Eric Rivera Is Playing the Game  – Alberto Perez

A man wearing a face mask holds a bag of spicesSelling pantry items, like spices, has helped keep Addo afloat.

Despite everything, the Seattle chef has found a way to successfully run his restaurant Addo — and he has some advice for the rest of the industry

Eric Rivera does not run a traditional kitchen. At his Seattle restaurant, Addo, the menu, cuisine, and concept change constantly. So when Seattle restaurants began to close in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, Rivera was already ahead of the game.

Rivera was 4,000 miles away giving a culinary tour in Puerto Rico when Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency due to rising COVID-19 cases. In between staging meals and teaching his guests about the island’s culinary history, he set up his phone as a hotspot and began emailing clients and staff to rearrange the coming weeks of planned dining events and promotions, determining which could be salvaged as takeout and which needed to be completely restructured or worse, canceled.

On March 11, Rivera returned to Seattle and a calendar with reservations booked well into the next year. Addo used the Tock app for dinner reservations, but soon began using it to schedule carryout instead. Addo’s lunch catering, which amounted to about 30 percent of his business, was no longer feasible since all the high-end tech offices in the area closed, so Rivera began to make easy-to-reheat take-home meals to accommodate those newly working from home. He made and sold pantry items, like CSA boxes, yeast kits, and fresh-made pasta. He even hired his own delivery drivers to avoid working with gig-economy food delivery apps, which he believes take too much from both restaurants and drivers.

Adjusting to changes at the drop of a hat is common in most kitchens, but it’s something Rivera was used to well before he started working in restaurants. In the late aughts, Rivera ran his own mortgage insurance and financial services business when the Great Recession hit. He was an early success by most American standards, running his own offices in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. “There’s this game-of-life kind of thing — you’re raised to believe that you need the nice house with the picket fence, the car. Checkmark, checkmark, checkmark. I had that when I was 24.”

Rivera recalls being at Costco picking up office supplies in 2008 when he got a call from an employee; they wanted him back in the office immediately. Rivera was surprised by the urgency. “No man, leave that shit there. We’re done,” his employee said.

“What? What do you mean?”

“We’re done. Everything’s closed, all the lines of credit. Everything’s done.”

Rivera’s customers vanished almost immediately, and his business dwindled. He was forced to shift primarily to insurance. He was depressed. To save some money, he started cooking all of his meals at home and blogging about his successes and failures in the kitchen, mostly posting pictures of his process. He quickly amassed a bit of an audience and built a dialogue with some of the followers who were curious about the recipes he shared. “So then it became like more of a serious infatuation that I started to have,” he says. “It’s sort of what started to get me out of that spot.” Motivated by how quickly his skills had developed, he began to consider a career in food, and in 2010 he attended culinary school at the Art Institute in Seattle.

Acclimating to unfamiliar surroundings was nothing new to Rivera. His father was in the military for 30 years, and, as is common with that profession, the family moved around a lot. In order to build a bit of stability, when Rivera was 7 his parents chose to settle in Olympia, Washington — just over 60 miles south of Seattle — for a few years, and his grandparents left Puerto Rico for the Pacific Northwest to help with the kids. Growing up in Olympia, which was 82.5 percent white in the most recent census and more than 90 percent white in 1990, was challenging for Rivera’s Puerto Rican family. Fellow transplants to the Cascade region will tell you about the Seattle Freeze — if they haven’t already adopted it themselves. “In Seattle, in Washington, being passive aggressive, it’s an art form here,” Rivera says. “However, in my culture, if you have a fucking problem with somebody, you tell them in two seconds. You tell them to go fuck themselves. It’s over, it’s done with.” Rivera remembers the move to Washington as an uncomfortable transition. He recalls going to school and quickly realizing he and his family stood out from his predominately white classmates.

Rivera felt he had to “learn to play the game,” as he puts it. Beyond the regular curriculum of a student, he remembers playing the part of a young anthropologist, trying to learn about his peers’ preferred music, movies, food, and anything else that would allow him to fit in. “My grandpa would sit me in front of the TV and be like, ‘Sound like them, not like us!’ Meaning get rid of the accent, learn their shit.” However, while adapting to his surroundings, Rivera learned to embrace his own culture more fully. His grandfather taught him to cook at an early age. It wasn’t always easy to get the right ingredients, but he still managed to make Puerto Rican food, even in Olympia. When his grandparents eventually moved back to Puerto Rico, Rivera spent summers on the island and learned to move between the two worlds.

