the PDR kitchen.
“There’s no PDRs on the books.” She said. “They all canceled.”
“Like…everyone?” I asked thinking she just meant today or perhaps this week”
“There’s no PDRs on the books from here on out.
Private Dining Room business is a major revenue center for fine dining establishments. Coupled with cover counts being 35% of normal, I knew trouble was brewing. I could read it in my chefs now shaky but normally unflappable against long odds demeanor. So when employees started testing positive, we knew the end was near.
Something like 2 million people were laid off in New York State by the end of March. Many were undocumented workers. Many, including myself worked 2 jobs to make ends meet. With so many people applying for unemployment all at once, the State couldn’t keep up with the backlog of applications and we all went without income for three months or so.
I finally started receiving benefits at some point in late May. My wife and I were okay in those first couple of months. I had some billable work from some software contracting I was doing get paid before they shut me off for good, and my wife, an administrator at a private university, was able to keep her job remotely like so many other white collar Americans.
We knew we were fortunate and never felt in danger that Spring as we hunkered down in our our brownstone apartment in park slope. The constant ambulance sirens rushing up and down the avenues. The clanging of pots and pans.
I spent my down time drinking, resting, going down the rabbit holes of binge watching tv. That was a new habit for me. I watched Top Chef in its entirety. Great British Bake Off, Chefs Night Out, The Gordon Ramsey thing. All of the schlocky tv food porn I knew existed but never found myself having time or interest in.
Eventually I grew bored of this. I missed the kitchen. The money was never great, so it wasn’t the getting paid that I missed. It was the rush of service. The changing of the menu with the seasons. The reggaeton beat eminating from the dish pit. Learning new things every day and being swept up in it.
That comfort of early Covid eventually turned to worry. When July came, restaurants were finally allowed to open at 25% capacity. Some did, but most tailoring to the well heeled Manhattan dining public did not.
I looked at jobs more seriously when my own restaurant reopened and I wasn’t hired back. I had applied as soon as I could. After not hearing back after a couple of weeks I was confused and even applied as a porter. I was willing to wash dishes just to be back on that team again, naively thinking it would be the same crew I said goodbye to in the spring. They posted an open call but ended up only hiring senior cooks from other parts of the restaurant group to fill 3 line cooking slots. I learned of it through a social media post by the restaurant announcing that they were open in limited capacity. I remember zooming in on the cooks faces in a group photo and not recognizing any of them. I was perplexed. My restaurant, which according to my separation notice in 2020 employed 187 people was now a skeleton of its former self and only had room for the brightest and the best.
I submitted dozens of applications at that point to restaurants across the city. Anything I could find. You could look on the major job boards that summer and there would be 2 or 3 jobs city wide and they all wanted two years of line cooking experience. I had about a year at that point and wasn’t willing to lie about it but applied nonetheless. I got no response from any of them.
When July ended, it meant the end of “enhanced unemployment”. Meaning if you were unemployed in New York City, you were going to have to hack it out on $300 a week. My guess is that most cooks, servers, and bartenders couldn't, and so people left the city in droves; back to Ohio or the Dominican, or Puerto Rico, and all points south.
At this point I was on the fence about staying in the industry. It seemed like a return to “normal” was nowhere on the horizon. I started applying to software developer jobs, my former career. I knew I was going to need to brush up in order to pass a coding interview so I started reading programming books to try and get my web development chops back enough to fake my way through the hiring process.
I knew I needed a project to work on so I started building a recipe website. I got bored with that pretty quickly and started to deeply think about what was wrong with restaurant hiring.
There was, and still is, only one or two major outlets for culinary jobs. They’re pay to play, so for a restaurant to post a job, it’s about $40 a pop. $40 every time some new fry cook’s head explodes from the pressure and they rage quit mid shift. That made no sense to me. The sites are also only in English and require candidates to submit a resume with their application. I found all of that strange and out of touch with how things work.
The truth about the industry is that so much of it is word of mouth. It’s who you know that’s out of work and can they be here by this Saturday to start on sauté. If you're a job seeker and don’t know anyone, then you’re supposed to just knock on the service entrance, knife roll over your shoulder, and ask if they are looking for extra hands. Posting a job for 40 bucks is the restaurant equivalent of buying all new plates, pots and pans, tables and chairs, hobarts and deck ovens because you’re unaware of the secondary markets and fire sales available to you the restaurateur. It’s suicide.
So I thought - I can build this thing for free. I’ve got nothing better to do with my time. And so I set to work building an API, a user interface, wiring up the logic to log in, to upload avatars and resumes, and making it all secure. It felt good. It felt subversive. I felt like I was doing something good for the industry. That even if I didn’t make a dime doing it, I could change something about it. That the big dogs in the space would have to switch their business models or become obsolete.
By December of 2020 I had an app built. I just needed to name it. I had been calling it “orderfire” which seemed dumb, and I had enquired about the name kniferoll.com, but the owner of the domain had scoffed at my pitiful offer and turned me down. The guy actually does a brisk business selling very nice leather bound knife rolls.
I made a document of all of the kitchen slang terms and equipment names I could think of. I almost called it FishSpat.com, but I found myself having trouble not getting tongue tied when someone asked me what the name of the website was.
The name I kept coming back to was Use First. It sounds like a verb or a command to the general public, like “go daddy”, but to us in the industry, it’s a label; an identifier. It means: the bit of mise en place that you are to use first before getting into the fresh batch you made before service today - Like the accounting term FIFO. First in; first out. It’s the necessary virtue of frugality. Much the same as a website that’s offering something for free that others put a hefty price tag on.
I didn’t feel comfortable with the name at first and when I told outsiders about it, they kind of shied away from it. They didn’t get it. But my line cook friends did. And that’s when I knew I had something.
So I bought the domain name from a guy who was just looking to get rid of it. It didn’t make sense to him either. I then reached out to a friend that does graphic design in the action sports world - You know skate boarding, skiing, mount biking. I asked him to create a logo for me that cooks would want as a sticker to go on the fish tub that they keep their knives and tools in (No one actually uses knife rolls, duh!), and he delivered a logo that felt insurgent to me. It had Che vibes. I wanted the brand to be a middle finger to the establishment. A kitchen versus everybody sort of energy.
So, around New Years of 2021 usefirst.com was born and is open and ready to rock the industry.
In March, my restaurant re-opened for real and I got my job back. I still love cooking. The line is where I’m happy and where I want to be. I spend my free time improving Usefirst. A constant nip and tuck and I have big plans for it. It brings me endless joy to dream of it growing big and changing the industry. We’ll see how it goes. Either way, it’s been a fun and necessary diversion.