COVID-19 Could Decimate The Restaurant Industry. What Can Be Done About It?

COVID-19 has arrived in the United States, and as a chef who barely made it through the 2009 recession, I have a sick feeling that this time will be worse for my industry.

I've spoken with several chef colleagues and food purveyors here in Chicago, and the sad song being sung across town is that sales are down considerably. In an industry that is already notorious for low profit margins, the fact is a lot of restaurants will likely disappear before the coronavirus itself leaves the headlines. Wintertime is a traditionally thin time for sales when even some of the most acclaimed places hang on by a thread. One chef friend with a very popular restaurant in town, himself a James Beard Award winner, saw his weeknight business plummet 80% last week. It's so bad he was forced to cut the shifts of some of his most loyal employees. Can you imagine being in one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the city and having your weekly paychecks cut in half?

Bottom line is this: Some of your favorite restaurants will close in the coming weeks and months. You can count on it.

I don't like sounding alarmist, but many of my colleagues are already ringing their own alarm. The food and beverage industry employs 15.6 million people (according to the National Restaurant Association), and it isn't just restaurant workers who will feel the effects. Farmers, suppliers, purveyors, sales reps, and even delivery drivers will be hit. And what can we possibly say about those in the hospitality industry? The cancelation of South by Southwest has decimated (yes, I used that verb) much of that city's businesses. They rely on those two weeks in March each year to help their annual bottom line, just like Chicagoans rely on conventions like the annual National Restaurant Show in May.

We've seen something like this before. I was working in a large hotel in 2009 when the recession arrived, causing expendable income and tourism to dry up like raisins in the desert sun, and the accounting department cut back everywhere. The same thing is happening all over the country right now, especially in big cities. I don't have any real answers or know how this will play out any more than anyone else, but I don't want to be a sitting duck either. Of course I want to keep making a living and doing what I love doing every night at my Chicago restaurant, EL Ideas. I want to keep my team employed and continue making guests happy. But even more than this, I don't want to be an incubator for more people getting sick.

So what can restaurants and the public proactively do for the industry? Some colleagues and I were batting around ideas the other night. Maybe these would work, maybe it wouldn't, but there's no reason not to try:

  • If you're a traditional restaurant and you don't offer delivery service, now's the time to give up the fight. People simply won't be going out as much, and there's too much money out there to ignore.
  • If you have upcoming reservations at a restaurant, please don't just no-show. Here's why: Say we are expecting 40 customers tonight. We staff our restaurant and order enough ingredients for 40 people. If only 10 people show up, all that food and labor goes to waste. If you can't come, at least call the restaurant and cancel.
  • Restaurants are notorious for employees working through illness, but that has to change immediately. Instruct team members who are not feeling well to stay home. Restaurants should pay for the time off, and this should be credited back come tax time.
  • The government—city, state, federal—could provide some measure of relief by offering payroll and sales tax breaks for small businesses.
    • Have each other's backs. Chefs and restaurant workers are prone to vices such as drinking and drug abuse, and I fear this crisis will exacerbate the issue. Most colleagues I know live paycheck to paycheck, and maintaining one's mental health is an ongoing challenge (Chefs With Issues is an invaluable resource). If you know anyone who's struggling, show particular care and concern. Sticking together is the best chance we've got to ride this wave.
    • If you are dining out, allow me to borrow an idea from The Salty Waitress: please tip generously! And don't forget to throw a little extra in for the culinary team and dishwashers. Restaurant workers are the wheels of the industry, and everyone's paychecks are going to be lower.
    • If you're in the food and beverage industry, consider organizing a town hall (online, of course) to discuss the challenging times in front of us. The idea would be to have a moderated discussion with some of the leaders in the trade, and to discuss a road map for surviving these precarious times.
    • Folks, I don't have the answers. I would love to hear some of your ideas below, whether you're a restaurant professional or a member of the dining public. I'm scared for my industry, but we can help each other through this by banding together. This is going to take a lot of people digging deep into their courage for us to come through as a community.