In Conversation: Jody Shapiro on Lockdown 2.0, A Fundraiser in Support of Toronto's Hospitality Industry
The second Covid-19 lockdown for the Greater Toronto Area started in November, forcing local restaurants to adapt once more to a shifting economic landscape. Among the many business owners knocked for a loop is Jody Shapiro, a Toronto-based documentary photographer and filmmaker who also co-owns Antler, a popular restaurant in the city’s vibrant Dundas Street West neighbourhood. Rather than settle into despair, Jody put his documentarian skills to use and began to photograph his fellow restaurant workers as they dug in their heels to find ways to keep their venues afloat and their colleagues employed.
In making these photographs, Jody is building an archive that captures how this strange year is affecting the business owners and employees of some of this city’s much-loved restaurants. Jody also envisioned the resulting portraits as forming the basis of a new fundraiser dedicated to supporting the people working behind the scenes of this socially important industry – an industry that we are all counting on seeing persevere so that we may get back to our normal lives, post-Covid.
In January, Jody approached FFOTO and Stephen Bulger Gallery to talk about a fundraising idea for his Lockdown 2.0 photographs. Several companies have stepped up to volunteer their services to make this initiative a reality:
- Stephen Bulger Gallery is providing the services of its framing department and will host a physical exhibition (viewable form the sidewalk to meet safety protocols)
- Master-printer Bob Carnie is generously producing gelatin silver prints and ink jet prints
- A&C, one of the Toronto’s premier public relations firms, is lending its expertise to help to spread the word
- FFOTO is offering this platform as an online home for the fundraiser, coordinating sales and providing free shipping
I talked to Jody shortly after Valentine’s Day – normally one of the busiest days on a restaurant’s calendar – to discuss Lockdown 2.0, both the photo series and fundraiser.Craig D’Arville
FFOTO Co-founder and COO
Craig D'Arville: Hi, Jody. FFOTO is really pleased to help with this hospitality industry fundraiser based around your series Lockdown 2.0. You're a documentary filmmaker and photographer, as well as being co-owner of Antler, a restaurant here in Toronto. Walk us through the early days of this photography project.
Jody Shapiro: My background was in film and photography before I got interested in the culinary arts. And there's a sense of storytelling in restaurants, when you're working with food, that I always really enjoyed; that sort of lent itself to the nature of my film and photography work.
March 16th, 2020, the first instruction came for us to shut down. It was really one of the hardest days of my life to shut down the restaurant. I had to lay off 22 people and we completely shut our doors, not knowing what was going on or, really at the time, what this disease was all about. We were stuck with a lot of food inventory and just this sense of hopelessness.
We eventually reopened, but it was very difficult. The idea of operating a restaurant during this time was that you had to constantly reinvent yourself every couple of weeks. Some weeks you were allowed to have people in the restaurant, some weeks you weren't. Suddenly, they allowed us to open a patio. Then suddenly that patio was shut down.
CD: So even though you’re finding ways to keep the doors open, you’re always waiting for the next challenge to pop up.
JS: Exactly. So when this second lockdown was announced in November, I felt compelled to tell the story of what people were going through. The majority of my time from the first lockdown was sitting in front of my computer recreating online menus, dealing with administrative stuff, figuring out all the loans, all the grants, all the things that were going to keep this restaurant alive. I'm not an accountant by trade, and I was starting to get very frustrated and maybe even a little depressed that this is what my life was turning into.
I had to do something creative. I wanted to tell a story about what was going on. So I decided to pick up my camera and document what was happening in our restaurant, and in restaurants across the city.
CD: So that first day of the second lockdown had you reflexively heading into a comfort zone of, "I have a skill set. I know how to record this sort of thing for posterity." Did you set to work immediately?
JS: Day One was the first day I started, when the announcement came from the government telling us to shut down for a second time. Antler had to suddenly pivot again. And I saw the staff … I saw the concern on their faces.
There’s a worthy story to tell and this is an important period to archive. As we navigate this second lockdown, the photos that I take could be used in 10 to 15 years as a point of reflection. I really think that a lot of changes are going to come out of the hospitality industry during this time. And it'll be very interesting to see – when we look back at these photos – what things stuck around; what things changed because of that.
CD: And rather quickly, you started developing an idea that you could use these photographs for something meaningful, right now. Something that might generate funds to help support hospitality workers. Let's talk about the fundraising angle of Lockdown 2.0.
