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How a Christian restauranteur navigated the pains of a pandemic

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As “executive stewards,” Christian business owners are called to weigh market forces and seek a profit, but we are also tasked with stewarding much more.

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The pandemic-era lockdowns caused immeasurable pain to countless businesses, with restaurants experiencing disproportionate levels of pain and suffering.

According to the National Restaurant Association, food-service industry sales “fell by $240 billion in 2020 from an expected level of $899 billion,” and by the end of 2020, “more than 110,000 eating and drinking places were closed for business temporarily, or for good.” Even now, as the economy re-opens, operational costs are soaring and labor supply is low.

In an essay for Christianity Today, Peter Demos of Demos’ Restaurants and Demos Family Kitchen offers a personal reflection on how his Christian faith has served as a close comfort and steadfast guide in navigating the business challenges of the past year.

“I watched sales drop at each of our locations anywhere from 60 percent to 90 percent as we shifted from dine-in services to carry-out and delivery only,” explains Demos. “As a result, I had to lay off employees, something I had never been forced to do apart from closing a location.”

Demos’ predicament is now all too familiar to American restauranteurs. But for Demos, whose restaurant’s stated purpose is “to glorify God in all we do by serving others,” the prospect of mass layoffs was not just a difficult financial reality. It presented unique questions for how he was supposed to weave his faith into executive leadership:

As a Christian, I’ve always been open about how my faith drives everything I do and shapes how I run my business. The decision to dismiss employees was agonizing, but I wanted to come up with the most ethical and moral way to care for those who worked for us … What’s the most gracious way to cut employees in the middle of an economic crisis and a pandemic?

None of us had been through this before, and there were no easy answers. We made sure to keep on the payroll a few individuals who needed to maintain health insurance to care for serious medical issues. We created a three-tier list of employees, ranked by skill level and attitude. We ended up having to lay off those on the bottom tier; thankfully we never had to move to the second tier.

But I wanted to help those I had to let go. I looked for ways to offer support even after they were no longer on my payroll. I emailed them on a regular basis with information about ways to file for unemployment and other available benefits. But people were still angry even after we reached out to try to help. Some didn’t believe the layoffs were necessary and disputed our motives, even going as far as calling us “fake Christians.”

Like most businesses across America, Demos’ restaurant continues to struggle with the unforeseen aftershocks of the pandemic, ranging from acute labor shortages to supply chain disruptions to the ongoing polarization and politicization around mask-wearing and other safety protocols:

Other employees returned only to quit once stimulus checks were received. Much like nearly every restaurant in America, we became and continue to be short-staffed. We are now encountering a staffing crisis of such proportions that we have been forced to re-close some locations or reduce hours at others. While we have hundreds of individuals apply to each job posting, despite offering pay 50 percent higher than minimum wage and exclusive sign-on bonuses, they simply do not show up to interview.

The lack of willing workers has strained the entire industry and is now impacting our manufacturers and supply chains. Everything from aluminum lids for our to-go pans to chicken and ketchup packaging are running low. We have over 40 items currently on a watch list that may run out this week. We are talking daily and sometimes more with our distributors to stay on top of it and try to find substitutions, which is simply not always possible.

To navigate these challenges, Demos has kept in close counsel with other Christian business leaders and restauranteurs, which helped ground his struggle in the context of creative service and hopeful perseverance. While the industry norm was to dwell in fear, resentment, and scarcity-mindedness, his faith and trust in God gave him fresh perspective and helped him focus on gratitude.

“I found that these [other Christian restaurant] owners tended to have more positive outlooks and recognized this was a season that God would see them through,” he writes. “…When worry would rear its ugly head during the worst of the pandemic, I reminded myself that I trust a God who is in control, I would ask his forgiveness for my unbelief, and I would start being thankful for what he provided.”

In the final chapter of his book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life, theologian Lester DeKoster writes about these same struggles, calling the art of “executive stewardship” an “awesome obligation” of economic life — one that Christians ought to embrace and inhabit with wisdom and humility.

“Whatever work we do puts our selves into the service of others and at the same time sculpts the kind of self each is becoming,” writes DeKoster. “… But certain jobs unite work and wage (and price) in someone’s decision … Theirs is the gift for merging all economic variables into price tags and wage rates – and their choices are as sculpting of their own selves as any others.”

As “executive stewards” we are called to lean into economic decisions with our consciences, balancing a host of factors toward an ideal that transcends earthly inputs and considerations.

“The twin tracks of work and wage do not meet, and cannot be scientifically related,” DeKoster writes. “They are bridged by morality, not by mathematics. And it is in the self-sculpting choices of wage and price scales that managers must make the twin tracks merge – under the all-seeing eye of God. It is here that justice, as defined by the will of the Creator and revealed in his Word, comes to bear upon the economy.”

Demos’ story offers just one possible approach. But as business owners continue to faithfully shepherd their enterprises away from the brink of economic collapse, his example points to a way of thinking and operating that can offer a stark contrast to the fears and economic assumptions of our post-pandemic age.

In the simple ways we weigh and steward executive decisions — wage rates, product quality, hiring and firing, layoffs, caring for those who fall on misfortune — we remind the world that business is not just about economic self-provision, but also about human fellowship, bound together by human persons with ethical obligations to each other.

“I can see how our staff developed closer relationships as we weathered the storms of 2020 together, adapting and even expanding our business to shipping food nationwide,” Demos concludes. “And I can see signs of spiritual growth. A year like last year reminds us of our real bottom line: We believe it is our job to share the gospel through the business God gave us. It is his business, not ours.”

Demos’ story reminds us that mastering the art of executive stewardship will not only lead to more fruitful businesses; it will lead to more abounding diversity and fellowship across the economic order. It creates economic value across civilization, but it does so by creating social and spiritual value in ways that are both unseen and eternal.

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.