Save the American Restaurant

We’re still learning about COVID-19’s precise mortality rate, but we sadly do know that the virus has wreaked havoc on the non-chain restaurant sector. Most states forced eateries to shut down during the initial wave of cases. While this was necessary to contain the pandemic and save lives, we can’t pretend it was without consequences. According to the National Restaurant Association in March, 3% of American dining spots had already closed permanently because of the pandemic, with potentially 11% more doing so within the next month. It’s only gotten worse as the lockdown drag on. Bank analysts at UBS grimly predicted that up to 20% of American eateries might be permanently forced out of business, up to 200,000 unique restaurants. 1.6 million Americans work in the restaurant industry. Even longstanding institutions face uncertainty without assistance. Most are still on the hook for rent, even as they draw little or no revenue during closures.

Even when the situation “improves”, it’s going to be an uphill battle. For one, diners may have to operate under strict limitations. In Guangzhou, China, and elsewhere there have been incidents of spread through air conditioning in restaurants where people cannot wear masks as they eat. This begets lower capacity, more distancing, and various other measures when restaurants finally reopen for in-person dining. Additionally, a reluctance to eat out may accompany reopening. Just because operations resume doesn’t mean Americans will eat outside the house without fear. And a second wave of infections, quite possible when we lift restrictions without extensive contact tracing, could force states to shut down once again. Adding an additional challenge to the recovery process, rioting destroyed numerous small businesses over the past few weeks in some cities. All of these challenges compound and create a critical juncture for policymakers. To save this important sector or not?

Voices have come out for letting the restaurant industry go under. Some on the left, like artist Tunde Wey, see an opportunity to restructure the food industry and combat lasting inequities through revolutionary overhaul. Wey states, “restaurant owners should abandon entirely their pursuit of a bailout specific to the industry, and focus on policy and government programs that support people generally”. There’s a good point in that, even if you disagree with his means. Wey’s admittedly radical proposal calls attention to the role some restaurants have played in gentrification and the erosion of worker’s rights. This injustice cannot be ignored. Additionally, corporate legal structures often ignore the entrepreneurial structures prominent in marginalized communities, as Omar Tate bemoans. Bureaucracy can be a hurdle for underprivileged market entrants. The pop-up doesn’t get the same legal consideration as the eat-in, despite the fact that it provides delicious food and contributes to neighborhood self-sufficiency. Moving forward, it’s worthwhile to look at restaurants as bulwarks against injustice, against food deserts, against the erosion of neighborhood sovereignty. Change is essential, but this is no moment to dangle the fortunes of American eateries over the edge by rejecting entirely an industry bailout. Our response must address these criticisms and invoke government action to protect American restaurants and their workers. Relief is needed now, and we can certainly incorporate lessons into whatever structure we choose.

Others, especially on the libertarian-conservative right, maintain a broader stance against bailouts, alleging that they pick “winners and losers” and that the free market will step in to correct itself. This might have some truth to it; the market does tend to adjust from shocks. But we miss a lot when we let the dictats of market efficiency rule us. In the “most significant period of restaurant brand consolidation the industry has ever seen”, rejecting assistance would likely empower burgeoning multinational chains. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.” Besides, Eater published a good point that “opening new restaurants will likely also pose unique challenges after the pandemic passes. The groups most targeted by xenophobic, racist backlash during the crisis may face discrimination when it comes to getting loans; restaurateurs from marginalized communities might not be able to return to restaurant ownership at all”. Less a revitalizing reset, widespread failures could pose a fatal blow.

When we lose mom-and-pop restaurants, we lose a lot more than somewhere to grab a bite. I’m not pretending that every small eatery is perfect; I’ve had some pretty low-quality food from mom and pop places, just as I have from corporate chains. I’m sure working conditions are suboptimal at some smaller eateries. But when we lose small diners and cafes, we lose the personality that anchors communities. We lose the unique benefits of small-scale enterprise. We lose something essential to America. For years, scholars like TJ Cauley remarked on the link between “a general diffusion of the control of the sources of income” and the freedom we cherish (292). Maybe my inner distributist is shining through, but the current moment poses an opportunity to stand up for the freedom of property-holding.

For one, local dining establishments are often pillars of their communities. A multi-study analysis finds that a far higher percentage (48%) of the money spent at local independent businesses recirculates through the local community than money spent at chains (13.6%). They also pitch in during times of need. In a time when owners and workers struggle, COVID-19 revealed the true selflessness of some operations. In a crisis that left New York scrambling, ritzy Eleven Madison Park reopened to serve hardworking first responders. In Naples, Florida, healthcare workers could pick up sushi or Italian food. In Ann Arbor, a catering company cooked up more than 8,000 meals to donate.

Moreover, culinary innovation doesn’t seem to come from the massive fast-food chains these days. Fast-food is largely about conformity. Make the fries the same everywhere. Only introduce menu items that the focus groups and the boardroom approve of. Even their buildings now look identical. Bottom line all the time. That’s what matters. Not experimentation. Not culinary diversity. Sure, McDonald’s provides slightly different items in different regions and occasionally brings back the McRib, but their brand is defined by a soul-sucking, artery-clogging corporate mindset.

At the forefront of what makes America great are her smaller restaurants. In my West Philadelphia neighborhood, one can enjoy Vietnamese pho for lunch, dig into Ethiopian tibs for dinner, and enjoy Levantine knafeh for dessert. The options are endless, but they’re united by the small-scale nature of the businesses offering them. This diversity brings multicultural vibrance to the squares of our national quilt, sewn together by the entrepreneurial pursuit of a better life. 37% of small restaurant owners in America are immigrants, while just under 14% of the overall population are. This industry provides innumerable opportunities to aspiring Americans, whether it’s opening up one’s own establishment or finding a job off the boat. And in turn, we get to experience cuisines from around the world right outside our doors. These are the places that experiment with local and foreign traditions; in my own area, you can even try an Eritrean take on a Philly cheesesteak. That’s not something you can buy at McDonald’s or Shake Shack! Letting small eateries go under deprives immigrants of their hard-earned success and America of the world’s flavors.

Unfortunately, already-enacted stimulus measures are far from enough. Workers remain mired in precarity after one paltry $1,200 check. Congress continues to ignore proposals for a temporary universal basic income. Airlines and hotels walked away with massive bailouts, but the restaurant industry? Little to nothing beyond the basic small business loans, despite the unique challenges the industry faces. While some eateries shifted to a takeout/delivery model or went outdoors, others have struggled and the SBA hasn’t been much help. Consequently, the industry cries out for help. In April, the National Restaurant Association requested a program beyond PPP to allow grants (to the tune of over $200 billion) for suffering eateries. The Independent Restaurant Coalition called for a similar restaurant stabilization fund, more flexible terms on PPP loans, and tax rebates for rent. The details of a plan might vary, but something must be done. The decimation wrought by COVID-19 threatens to hollow out the restaurant industry and the communities they help sustain. We cannot let that happen.