Last March, when Covid-19 was first ravaging its way through the nation, we were bombarded with calls for us to “Save restaurants!”
First, we heard misguided messages to get one last meal or round of drinks before heading into shutdown. Then, it was incessant pleas to buy to-go meals, delivery, even get pantry items from our favorite spots as they shifted business models to try and stay afloat through the crisis. People devoted entire articles to hand-wringing the ethics and practicality of gift cards.
The implication was that if we wanted our favorite places to survive the pandemic, we needed to start shelling out, or it was game over. Delivery apps even got in on the fun by setting up phony promotions at the expense of the restaurants that they already preyed on.
The overall message was clear: It was up to us to spend our way out of this restaurant crisis.
At the same time, an entire nongovernmental support structure popped up, literally overnight. The foundation that I started in 2018, Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, launched its Covid-19 Emergency Relief Fund in March 2020 to provide direct financial assistance to individual workers facing emergencies, grants to nonprofits providing relief work, and to establish a zero-interest no-collateral loan program to support small businesses. To date, we have raised $7.6 million for its dedicated efforts.
Other relief funds emerged too: ROAR NY, The CoCo Fund, One Fair Wage and countless others. Guy Fieri raised $22 million. David Chang, my former boss, won $1 million on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and donated it all to Southern Smoke Foundation. Everyone had a GoFundMe.
The thing is, we shouldn’t have had to fucking do any of it.
When the pandemic hit, and public health safety measures started to affect the hospitality, travel and entertainment industries, the federal government lumbered into something resembling action to try to help. We got a paltry stimulus check, unemployment benefits were expanded, and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was established.
The problem with PPP was that it made absolutely no sense for anyone in the restaurant industry because the loan forgiveness was predicated on the maintenance of payrolls. While some hospitality businesses and groups applied for and were awarded funds through the program, it was completely illogical for many restaurants to take loans that required them to keep or rehire their staff when they were operating at a fraction of their capacity.
Meanwhile, loans went to out to the companies of people who seemingly needed them the least: The Ayn Rand Institute; Foremost Group, Mitch McConnell’s wife’s family company; Yeezy, Kanye West’s apparel brand; and Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, to name a few. The airline industry got $25 billion bailout but laid off tens of thousands.
For context, in 2019 the restaurant industry in New York City alone employed 60% as many people as the entire United States airline industry. Why weren’t we, the people, tasked with a charge to “Save airlines”? Did anybody feel any pressure to buy gift cards from Delta or take an unnecessary trip so that Southwest could stay in business? No, because that’s absurd. An industry that’s vital to our way of living shouldn’t have to be bailed out by individual consumers, and they weren’t.
The restaurant industry is the second-largest private-sector employer in the U.S. and contributed 4% to the national GDP in 2019. According to the National Restaurants Association, since the pandemic began, more than 110,000 restaurants across the country, or around 17% of the total, have permanently closed. Also in that time, about 60% of total job losses have been in the restaurant industry.
We could have given restaurants tax breaks or rent relief. We could have paid restaurants to pay their workers to stay home. We could have socialized healthcare. There are so many things we, as the richest nation on earth, could have done besides telling people it’s their fault if their favorite taco shop goes under.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t go out and spend money at restaurants right now. I actually encourage you to. But we can’t act like it’s the path towards industry recovery. The way we’re treating restaurants right now is yet another example of how our country works the best for those who need the least amount of help and leaves everyone else to fend for themselves, and it has to change.
For more essays by drinks professionals, visit Outpourings: Industry Voices.