January 23, 2021
COVID-19 has certainly rattled the U.S. economy, with the restaurant industry taking an especially hard hit. While the dining restrictions put in place are necessary to slow the spread of the virus, they have had some negative consequences too. In a business where margins are already razor-thin, some independent restaurant owners just haven't been able to stay afloat without their dining rooms at full capacity. On the other hand, there are plenty of cases of independents not just beating the odds, but actually thriving. So how are they doing it?
There are some things even a pandemic can't keep us from. Whether it's hickory-smoked rib tips or a sweet steak sandwich, independent restaurants with something unique to offer are flourishing right now. Even the best home cooks can't recreate some of these restaurant dishes, like the jibarito — a Puerto-Rican style sandwich with deep-fried green plantain planks instead of bread. People have still been lining up at all three Jibarito Y Mas locations throughout Chicago to get a taste of the island. Jenny Arrietta, manager at the Logan Square location, says that customers are willing to wait in (socially distanced) lines, rain or shine, for their family-style hospitality.
People are also dining out just to show support for communities. Calumet Fisheries has been an iconic Chicago establishment for almost a century, and the locals aren't about to let it go anywhere any time soon. Winner of a James Beard Award, this local seafood joint is still attracting plenty of patrons, new and old. As one customer put it, "You got to support these places. You can't lose something like this. It's Chicago history." Calumet Fisheries hasn't been completely untouched by Coronavirus, though. Longtime manager Carlos Rosas tragically passed away from COVID complications last month. A lot of people have come out to pay their respects and support this local institution.
Sometimes "something special" isn't a dish or a 96-year tenure in the industry. Birdcall, a Denver-based fast-casual restaurant, serves up all-natural fried chicken sandwiches as well as unique experiences for its diners. With less face-to-face interaction, Birdcall employees were looking for a creative way to continue delivering their warm hospitality. The result is hand-written, personalized notes tucked in each takeout order. They've also started the "Birdcall Lockdown Music Series," where local bands and DJs can come and play live music in the parking lot every Saturday. Not only are the guests waiting in line able to enjoy some live entertainment, but local artists get a platform to share their content. That's a win-win for the Denver community.
Birdcall isn't just innovating the customer experience — they also created their own ordering platform to sidestep third-party fees. Services like GrubHub and Postmates often end up eating most, if not all, of the profits from online orders. When a restaurant uses its own ordering platform, they can cut costs and improve their profit margins. Customers can use Birdcall's platform for pickup or delivery. By partnering with DoorDash for just their delivery services (and not their online ordering system), they've been able to retain an additional 15% of revenue on delivery orders.
Wayfare Tavern of San Francisco has literally shifted gears, taking their high-end American cuisine to the streets. Realizing their usual tourist and after-work crowds won't be coming out as much, they decided to get a food truck and bring the food to them instead. The tavern posts their weekly location on social media and allows hungry customers to pre-order via text message up to one day in advance. Their brick-and-mortar location is still open as well, serving up another innovative idea: meal kits. Fit with cooking instructions, these kits allow guests to create their favorite restaurant dishes in the comfort of their own home. Quite a few independent restaurants have adopted this service, pairing it with merchandise and cooking classes to further boost their annual revenue.
It doesn't matter how innovative restaurateurs are if employees and guests don't feel safe there. Because of it's high-contact nature, safety has to be the number one priority right now in the restaurant business. Some restaurants have taken advantage of temporary expansions into the sidewalks, streets, and parking lots to create socially-distanced outdoor dining. Since customers can't wear masks while eating and drinking, it's especially important that they remain at least 6 feet away from other diners. Providing hand sanitizer at tables and posting visible signs that promote protective measures reassures guests that the business is taking their safety seriously.
Equally important is ensuring the safety of restaurant employees. A lot of people in the customer and food service industries are afraid to come back to work and put their health on the line. Those fears aren't unfounded, either. It's absolutely crucial that restaurant owners do everything in their power to keep their workers safe and supported. This means providing them with protective gear as well as flexible scheduling. With many schools and daycare programs shut down, employers should work with their employees to address their childcare needs. Some restaurants have created donation funds to provide additional financial support to their employees. Managers should also rethink "the customer is always right" when it comes to following safety guidelines like wearing face coverings. Employees shouldn't have to worry about being berated or physically attacked by the people they are serving.
Independent restaurants don't have the same lobbying power that larger chain restaurants have. As a result, independent restaurateurs were largely shut out of the CARES Act assistance programs provided by the federal government. Even the restaurant owners who were able to secure a PPP loan have been hesitant to use it. These PPP loans are designed for small businesses to be able to keep their employees on the payroll, but they're too restrictive for restaurants. In June, President Trump signed the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act, which lowers the amount that businesses must use for payroll expenses— but it still doesn't give restaurants the real economic support they desperately need.
Because of this, independent restaurateurs across the country have been teaming up to form the Independent Restaurant Coalition. The IRC and the National Restaurant Association are currently putting pressure on lawmakers to pass the "Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed To Survive," or "RESTAURANTS" Act. Introduced by Congressman Earl Blumenauer, the RESTAURANTS Act is advocated by many prominent chefs — including Tom Colicchio, Naomi Pomeroy, and Kwame Onwuachi.
Unlike the CARES Act, this legislation would create a restaurant stabilization fund that provides grants (not loans) to independent restaurateurs. They can use these grants to pay employees, vendors, utilities, and more. Restaurateurs can also use money from the stabilization fund to purchase the protective equipment and cleaning supplies necessary to keep employees and guests safe. Furthermore, almost a quarter of the funds would be set aside to support minority-owned restaurants in traditionally marginalized communities. The harsh reality is that many of these amazing local restaurants just won't survive without assistance from federal and local governments. That's why the IRC's work is so important.
This pandemic has certainly wreaked havoc on the independent restaurant industry, but all hope is not lost. By strictly adhering to safety guidelines, innovating, and working together — small restaurants still stand a chance against the larger chains. Despite the odds, there are many independents not just surviving, but doing even more business now than before COVID struck. Hopefully the IRC will be successful in securing financial assistance from the federal government so that independent restaurants can continue to thrive.
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