Cinematically speaking, the restaurant business these past 200 days has been a tragedy at its best, and at its worst — a horror film. COVID-19 has had a devastating, disproportionate effect on the hospitality world, and it’s left many vulnerable, weary, and in many cases, unemployed. I feel like the universe keeps providing openings for a box office-style hero to emerge and rescue us, but nobody seems quite up for the role.
Some 200 days ago, when restaurants and bars were asked to close, we closed. As painful as it all was, we trusted that the decisions being made were for the greater good, and we shut it down.
Workers scrambled to get unemployment, owners scrambled to survive, and almost immediately, 1 in 6 restaurants closed permanently.
Insurance companies could have been our white knight, but instead they were just a disappointing cameo appearance. We filed our claims, but “Viral and bacterial exclusion” is all we heard back.
The federal government could have come through with some industry-specific help, but instead PPP was a band-aid fix, and only 8% of it went to restaurants. More than 25% of total PPP funds went to just 1% of borrowers. We all prayed for sunny days, and patio seating kept many afloat through the summer months.
As we headed into the winter, patio seating went away in cold weather climates throughout the country and PPP funds faded deep in the rearview mirror. We clung to two hopes: The Restaurants Act and the limited indoor seating that we had.
In the past few weeks, we painfully watched The Restaurants Act go into hibernation thanks to partisan political warfare. Many of us also saw indoor dining taken away by state mandate. This left servers, bartenders, cooks, dishwashers, hostesses, managers, and owners in the middle of the rapids. No life jacket, no paddle, and like 15 holes in the boat.
It’s been tough to know what the next best move is. And if you listen to the ever-changing chatter about what is right or wrong, you can become paralyzed by decision-making. Can I afford to stay open? Do I hibernate my restaurant through the winter? Do I furlough half my staff just to stay afloat? Is it safe to serve my guests inside? Do I build tents and enclosures outside? Do I get a therapist so I don’t lose my mind?
The Restaurants Act could instantly give operators clarity and perhaps some sanity. The law is designed to stabilize restaurants and provide enough relief to keep their workers employed. The Act would allow restaurant owners to happily comply with state mandates without watching everything they’ve worked for slowly dissolve.
Yet, eight months into this pandemic, the second-largest private employer in the United States is still awaiting specific federal stimulus.
Other industries have been rescued, whether or not their financial failure was of their own making. Chrysler, struggling because the company did not pivot to smaller fuel-efficient automobile production, received $1.5 billion in the late 1970s in a foreshadowing of the U.S. bailout of the entire automobile industry during the economic crisis of 2008. The airlines received federal assistance in both 2001 and 2020. And we famously threw life rafts to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac during the subprime mortgage debacle.
Similar aid for restaurants is a no-brainer. We are big, we are essential, we are the centerpiece of a massive financial ecosystem, and what happened was completely out of our control. Restaurants didn’t cause the current crisis we face. In fact, we willingly (and, in many cases, preemptively) closed our doors to keep our customers and employees safe. Restaurants employ roughly 15 times what the airline industry does. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were certainly culpable in their own demise. It seems the hospitality industry is equivalent to Rodney Dangerfield. We’re important to you when you need a prime-time table for four on a Saturday night, but otherwise: we get no respect.
I opened Boka with my partner Rob Katz 17 years ago. Just days after its opening, his daughter Shelby was born, and 6 months later my daughter Sofia entered the world. When I stand at the front of Boka and look at the now-empty dining room, I see more than 120 seats. I see my children’s lives, I see the almost 700,000 people we have served dinner, and I see the hard work from all of the amazing souls who have passed through our space.
If we are looking for heroes, perhaps we should start in America’s restaurant dining rooms. Many who lost their jobs still found it a moral imperative to help give out food to those most vulnerable. They have closed, pivoted, re-concepted, and reopened on a dime. They have dealt with fear and uncertainty, and at the same time, often absorbed that same fear and uncertainty from the guests they serve. Maybe it’s not a hero we need at all, but simply someone inspired enough by the heroes that already exist.
The Restaurants Act is framed and ready. It does not require sweat or sacrifice, just the will of two parties to come together and do the right thing. It doesn’t even really require a superhero, either. It requires our lawmakers to consider the good people who have cooked our meals, served our drinks, and made space for us to come together as we used to so often and will do again. To consider the economic powerhouse represented by every sit-down restaurant and corner deli and wine bar and mom-and-pop diner on every street and every city in this nation. To heroically imagine and invest in a time when we will meet again over plates of amazing food, with friends and family around us. I’m asking them to do the right thing, and to pass The Restaurant Act.
Kevin Boehm is a James Beard Award-winning restaurateur and the co-founder of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, Boka Restaurant Group, and Bian Wellness Club.
McSweeney’s is seeking short, first-person essays from American’s restaurant and hospitality workers. Tell us a story about your life and work this year and how it’s changed due to the pandemic. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your first-person account. Essays can be up to 500 words and should include specific details about your experience. We’re not looking for big picture analysis so much as the small things you’ve seen and been part of that make up the bigger story of what’s happening in America now. Anonymity will be honored if requested.