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Lifestyle | Restaurateurs Demonstrate Resiliency and Innovation

Restaurants and customers alike are anxious to return to the dining room

By Stacy Roof

What just happened? A few months ago we were all going about our business, conducting meetings at restaurants and hotels, gathering with friends for lunch and dinner, hosting celebrations and making all kinds of plans that involved restaurants. When restaurants were told to close on March 16, none of us knew what things would look like in the coming weeks. Rules and guidance changed every day, and sometimes multiple times a day.

In my 25 years with the Kentucky Restaurant Association, I have never experienced the uncertainty of the past few months. I believe KRA has never been more needed or vital than during this pandemic. The value of a trade association is that while the business owners are focused on reinventing and running their businesses, the association is working on their behalf. The KRA considers it our duty to support and help all restaurants in the state through this uncertain time.

All that behind-the-scenes work achieved a few positives, such as legislation allowing restaurants to sell alcohol by the package and by the drink for carryout and delivery; the ability to sell raw foods; and an allowance for employees whose hours were reduced to be eligible for unemployment to make up the difference in pay due to hours being cut. 

We recognized that not all restaurants wanted to open at the same time, but pushed for a date so those who wanted to open could prepare and those who wanted to wait could choose their timing. We also helped cities draft local ordinances for expanded outdoor dining options.

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One thing we know: Restaurant owners are resilient and innovative. In the early days of closure, many restaurants figured out how to jump-start a carryout business or build on that aspect of their business. Some even built drive-thrus! Others created meal kits and sold raw foods and groceries, and toilet paper was a creative addition for many. Some kept staff on to make deliveries. People responded to our pleas to order carry out, curbside or delivery, and buy gift cards. Tipping has been generous. 

So, what’s the restaurant climate now? Most restaurateurs are still very worried about their business. The social distancing requirement means that even with dining room capacity going from 33% to 50% on June 22, some operators have not gained many—or any—seats. They are working to bring staff members back and a doing a lot of training around new protocols. 

Some menus have been scaled back or modified, and some are only available digitally. It will be interesting to see what things look like in a year.

One thing is certain: Sadly, there will be more restaurant closures. It’s estimated that in April alone, Kentucky restaurant revenue was down $550 million. With 80% of our workforce furloughed or laid off in March, our industry has been said to be the most affected by COVID-19.

Given the high amount of unemployment related to COVID-19 and many employers and employees made eligible for unemployment who have never paid into the unemployment trust fund, restaurants’ unemployment costs will dramatically increase as the state is required to borrow from the federal government to cover shortfalls.

You can be confident in our goal to keep customers and employees healthy and the level of care operators take to go above and beyond what their local health departments, Healthy at Work and the CDC have established on top of their usual and customary high standards. 

Thank you for continuing to support local restaurants—they need us now more than ever and can’t wait to serve you. In the meantime, the Kentucky Restaurant Association will continue its work advocating for restaurants, the cornerstone businesses of our communities and future sites of your celebrations.

Stacy Roof is president and chief executive officer of the Kentucky Restaurant Association.