America is in the weeds right now. Desperately sick people, including some of our friends, are packing emergency rooms with a mysterious new virus. The economy is entering what looks like a new depression. Some say unemployment could be as high as 30 percent.
Given this situation, the plight of restaurants might seem like a frivolous concern. Americans might reasonably ask: Why should we worry about the independent restaurant industry when we’re worried about how to pay rent?
The reason to care is not just because we feed America and feed it well. It’s because independent restaurants employ more than 10 million people. And our fear is that these jobs may well disappear for good.
Over the past two weeks, tens of thousands of restaurants have closed across the country. New York City alone has roughly 26,000 restaurants — and nearly all of them have now shut down.
In other industries, deep-pocketed companies are able to keep workers on the payroll even when there’s no money coming in. Independent restaurants don’t have that luxury. We don’t have shareholders or the ability to bank money for a rainy day when things are good.
Here’s how the economics work: 90 percent of the money that independent restaurants earn goes straight back out to pay employees, vendors and rent. This is true for mom-and-pop corner restaurants and for the fanciest places in town: Whether your server wears a flannel shirt or a fancy suit, your favorite restaurant is primarily in the business of giving a whole lot of people a paycheck.
In the past week, one of us was forced to lay off 800 workers. Another had to let 1,500 people go. A third laid off 2,000 people, including corporate office staff. Some of us are still offering takeout and delivery — and selling gift cards and swag online — but that’s barely enough to keep anyone employed, given the costs of rent and insurance for sit-down restaurants. Our economic model requires people in seats.
New York restaurant people are true Gothamites: Like so many of us, they came to the city from all over the country and the world to take part in the public life of our amazing city. They’re pros who’ve trained and prepared and worked their way up the restaurant ladder; they are artists and performers and coders and students working day jobs; they are family people who look to restaurants for a regular paycheck, solid hours and good benefits. Now they are struggling to feed their children, waiting in line to get unemployment benefits and desperately worried about paying their rent.
And that’s not even counting the hundreds of millions of workers up and down the supply chain — from farmers and packers and laundries to importers and accountants — who depend on restaurants for their living.
Chris Field of Campo Rosso in Gilbertsville, Pa., is typical. His farm supplies 40 to 50 restaurants around the city, and “wholesale to restaurants make up about 70 percent of our total sales,” he said. In the past week his restaurant sales have “dropped to zero.”
“We’ll continue to seed and plant as planned, but we realize we may have to drastically change how we distribute what we can grow,” Mr. Field said. Others are already changing course. Franca Tantilo, owner of Berried Treasures Farm in Cooks Falls, N.Y., said, “I will not be able to produce crops this season, as all of my restaurant wholesale accounts are gone.”
As restaurants go, so go our communities. If all of these people suddenly don’t have money to spend on our main streets, everyone will feel it. We take our responsibility to keep people working very seriously. But now we need help.
Yesterday the Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s “Phase III” Covid-19 response bill failed for a second time. For us, that’s not just a headline — it’s the denial of key measures that would save our industry. They include policies like six months’ worth of funding earmarked for paying staff members and getting rent checks to landlords; a program to help pay suppliers, vendors and other support businesses; and lifting the limitations on the number of people who can work for businesses eligible for relief, which will give independent restaurants a fighting chance of reopening when the pandemic subsides. Without this help, 75 percent of independent restaurants are likely to never reopen.
A large majority of our colleagues — from dishwashers to porters to prep and line cooks — have spent their lives in the restaurant business. They have nowhere else to go. We cannot let them down.
Andrew Carmellini is the founder and chef of NoHo Hospitality Group. Tom Colicchio is the owner of Crafted Hospitality. Danny Meyer is the founder and C.E.O. of Union Square Hospitality Group. Missy Robbins is a co-founder and the chef of Grovehouse. Marcus Samuelsson is the founder and chef of the Marcus Samuelsson Group. Adam Saper is a partner at Eataly.
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