intelligencer chats

Could the Pandemic Reshape the Restaurant Business?

A waiter serves drinks outside a restaurant on July 21 in New York City. Photo: Jeenah Moon/Getty Images

Few parts of the economy have seen their business models take a harder hit during the pandemic than restaurants and bars. And few industries have seen their preexisting problems laid more bare. I spoke with Grub Street staff writer Chris Crowley about the economic crisis facing the food and drink world, and what might come after.

Ben: To state the obvious, the pandemic has been devastating for restaurants and bars in New York and around the country. Many have closed, and the rest have experienced whiplash as restrictions have been imposed, lifted, and (in some cases) imposed again. You’re someone who is pretty plugged in with the NYC scene — what is the general mood among the restaurateurs and bar owners you talk to? Is it apocalyptic or something a little less dire?

Chris: You know, I don’t think much has changed. I think the earliest days of the restaurant shutdown — and I don’t want to say of the pandemic but when we stopped ignoring the coronavirus — were very panicked. It was a lot of scrambling. Now the reality of it has settled in. Some people have already had to close their businesses. For others I talk to, things are not going well. Some are getting by and doing alright, but even if they’ve been doing business on par with what they were doing before the shutdown (which one restaurant owner in Harlem told me they have been since the Black Lives Matter protests started) it’s not like that will get them through a big drop in the fall or winter. I don’t want to say there’s any one singular feeling; it really depends on where people have restaurants and who they are. Across the board, it’s been worse for the people I’ve talked to in Queens, Chinatown, and the Bronx. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that some other places, like Elmhurst, are doing all right.

Bills and rent are still piling up. According to a survey published by the NYC Hospitality Alliance in June, four out of every five restaurants didn’t pay full rent that month. And the tone is no less dire now for people I talk to in the industry. Some have come back to work and are making less money, and many don’t necessarily have health insurance. Plus you have undocumented workers for whom all these problems are much worse. I’ve talked to a number of people who aren’t willing to go back to work — who have turned down job offers — because of concerns about their safety. I’ve also talked to people who have returned to work because they felt they had no choice, and feared the possibility of not being able to get a job a couple months from now.

Ben: Though implementation was rocky, many restaurant owners and employees benefited greatly from the massive stimulus package Congress passed in the spring. PPP loans kept many establishments afloat, while stimulus payments and expanded unemployment benefits kept money flowing to laid-off workers. To what extent do you think restaurants need another infusion like this — or possibly something on an even grander scale — to survive into next year?

Chris: The $600 weekly in expanded unemployment has been huge for everyone I’ve talked to who has access to those benefits. And I’ve talked to restaurateurs who say the PPP loans got them back open, though I’ve also talked to at least one who expressed concerns about people in the industry being able to pay those back. But there’s also been a ton of criticism of those loans. All the people I’ve spoken to who work in restaurants, bars, and markets have described these loans as having actually made things worse, not better. We reported on this with Eataly, the international Italian market chain, which used its loan to bring people back at lower pay than they were making before, as well as on unemployment. They were presenting people with a situation where it was: Let us know if you want to come back to work, but if you decline this offer, that’ll jeopardize your unemployment. I can’t say this is universal, but I haven’t heard anything good about PPP loans from the worker side.

I do think the writing is on the wall — tons of places are going to close without another cash infusion. But I think another infusion like this has to take into account those employees, right? If we’re bringing back businesses, but it requires a financial sacrifice on the part of people who didn’t make much in the first place — during an economic crisis and pandemic — I think we have to reexamine that.

Restaurants do operate on really thin margins. Nobody I’m talking to is doing well. I do think that the people — like the Dirt Candy chef Amanda Cohen, who wrote an op-ed about this for the Times — who are saying this is an opportunity to reconsider restaurants and reimagine the industry, to provide a better safety net for people who work in the industry, are right.

Ben: Yeah, that segues into my next question. The business has long been precarious for pretty much everyone involved. There’s the difficulty of actually keeping a restaurant and bar going, of course. But many people who work in restaurants and bars are not paid minimum wage and are reliant on tips; health insurance isn’t always available; there are shifting schedules and sexism and racism from customers to contend with; and more. There have been calls, as you said, to reevaluate this entire system, and it’s tempting to imagine that a world-altering event will provide the impetus to do that. But have you actually seen signs that things could be fundamentally different once, say, a vaccine is available? Or, by the law of inaction, are we more likely to go back pretty much to the way things were?

Chris: We get to something important here, which is that the restaurant industry as it exists is built upon all these things — the relationship we, as consumers, have with restaurants is a result of the work standards as much as anything else. I’ve talked to bartenders — successful ones, ones who run popular cocktail bars and are frequently in the media — who didn’t see doctors for years. Sother Teague, who owns Amor y Amargo and some other places, told me last year he hadn’t seen a doctor for 20 years. My brother didn’t have health insurance until he was 30 years old. This is in a very stressful industry, where people are working exhausting hours and can get injured. It obviously gets worse, again, the further down the ladder you go. What about the guy who has been a busser or food runner for years, who can’t seem to get promoted to a server position?

Early on, when I saw calls for rethinking the restaurant industry, I saw some of the people making them as wishful; they were considering the industry in isolation. (There has been some very smart, insightful writing about this that doesn’t do that, from people like Tunde Wey and Alicia Kennedy, and I think everyone should go read Tunde’s essay and consider it when eating out. Marian Bull, who writes for us at Grub Street, wrote about blowing up the restaurant industry in The New Republic, too, and I’m sure there are many others. I apologize to those I’m forgetting at the moment.)

I don’t think the restaurant industry can be reimagined without broader changes that go well beyond just restaurants. I don’t think that the problems and struggles of restaurant workers should be separated from gig workers or fast-food workers, the “Fight for 15” campaign, or anyone else. I think part of the problem is obviously that restaurant workers don’t have a lot of visibility or a platform. There’s such a strong anti-union sentiment in the industry, this idea that unions aren’t right for restaurants — when in reality, the opposite is blatantly true.

I should add something, too, which is that there are people operating within the industry who are trying to enact change, do things differently, like Amanda Cohen or Clare Sprouse or Reem Assil. And you’ve had some worker organizations sprout up, like the Service Workers Coalition and the Restaurant Workers Council, which is calling for unionization of the industry. Not to mention the people who have been focused on feeding protesters, like Channing Centeno here in NYC and Riot Ribs in Portland, whose volunteers have been teargassed, arrested, and assaulted. All of this reevaluation is happening right now, but it’s not because of anything new. We just haven’t placed as much consideration on a lot of important issues as we should.

Could the Pandemic Reshape the Restaurant Business?