If you look at pastry chef Jonni Scott’s Instagram page, you wouldn’t know she’s had a tumultuous, tear-filled 2020. In recent weeks she’s become fully engrossed with crafting macaroons that resemble Pusheen, a chubby cartoon cat you might see in online gifs or printed on T-shirts. Scott is into “kawaii culture,” the Japanese phenomenon of being obsessed with all things cute.
She also loves Japanese food, which is why she was ecstatic to land a job as the executive pastry chef at Cranes. The Penn Quarter restaurant from chef and restaurateur Pepe Moncayo opened in February, serving a combination of Japanese and Spanish cuisines. It sprawls across 12,000 square feet at 724 9th St. NW.
“I wanted to get back into a restaurant after being in a bakery for a while,” she says. Prior to Cranes, Scott worked at Junction Bakery & Bistro in Alexandria. Her pastry chef career also includes stops at Fiola and RIS. “I met Pepe. He had an amazing energy. He answered all of my concerns about what the work environment would be like. His vision and philosophy is exactly what I wanted to be a part of,” Scott says.
But the restaurant was only open for about five weeks before worries about the COVID-19 pandemic reached D.C. “It was right when we were hitting our stride,” Scott says. “Then all of the sudden everyone knew what coronavirus was. It used to take me an hour to get to work and then I could get there in 10 minutes. That was the most chilling thing. I was like, ‘Nobody is going to come to my restaurant today.’”
Because Cranes has an open kitchen, Scott and the rest of the team could peer out and see only a few people sitting down to a meal in the dining room. Moncayo ran the numbers and determined that he could only keep salaried staff employed, leaving Scott to lay off the pastry cooks she hired to support her on March 14. Only four people remained staffing the kitchen. “Pepe decided to close the restaurant after lunch service on March 15,” Scott says.
The next day Mayor Muriel Bowser shut restaurants down for on-premise dining. Takeout became the only revenue-earning opportunity for bars and restaurants. Cranes, like many fine dining restaurants, wasn’t built to do to-go business. “All the desserts would melt on the way home,” Scott says. “We thought it was only going to be two weeks. We had no idea.”
After two months went by, Moncayo decided to reopen with a menu more suitable for takeout. He rehired Scott on May 18. With a lean team, she also took on other roles. She shot food photos, managed the restaurant’s social media accounts, washed dishes, ran food, and manned the third party delivery app tablets. “I gave 5,000 percent and was happy to do it,” Scott says. “I was thankful to have a job because so many didn’t.”
On June 22, D.C. entered Phase Two of reopening. Cranes could seat diners inside at 50 percent capacity. But according to Scott and Moncayo, business didn’t pick up significantly. “We had this brand new restaurant that didn’t have a following in a neighborhood where barely anyone lives,” she explains. “We’re dependent on events at the Capitol One Arena, law firms, and businesses.”
Last month, Scott saw the sales numbers and anticipated what was coming. On Aug. 12, Cranes laid off Scott for a second time. “I was un-molding popsicles in the freezer when [Moncayo] said, ‘Chef Scott, I have some upsetting news for you,’” she recounts. “I wasn’t mad and didn’t take it personally, but I was very, very sad. I was crying constantly … The restaurant is open and I’m not there. That was three weeks ago. I’m doing much better than I was.”
“Laying off is a business-enforced decision that has little to do with employee performance,” Moncayo says. “Hence it is very tough and unpleasant to do.” Moncayo confirms that his restaurant has been slow because of the lack of foot traffic. According to the Downtown Business Improvement District, only 5 percent of employees were working in their downtown offices as of July.
Moncayo is finally optimistic that his revenue will start to climb. “Restaurant Week brought hope for the future. I’m convinced we are going to make it through,” he says. “We are excited about the upcoming ‘Dine Out on 8th’ program that the DowntownDC team has been putting together and the re-opening of the Portrait Gallery. Hopefully it will revitalize the downtown area.”
Being laid off twice complicated the unemployment process for Scott. She struggled to figure out if she needed to file a new claim or continue to file under her old claim and feared accidentally committing fraud. Scott files in Virginia and had a hard time getting in touch with anyone at the Virginia Employment Commission. She was finally able to successfully file earlier this week, but notes her payouts are much smaller than the first time she was laid off because she’s not receiving $600 in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance from the federal government.
Having had the painful experience of laying off her pastry cooks and being laid off herself twice, Scott has some advice for restaurant operators. “Hold off on bringing people back if you’re not 100 percent you can keep them on board,” she says. “If you bring back your team, make sure it’s for more than a week or a month.”
Fortunately, Scott is resilient. Her father was in the U.S. Army, which meant a childhood spent moving up and down the East Coast. The D.C. area only became home once her father was stationed in Arlington. Scott was in high school and already knew desserts were her future.
“Whenever I felt like eating cookie dough, I’d make cookies,” Scott says. Her mother loved cooking so much, she wouldn’t accept help on savory dishes, leaving Scott free to experiment with sweets. Friends and neighbors who tried Scott’s cookies encouraged her to open a bakery. Her first step was enrolling in culinary school at the Art Institute of Washington.
“My absolute favorite part of my job is making something new and having people try it and love it,” she says. “It can be a very hard job. There have been times where I’ve thought, ‘This isn’t worth it.’” Scott cites the difficulty of striking a balance between work and life. Once she had to put off getting treatment for a medical condition because she couldn’t step away from her job. She says she delayed a surgery by three months.
While the executive chef of a restaurant has a brigade of helpers, from prep cooks to line cooks to sous chefs, the dessert department is typically more tightly staffed.
Scott worries about the future of pastry chefs and other top-tier positions common in fine dining restaurants like sommeliers. “Right now the food industry is hurting,” she says. “We’re not even in recovery yet. It’s going to be a while before those positions are essential for every establishment like they were before.”
“Even a job I thought was a sure thing, wasn’t,” Scott continues. “Eventually we’ll get back to where we were, but I’m not banking on fine dining restaurants being something that’s good for me right now.” She’s exploring different career paths that will enable her to use her skill set and hints that she’s close to locking down a new job. In the meantime she’s baking at home. “I have to rethink how to continue being a pastry chef,” she says.
Most of all, Scott wants her colleagues facing a similar plight to know they’re not alone. “I know sometimes people need to hear that.”