A puerto rican flag behind a table with packages of dried beans
Rivera is selling rice, beans, and other Puero Rican pantry staples online.
A man stacks spices on a shelve
The Addo space has transformed from restaurant to storage facility.

After culinary school, Rivera started working in restaurants, spending three years in Chicago as the director of culinary research operations with the Alinea Group. Early on, he began to see cracks in the way the industry was run. After an injury, Rivera was forced out of the kitchen and went without pay for months; again and again, he had to fight for meager raises. “The games you have to play are bullshit,” he says. “You have to go to the kitchens and stage for free. Dude, people that are younger and that come from different cultures and backgrounds can’t afford that — are you kidding me?”

After seven years in the industry, Rivera was ready to do his own thing, on his own terms. In the summer of 2017, he started running a chef’s table out of his Seattle apartment. He was unsure if diners would be interested in such a stripped-down eating experience, in which Rivera covered all aspects of service, but he was confident in himself. At the same time, he was running pop-ups out of any space he could get in town, cooking on panini grills in the back of coffee shops if need be. The hustle and desire to expand eventually led him to seek out his own space in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. He called it Addo.

Addo was an unconventional restaurant from the start. Although the chef’s table still existed in the new space, and you could still reserve space for a birthday party as you would at a more traditional restaurant, Addo relied on themed dinners booked months in advance. The menu changed based on current events, trends, and whatever popped into his head: He served a Pacific Northwest meal based on the grade-school computer game The Oregon Trail and multi-course dinners themed around Harry Potter. In an Instagram Live interview with Tom Colicchio in June, he described his process: “It’s truly head on a swivel. There were nights when we were a dine-in restaurant that we were doing three to five things a night because we had to. Here’s steak night, here’s a 20-course tasting menu, here’s Puerto Rican food, here’s a pasta thing we’re doing and there’s another thing.”

Puerto Rican food became a more significant part of Rivera’s professional life when, months after launching Addo, he expanded with Lechoncito, a side business that specializes in perfectly crispy and moist lechon, chicharron de pollo, and the famous jibarito inspired by his time in Chicago. Like Addo, Lechoncito also started as a pop-up, with a brief stint inside a whiskey distillery, but now Lechoncito food is sold through Addo a few times a month.

Although Rivera has mulled over the idea of making Puerto Rican food his primary focus, he appreciates that by having it as just one of the things he does, he’s not beholden to fickle food trends that could celebrate the cuisine one day and forget it the next. “[Puerto Rican cuisine] doesn’t stand out, because it’s just me talking about it or yelling about it, telling people how cool it is. That can only go so far,” he says. “There’s not enough people representing it or [who] know what they’re talking about … thats why I have to be this fucking guy, that has to operate at this really high level to get that badge that says, ‘He knows what he’s talking about, he’s worked at a place with three Michelin stars.’”

Still, there’s a loyal clientele for Lechoncito. On a recent Sunday, Rivera greeted regulars and fawned over their dogs as they arrived to pick up orders of a sold-out whole-roasted pig, big-as-your-head chicharrones, and arroz con garbanzos. And since mid-July, Puerto Rican food has become an even bigger business for Rivera.

On July 9, at a roundtable for Hispanic business leaders, Goya CEO Robert Unanue praised President Donald Trump, quickly leading many, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to call for a Goya boycott. Rivera saw an opportunity.

Rivera has a knack for social media, which he uses to create content for events, speak out about problems in the restaurant industry, or just post pictures of delicious food and cute dogs. As the Goya news and the hashtag #GoyaBoycott spread, he tweeted about his ability to ship pantry staples like sofrito, sazon, and adobo across the United States. Within hours, these tweets had been retweeted thousands of times, and Rivera made around 1,000 sales in the days following. These days, Addo resembles a warehouse space, with Rivera and a couple staff packing up spices, dry goods, and even house plants while Bad Bunny plays and the Puerto Rican flag hangs visibly from the front door. Online, Rivera jokingly calls himself “Amazing Primo,” a play on Amazon Prime.

A man sits behind a laptop in a restaurant
“We’re punching above our weight class now,” Rivera says of Addo’s pandemic operation.

