This week, a wave of statewide and city decrees prohibited bars and restaurants from operating at full capacity or operating at all in an attempt to curb the spread of Coronavirus. Though enacted in the interest of public health, these mandates have quickly struck a major blow to bars and restaurants, an industry with 15.6 million workers. With slim profit margins and few salaried employees, the hospitality industry is especially vulnerable to such unprecedented economic flux.
To stay afloat, some wine bars and restaurants are radically altering their business models in accordance with new and evolving laws. Gina Genschle, owner and chef of Revolution Wines in Sacramento, CA, started by consulting with a wine-specific legal firm to determine her options.
“Most restaurants don’t have a license to sell wine for people to take offsite, that’s something we have tied in with our license with the city of Sacramento as a manufacturer,” she says. And so, at press time, Revolution Wines is offering its full menu and wine list for delivery and takeaway.
Business has decreased so rapidly, however, that Genschle had to let a couple of staffers go. It’s been difficult, she says. “We have a lot of people here we support. This is their livelihood.”
New York City wine bar and restaurant Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels is also strategizing ways to maintain solvency and as many staffers as possible. Its 600-bottle wine list is now available at a 25% discount via pickup or local delivery, and it has ramped up food delivery options to battle the city’s ban on dining in.
Compagnie is also creating wine retail packages. Customers can purchase four bottles of wine plus digital versions of its popular, hour-long Wine Boot Camp classes for $95, or order “Supernatural Six-Packs” of staffers’ favorite bottles for around $150.
“With the addition of these wine deliveries, we’ll be able to hopefully compensate our management team as it is, but we’re definitely looking at a pretty drastic bottom-line reduction in revenue,” says Sam Stoppelmoore, Compagnie’s wine director and general manager.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t think the company will be able to keep on hourly employees until circumstances change.
“It’s definitely going to be a different ball game in terms of how many people we can keep on at a time,” says Stoppelmoore. “We’re still delivering, we’re still making it happen, but it’s almost like we’re writing a new business model in a day.” He hopes enough people will reserve classes and order delivery to get unsalaried staffers back on payroll.
Other wine bars redrafting operations include Chicago’s All Together Now. It debuted a walk-up window for takeaway wine and snacks yesterday and is taking orders for custom wine and food packages by telephone. In an Instagram post sharing these new offerings, the bar directed customers to a link to donate “Social Distance Gratuities” to the cooks, servers, dishwashers and others “whose livelihoods hang in the balance.”
In Los Angeles, Bar Avalon restaurant and EVE wine bar merged operations to create Bodega Avalon, a retailer stocking grab-and-go meals, wine and sundries like toilet paper, produce and bottled water. It’s also delivering prepared food and wine through third-party apps like Postmates and Caviar.
“Unfortunately, we are forced to temporarily relieve all hourly staff during this time,” says Nathanial Muñoz, general manager and sommelier.
Muñoz and Bar Avalon’s chef are currently Bodega Avalon’s only two employees. They’ve directed former staffers to resources provided by the state of California.
“Everyone is reimagining their work in the context of this national emergency,” says John deBary, founder and board president, Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation (RWCF). “That’s ultimately going to be a good thing, because the crisis is going to help strengthen the industry and make it more sustainable and more equitable.”
The hospitality industry plays an enormous role in the American economy. According to The New York Times, U.S. bar and restaurant employment was valued at $309 billion in 2018.
The industry is also riddled with inequities. Benefits and job security are scarce and sexual discrimination is rampant. And so, this sudden, widespread wage loss affects bar and restaurant workers differently than those in other industries, where shift pay is not affected by factors that affect tipped labor like weather or personal bias.
“Imagine if people in the banking industry were treated the way restaurant workers are treated, in terms of no sick pay, no benefits, nothing. People would be up in arms,” says deBary. He advocates for a “2008-style bailout of the restaurant industry” to protect both hospitality workers and the U.S. financial markets.
“Restaurant work is… a big part of our economy. It deserves the same level of care and attention that any other vital industry receives,” deBary says.
RWCF has created a list of resources for restaurant workers on its site and is currently raising money to help individuals facing immediate crisis and fund zero-interest loans to small businesses hoping to reopen once the pandemic has passed. Meanwhile, industry members seek ways to survive the upheaval.
“We’re just really trying to be creative and roll with the punches,” Compagnie’s Stoppelmoore says. “Everybody will get through this together. We just have to help each other out however we can.”