JS: I tell people this all started just as a therapeutic exercise for myself. I had to do something creative and I wanted to share these stories. I needed to feel like I was part of a bigger team that was trying to get through this. And part of that was reaching out to other restaurants to see how they were doing, and what they were doing, and ask if they would share their stories. After photographing maybe four or five different restaurants I thought, I wonder if sharing these stories might be a way to raise some funds to help the hospitality industry during this time.
When it looked like the fundraiser could become a reality, thanks to FFOTO and Stephen Bulger Gallery, I connected with two non-profit organizations that have been very supportive since the beginning, since last March, with supporting restaurants and hospitality workers during this time.
One of the organizations is called Save Hospitality, started by restaurateur John Sinopoli. John was one of the first to get ahead of what was happening within the industry; with anticipating the help that restaurants would need. He formed a lobby group to approach different government bodies to tell them what the independent restaurateur really needed. As someone who owned a restaurant, John’s guidance was extremely helpful with getting the word out about what we needed.
The other organization, The Full Plate, helps industry workers directly. They offer a whole range of services to connect employees, or people that became unemployed, with different groups such as Legal Aid or people that needed help coping with mental health issues.
I really liked the idea of these two organizations. One that is focused on the businesses, and the other that is focused on the employee. And I feel like with two resources like that, a lot of people have been helped through this past year.
CD: Did those non-profits exist before Covid-19?
JS: Save Hospitality was 100% created because of Covid-19. The Full Plate, I believe as well. The Full Plate is a group also started by industry workers. They may have had the idea beforehand, but it certainly came to life because of the need that was out there at the onset of the first lockdown.
CD: While working on pulling together the elements of this fundraiser, you talked about how Valentine's Day preparations were foremost in your mind. How did restaurants adapt to make the most of one of the biggest date nights on the calendar for your industry?
JS: When the pandemic first hit and restaurants could only serve take-out, everybody was ordering for pick-up. It actually worked out really well. But by the summer, that that began to die down. And then, when we went into this most recent lockdown, we realized that special days are the days that we have to target. Christmas and New Year’s, and then Valentine's Day. We had a lot of interest; a lot of meals went out. But now, these weeks after Valentine's Day, it's slower.
Since this all started we’ve had to change all our marketing, all our online ordering systems – everything. Usually, we're open Tuesday to Sunday. Maybe we have some weekday specials, some weekend specials. But as this idea of not being able to eat in a restaurant continues, take-out has become something that we have to approach as a serious means of staying connected to diners.
CD: Is this a sustainable business model? How much longer do you feel that things can go on this way?
JS: Well, we have a staff meeting once a week with... We've been able to keep four employees at Antler. And the first thing we talk about is: What are the special days coming up? And we realized the next two are St. Patrick's Day and then Mother's Day. But St. Patrick’s Day is three, four weeks away and we have to sustain ourselves. So we’ve decided that we have to invent special occasions. We have to create themes. Right now at Antler, we're doing a bake shop pop-up, something we don't normally do, but people like our desserts and our breads, and so we're going to act on that.
CD: Let's talk about the stories behind some of the photographs. I’m drawn to the portrait of Sydney, the chef de partie at Antler. What’s going on in this photograph?
Sydney, Chef de Partie, ANTLER | (Framed Collectors' Edition)
JS: Well, Antler is “home” and that was Day One of Lockdown 2.0. It's emotional for me to talk about because everything sort of changed overnight. Once again, the thoughts of, "How do we keep our staff employed? How do we keep this business alive? What pivots do we have to make?" And that shot with Sydney was the first photograph I took in the series. It was the one that... I mean, it kind of nailed it for me. In the sense that, "Yes, there are some stories to tell here," because that kitchen usually has three chefs in it. When we're in service, it's a very, very busy place. But Sydney's all alone; it's not hectic. There's not a ton of pots on the stoves. He's pulling out a tray from the oven. And this was at the very beginning, an image that to me, represented what this restaurant was about to go through again. The fact that we were going to have reduced staff, reduced service, and really trying to figure out sort of where we were going to stand.
Sydney's great. He's been with us for close to three years. All of the team has been so dedicated. And this was the look of, you know, a dedicated soldier that was there, kind of “alone on the battlefield”.
CD: The next photograph, Rob and Caroline, Day 13 of lockdown, Labora. The second lockdown is now two-weeks in.
