By Dan Liebman
The National Restaurant Association estimates that by the end of the year, roughly 100,000 restaurants across the country will have closed permanently.
As a small business/restaurant owner, I am disheartened by this staggering news, especially knowing it is not because of food quality or customer service, but rather due to an unforeseen worldwide pandemic.
With the closure of these establishments goes the dreams of hard-working men and women and the millions of employees who helped them realize those aspirations.
What slips away are not just the familiar faces, but the places where we enjoyed not only a good meal or drink but laughs with friends and families, celebrations of all kinds, and trips down memory lane.
The disappearance of these restaurants — large and small, corporate and independent, franchise, and family-owned — changes the very fabric of our communities. We can all recall a place we used to visit that COVID-19 has so cruelly taken away.
In a business where cash flow is critical, many simply could not hold on when temporarily shuttered and/or with indoor seating capacity greatly reduced. Others were not set up to handle carry-out orders or were hit hard by reduced operating hours.
That being said, those that are weathering the storm are doing so because of the generosity of their customers. While the virus has caused many to spend more time at home, and thus cook more, they still are making trips out to support local establishments.
It seems forward, perhaps presumptuous, to ask you to do even more. But your neighbors need you now more than ever.
- As the weather turns colder, outdoor dining at most locations will end and many people, understandably so, are not yet ready to return to indoor dining.
- With the time change, it gets dark earlier and many people get home and don’t go back out, unlike in the summer when the sun shines to 9 or 9:30 p.m.
- It costs more to serve customers these days. We have all been forced to purchase masks, hand and table sanitizer, tissues, sneeze guards, thermometers, etc.; many have had to switch point-of-sale systems to provide contactless payment, and there is increased cost in packaging an order to go in contrast to serving someone in a dining room.
- Though many received PPP (Payroll Protection Program) funds, it was only short-term help. The money is gone but the pandemic is not.
- While many landlords extended rent deadlines, those payments are now due.
- Every restaurant that stays open continues to keep employees on the payroll … and off unemployment.
- We can’t say what will happen tomorrow, much less next week or next month, but the number of coronavirus cases keeps escalating. England just shut down pubs, restaurants, and most retail shops for the second time, joining France, Belgium, Germany, and Ireland.
But there is more.
We bricks-and mortar-businesses don’t just pay employees. Our tentacles reach other local businesses every week — electricians, plumbers, HVAC and refrigeration repairmen, trash collectors, insurance agents, utility providers, financial institutions, advertising outlets, food and drink vendors … the list goes on and on.
Not only that, but as important to the community in which we reside, we pay taxes — payroll, property, school, health department, library, income (city, state and federal), not to mention Social Security and Medicare. It should also be noted how much we contribute to local charities, civic groups, booster clubs, etc.
So what can you do to help?
- Keep supporting locally owned businesses. A dollar spent locally churns much more through a town’s economy. No, this doesn’t mean stop shopping at national chains or franchisee-owned stores. Yes, while some of those dollars flow to corporate headquarters, they too employ local citizens and make a continuing contribution to every town.
- On a night when you just don’t feel like going back out, do so anyway. The extra effort might just keep a locally owned business from shuttering its doors.
- While restaurants will always be busier — pandemic or not — on Friday and Saturday nights, remembers to visit on a Monday or Tuesday. It costs the same to turn on the lights and have employees working no matter what day of the week it is.
- Tip. Please. Even at a fast-food or quick-serve restaurant, the simple act of leaving a dollar or two can make a huge difference to an employee working hard for an hourly wage.
- Need stocking stuffers or gifts for family, friends, and co-workers? Buy gift cards. The business receives the money now and the recipient can use the gift at any time.
- Remember how stressed we all are. No, this is not an excuse for say, an inferior meal or lackluster customer service. But stop and think how hard it is to work all day in a hot restaurant kitchen while wearing a mask, the extra work involved in making sure — even more so than usual — that everything is cleaned and sanitized, and the pressure of making and packaging orders quickly when there are 20 cars waiting in a drive-thru line for hours on end.
Those of us battling every day to survive in the restaurant industry could not possibly thank our customers enough. We are forever indebted to them for helping us through this difficult and stressful time.
This is the life we have chosen, even while possessing the knowledge that the average profit margin in a restaurant is 3-5%. You can imagine how difficult that makes things even in the best of times.
We certainly are not in the best of times today. But restaurant owners are collectively enriched by our customers, who are showing the best of spirit … the best of caring … the best of humanity.
We ask you to keep it up.
Dan Liebman is the owner of Staxx BBQ in Frankfort, Ky., which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in May 2021.