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Resilience Alone isn’t Enough to Save Restaurants

Plate,

Chandra Ram is the well-traveled, well-fed editor of Plate.

The notion that chefs are tougher than most people goes back to the first time a cook cut himself and then continued to work a full shift. It’s been a point of pride for most cooks I know, the focus of books by Anthony Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman, and celebrated in popular culture.

But that reputation might be hurting restaurants and cooks now. When I talk to people about restaurants today, I’m very frank about how badly the pandemic has hurt the industry: the number of people out of work, how many restaurants have closed, and how much worse it will get if restaurants don’t receive any federal aid. Many of the people I talk to understand what’s at stake.

Others see this as a moment to give me a lecture on how resilient chefs and restaurant workers are. How their toughness will see them through this moment, how they will come back in some vague, undefined way.

Resilience is a great idea, a motivating word to tack onto the wall, an ideal to embrace. But it’s not the answer on a P&L, to a landlord who won’t negotiate, or an employee owed a paycheck. The restaurant workers I know are among the toughest—and yes, resilient—people around. But that won’t stop them from losing their jobs, their livelihoods, their homes and life savings if the federal government doesn’t step in and save restaurants.

The National Restaurant Association reports that of one of every six restaurants—more than 100,000—have already closed due to the pandemic, and three million restaurant workers are out of work. And we know a lot of small restaurants and their employees were not included in that count. 

That's not the only bad news. Nearly 90 percent of restaurants in New York City were unable to pay their August rent, according to the New York City Hospitality Alliance. In Chicago, 90 percent of the city’s independent music venues will close because of the pandemic without government assistance, reports Block Club Chicago. Meanwhile, the city is mandating that restaurant owners post placards warning diners of the risk of eating in their establishments, like the warnings on cigarette packages.

Federal aid for restaurants that would stanch the bleeding has been up in the air for months now. The RESTAURANTS Act was introduced in the House of Representatives in June, proposing a $120 billion grant program for restaurants and catering companies that are not part of a chain. As of today, the Independent Restaurant Coalition reports that nearly half of Congress has signed on to cosponsor the bill, including 200 members of the House and 40 Senators.

Like many of you, I have been waiting all summer for Congress to pass the RESTAURANTS Act. I’ve been impatient, especially as negotiations over a fifth coronavirus relief package stalled, but thought that big things like this take time to make happen. But now, with Republicans in the Senate vowing to confirm President Trump's Supreme Court nominee in a fraction of the time it normally takes to confirm a new justice, I see how quickly lawmakers can move when the work benefits people in power.

Other industries haven't had to wait like this. Back in April, the aviation industry, 58 airlines that employ 621,220 Americans, received $25 billion in bailout money. It was deemed necessary to save the economy. But the restaurant industry, in which 50,000 independent businesses employ 11 million Americans, still waits for help. And now that airlines are demanding more money to ward off layoffs, there's a decent chance they will see a second round of aid before restaurants get a dime.

As cold weather approaches and outdoor dining becomes untenable, the situation gets more dire. Chicago's city council is encouraging restaurants to set up tents, igloos or yurts on approved patios and sidewalks for outdoor dining in winter, an idea that makes sense only if you’ve never been to Chicago in winter. Winter is much milder in Oregon, but it does get cold and rainy. Eater reports that only 14% of the Portland diners they surveyed feel comfortable eating in restaurants. I understand why people feel that way, and share their concern; Dr. Fauci says restaurants and bars should be closed until we can control the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, the federal government is trying to wish the virus away instead of doing anything to contain it.

"If experts believe restaurants and bars are the absolute worst perpetrators of the spreading of the disease then they should close us down, and offer us some sort of financial renumeation to weather this period," Chicago chef Kevin Hickey told the Wall Street Journal. He's right. European governments sending money to restaurant owners are right. If restaurants don't get help, they will die. No amount of tents and igloos is going to save the industry; this kind of thinking is as vague and meaningless as a lecture on resilience. It essentially sacrifices the restaurant and bar industries.

Congress is putting it on the people working the hardest for the least amount of pay to save the economy, while rewarding giant corporations with bailouts (and letting their CEOs walk away with bonuses afterward). Make no mistake: This is a choice. Tell your representative how you feel.

 

Chandra Ram is the well-traveled, well-fed editor of Plate.