JS: Two-weeks in, yeah. Labora is a fantastic Spanish-themed restaurant on King Street West; at King and Spadina. Rob is an incredible chef and the thing that I like about this photo is that Caroline is Rob's wife. She's not from the culinary industry, but she had another position that I believe fell through because of Covid. And now, this huge restaurant that can't have any guests inside it, is being operated by Rob and his wife. Really, just the two of them. I think he has an extra hand come in. They've had to pivot all their systems. It's online ordering, it's some pickups, some delivery, but it's a husband-and-wife team.
And to me, that represents another model of what's happening here. It's that family is coming together. People that have never really worked in this industry are showing up to help their loved ones to survive. And seeing the two of them working together was, again, it was another emotional moment to witness. They are just working and doing everything they can to keep their business alive.
CD: And Mikey at Uncle Mikey's, day 26 of lockdown, a month into things.
JS: Mikey is Michael Kim. Uncle Mikey's is a Korean, sort of French influenced restaurant. It’s my neighborhood spot; right across the street from where I live. Mikey did an interesting thing that some restaurants are trying to do. He changed his whole business model to a bodega; a store, basically. He removed all the tables and put everything in storage. He's selling wine, sake, some sandwiches to-go. He brought in a lot of Asian snacks and foods. And he really turned his place into a walk-in shop.
That image of Mikey standing in front of the fridge in this restaurant, a place that should be filled with people and tables, again, speaks a lot to me. It's a third method that people have gone through to enable their businesses to survive.
CD: Let’s talk about one more: Maggie reopening the Skyline Restaurant. When was this taken?
JS: This was taken just before Valentine’s Day, and this shows a fourth approach that restaurants have followed to stay, to survive. Maggie shut down her restaurant completely, at the start of the second lockdown. January and February are normally known as the slowest months in the hospitality industry. Christmas, New Years – great times. In January things really drop off. And all the restaurants across the board noticed a very, very big drop-off in take-out and delivery business. Maggie decided, given the rising Covid numbers in the city, and the lockdown orders, to shut down completely to ride things out. The health and safety of her staff was a priority.
When I met Maggie, she was getting ready to reopen. That, to me, is a nice story to tell. The fact that she was able to survive two months of shutting down. The Skyline will open again on March 1st and Maggie had just come back into the restaurant. She was opening that curtain for the first time in six weeks. There were still Christmas decorations up and around the shop. She was doing some repairs and getting organized – and she couldn't stop talking about... I mean, excitedly, she was talking about how she was going to begin baking her pies again soon.
So she was drawn back to her restaurant, looking for hope, feeling optimistic as all of us are trying to do, but it's a timeless diner and it's a great city street scene. It's a well-loved place in her community. And the idea that someone is able to reopen, I think brings everyone a lot of joy.
CD: What comes next? Will you continue to photograph more restaurants?
JS: I would like to continue photographing more restaurants. Again, this project is also an archive, so there's a few more places on my radar.
A lot of my film work has been with actor and filmmaker Isabella Rossellini. She comes with an incredible artistic pedigree through her parents, Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini. Isabella has always instilled in me the importance of building an archive. Archives tell stories that get lost. Maybe interpretations change, but nevertheless, the stories I think, have to remain. And I can't help but feel optimistic in two ways about archiving this time we’re in: One, as I mentioned earlier, this idea that change is going to come out of this time. And I hope change for the better – in the way that restaurants are run, restaurants are structured, and the skills that staff are given.
And the second way I feel optimistic is that, I think, when we look back at this time, we're going to recognize, in every industry, that what we were able to learn during this time is perseverance. Just looking at the achievements at Antler, we have merchandise now, we're bottling maple syrup, we have a great online site. We're doing game boxes, we're doing meal kits. We know how to let people order in advance and pick up something two weeks later. And these are all things from a business perspective that I think once we're reopened, once the city is alive again, we're going to be busier than ever. And we’ll be able to take those skills with us.
CD: This is a good, hopeful place to wrap up our conversation. Any final thoughts?
JS: Before I go I really want to give a huge thanks to FFOTO, to Stephen Bulger Gallery, to Bob Carney Printmaking and Gallery, and to A&C , as well as to all the restaurants involved. It's really touched me and all the people that I've photographed. I know lots of industries are hurting, and ours is just one of many, but it’s been a really, really great effort from everyone and I can't thank all of you enough.
The photographs are on view at Stephen Bulger Gallery, and available as fundraising prints through FFOTO in both a framed Collectors' Edition limited to 25 gelatin silver prints; and an accessibly priced Unlimited Edition produced as ink jet prints, with all proceeds donated to non-profit ventures Save Hospitality and The Full Plate, organizations with a focus on supporting Canada’s hospitality industry.