Friday morning, more than 60 independent restaurant owners from across Portland gathered in a standing-room-only crowd to discuss our options. As we talked about whether to close, when we could reopen and how we could run takeout businesses, not one entrepreneur expressed concern about themselves. All spoke about the people they employ and the safety of our community: Could we contain the virus? Could we afford to pay health-care premiums? Will other jobs be available to our workers? Will they be denied unemployment benefits if we close before the government orders us to do so?
Beast was one of the first restaurants in Portland to close this month, because I decided we had a moral responsibility to prioritize the safety of our community. Initially, I thought I could run a takeout-only operation, but I realized I could not guarantee that our food would be safe. What if a delivery from our restaurant spread the virus to a nursing home? What if one of our employees lives with a health-care professional who became exposed?
This isn’t the first time I’ve been forced to lay off employees. But this is the first time I’ve made that difficult decision with total uncertainty about the future. When I closed a restaurant in 2005, I knew my employees would find other work and that my suppliers would be there when I was able to start a new venture. I knew I could hustle, save money and try again. Beast opened in 2007 on a shoestring budget with a $60,000 loan. We won a James Beard Award seven years later.
Today, I don’t know if I’ll have the chance to start over again. It doesn’t matter if a restaurant has been open 22 years or 22 days: The revenue local restaurants earn this week pays the bills from the week before. We have to pay rent and repay existing loans. Even if we can reopen weeks or months from now, business is likely to be slow.
Some 9 million restaurant jobs are at risk from near-term layoffs, creating unprecedented ripple effects of damage. My fish supplier is begging me to buy and discounting to prices lower than I’ve ever seen. But no one is buying fish because it is so perishable. Fishermen are sitting at the dock, he told me. It is only a matter of time before my longtime friend has to close his business, leaving his bills — and those of the fishermen who supply him — unpaid. Most independent distributors — whether for seafood, vegetables or meat — don’t have the relationships or resources to supply grocery stores or large chain restaurants. They have nowhere to turn. Soon, farmers, beverage distributors, linen delivery services, butchers and other businesses that support independent restaurants will join those seeking unemployment.
The more than 300,000 independent restaurants closing across the country are estimated to cost $225 billion in lost revenue over the next three months. Overall, local restaurants represent about $1 trillion of the U.S. economy and employ over 13 million Americans. Our country cannot afford to leave these businesses and people uncertain about the future.
Restaurateurs need assurances that relief is coming, which is why I’m joining hundreds of chefs across the country in the Independent Restaurant Coalition. When the economy slowed in 2008, taxpayers helped Wall Street because Americans expect to be able to take out loans, buy homes and pay for college. Congress needs to help Main Street now so Americans can continue to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and other events at independent establishments built in their communities.
Without grant money, loan forgiveness and help from insurance companies, there is a good chance that independent restaurants won’t reopen after quarantines end. Providing just half of last year’s revenue in debt forgiveness and low- or no-interest loans would allow our staffs to be paid and help those up and down the supply chain stay afloat.
Restaurants are a labor of love. We work hard, in close quarters, for long hours not because restaurants make us rich but because we love food and the communities we serve. We are part of neighborhoods’ social fabric, creating spaces for people to come together and share experiences.
When I broke the news to my 30 employees, not one complained. Nobody shared nasty messages on social media. And the next day everyone came back to the restaurant, without being asked, to freeze the food, scrub the floors and prepare for our doors to be shut for several weeks.
Communities are helping each other in ways big and small during these uncertain times. Congress needs to act now to save independent restaurants unless we want the future of the U.S. restaurant landscape to be limited to familiar chains.