Photographer documents life inside San Diego’s locked-down restaurant kitchens
Lindsay Kreighbaum said the public doesn’t see how hard locally owned businesses are struggling
Spring was shaping up as a busy season for commercial, food and wedding photographer Lindsay Kreighbaum. Then the pandemic struck, closing all of the county’s restaurant dining rooms and canceling all of her photo shoots for the next several months.
Seeing the collapse of so many locally owned restaurants was devastating for Kreighbaum, and not just because they’re the bread and butter of her business. While she was studying photography in college in New York City and before she launched her company in San Diego three years ago, she supported herself waiting tables. She has a deep respect for the passion and hard work that goes into running a restaurant and she wanted to help.
“I wanted to do this project because I rely so heavily on this industry and they were all literally wiped out in just 48 hours. I thought, ‘Oh my God, what can I do?’ ” said Kreighbaum, 29, of University Heights.
With a camera and the time to be “a fly on the wall,” the Syracuse, N.Y., native launched her pro bono COVID-19 photo documentary project. Over the past two months, she has gone into nearly a dozen locked-down restaurant and bakery kitchens from San Diego to Los Angeles to capture what’s happening behind the scenes. She donated all of the images to the restaurants and has also shared mini-essays on her subjects on her Instagram account (instagram.com/cravedanddiffused/).
More than 60 percent of San Diego’s restaurants have remained closed during the pandemic. Those that kept their doors open are struggling to survive on a trickle of takeout income and a fraction of their former staffs. Public health orders have also required the adoption of new sanitation measures that Kreighbaum said have dramatically changed the environment in restaurant kitchens.
“As I go through the photos I’ve taken in kitchens, restaurants, bakeries and other food-service establishments during the COVID-19 pandemic, they don’t look like bustling places that were once welcoming and feeding customers,” she said. “Instead, they look more like stills from a post-apocalyptic movie or photos from a medical facility or chemical manufacturing plant.”
At Nutmeg Bakery, Underbelly, Plant Power, Vincent’s, Tahona, the Gluten Free Baking Co. and other places, Kreighbaum photographed masked and gloved employees measuring, cooking, packing for takeout and cleaning up in eerily empty kitchens. Despite the pressure the employees were under, she described their attitudes as surprisingly calm and businesslike.
“Nobody was panicked, they were just feeding off each others’ energy and working as hard as they could to make sure the restaurants survive,” Kreighbaum said. “You can feel that everyone is on the same page. Nobody complains. They’re just determined to get the job done.”
She said many local restaurant owners have had to lay off all of their front-of-house staff and up to 60 percent of their kitchen staffs. This has led to a great deal of creativity and innovation to adapt their menus and services to meet customer needs, like offering mixed cocktails in plastic packets, rolls of toilet paper, grab-and-go pizza dough and drive-thru churro tastings.
One of the restaurants she profiled for the project is Donna Jean in Bankers Hill. When she moved to San Diego from Brooklyn in 2017, Kreighbaum worked for a time as a server at the 3-year-old vegan restaurant. Chef and co-owner Roy Elam said it’s been a roller-coaster ride trying to run his business since COVID-19 arrived. He thinks Kreighbaum’s photos do an excellent job capturing the dedication of his pared-down staff.
Before the pandemic, Donna Jean was a full-service restaurant serving a made-from-scratch dinner menu with beer and wine. Since then, Elam said he’s transitioned to an almost entirely pizza menu, with to-go sauces and other market items because that’s what his small staff is capable of producing for takeout. He and his sous chef are still working 12- to 18-hour days, though, because they’re committed to making all of their vegan cheeses, doughs and sauces from scratch.
“This whole pandemic has made us think about the future of what our restaurant will be as we transition into a more quick-service model,” said Elam, who is preparing to open a second location in Sherman Oaks later this year. “People will be wary of sitting down in a restaurant in the future, and also we’re preparing for a recession that I know is going to happen.”
Despite the long hours he’s working and having to lay off two-thirds of his staff, Elam said he made the right decision staying open so he could experience first-hand what customers wanted. It also allowed him time to figure out how he can employ fewer workers at higher wages in the future.
“If we’d closed and not opened for takeout and tried to come back, we wouldn’t have had any success,” Elam said. “But living through it and seeing it every single day has helped us prepare to face what will be the new normal in the restaurant business.”
Elam praised Kreighbaum for her work ethic, her adaptability and her creativity behind the lens.
“I’ve had her come in and film people working to help customers understand that it takes an army to make the food they eat. She’s been really great at capturing that,” Elam said.
Kreighbaum and Elam said they hope the photos remind the public about the essential workers who are on the job day and night to feed the public during the pandemic.
“They’re out there doing these things so the rest of us can have comfort food and something to look forward to and get out of the house for,” she said. “All of the work they do is for other people.”
To see more of Kreighbaum’s work visit lindsaykphoto.com.
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