Despite the struggles restaurants across the country are facing as they adjust to pandemic restrictions, Addo is busy. Rivera credits his staff, who went from cooking and serving to packing boxes and printing shipping labels, for Addo’s survival. “Is it what I want to be doing? Absolutely not. But I don’t think you have a choice sometimes, and I’m just really grateful we have an option to keep this going … if anyone was set up to be able to be pivoted, it was us,” says Ingrid Lyublinsky, Addo’s director of operations. “We’ve been doing it since the get-go.”

Addo chef John McGoldrick likens the constantly changing circumstances to the animated show Rick and Morty: “We’re just like a bunch of Mortys and chef Eric is Rick, sending us down a new portal every day.”

Although operating as a makeshift bodega may not be ideal for every kitchen, Rivera believes this is where restaurants are headed if they want to compete as major changes in the industry loom. He has even offered free Zoom classes to chefs about how to widen the scope of their restaurants, including tips on social media and running their own delivery or shipping. “We have less than seven employees, but we’re punching above our weight class right now with scaling things out and being more accessible to more people,” he says.

Rivera has grown increasingly frustrated by the response to the pandemic from many industry leaders. He believes big names and owners of chain restaurants will bounce back, leaving many smaller restaurants behind, as well as restaurant staff and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), who will have to find new avenues of work or face deepening pay discrepancies. “There are people who are getting stimulus, getting enhanced unemployment, but you have undocumented workers who aren’t getting anything,” he says. “And they’re being pushed back into the fire immediately without any help.”

On Twitter, Rivera has called out well-known Seattle restaurateurs like Tom Douglas and Ethan Stowell, who shut down restaurants permanently and laid off hundreds of staff. More recently, Rivera criticized pushes to open restaurants as COVID-19 cases are rising once again. Rivera tweeted on June 11: “There are other options for dining but the consumer will drive things back and greedy owners will compromise their staff to serve them. There are no leaders in this industry. There are no voices that can make these points stick.”

While recent months have brought the cracks in the industry to the forefront, the pandemic is not the direct cause of many of them. Rivera takes issue with an industry built on what he believes is an antiquated system of constant investment and expansion. “A lot of chefs, who are frankly losing their asses right now, are going to realize it’s not wise to seek so much investment, those deals with the devil, in order to push themselves into the stratosphere of the industry,” he says. This system, Rivera says, perpetuates the problems within the restaurant industry and benefits only “old, rich white men.”

Rivera’s tweets have earned the attention of the famous chefs he’s called out; some have even reached out to him. Colicchio invited him to an Instagram Live conversation about his experiences in the restaurant industry. And in an episode of the Dave Chang Show podcast, Chang said of Rivera, “Everything he’s saying is not something I always agree with, but I respect his viewpoints on a lot of things. If you look at what he’s doing it’s anything and everything, that’s what you have to see cause we have no idea what’s going to work. You got to try it all and make mistakes and adapt, make mistakes and adapt.”

Rivera recognizes that his own privilege has contributed to some of this success. “I knew what I had to do in order to play the game for people to listen to me,” he says. “If I was a dude with an accent that made jibaritos and chicharrones on the side of the street, no one would give a fuck.” However, he wants that game to change. “First, they need to get the fuck out of the way. They need to just get out of the way,” he says, referring to the old guard of primarily white men. “I don’t want to see another white dude traveling around the world discovering food. I’m tired of the Christopher Columbus shit.”

Rivera isn’t convinced that a return to some level of “normal” after the pandemic will solve many of his issues with the industry, including the financial barriers for BIPOC-run restaurants and the treatment of back-of-house staff in big-name restaurants. However, he’s inspired by younger generations of cooks and writers, like Alicia Kennedy and Illyanna Maisonet, for speaking out about the changes that need to happen, and credits them with “[helping] me establish how to be a voice, if you will, without just saying ‘fuck you’ every two seconds.” And six months into the pandemic, Rivera is still playing it day to day, ready to pivot once again whenever the need should arise. As he packs up spices, thinks up new to-go meals, and updates his website, he hopes that, at the very least, what he has done in his kitchen resonates in a food world that’s in dire need of a drastic pivot of its own.

Alberto Perez is a freelance writer currently based out of Seattle, but he’d rather be back in Texas eating tacos. Suzi Pratt is a photographer based in Seattle.

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