When the pandemic hit the world’s restaurants, it was as if an anvil dropped — on a bubble.
To run a restaurant, any kind of restaurant, is a constant struggle to keep that bubble aloft. Every day is a negotiation: labor costs, food costs, rent, insurance, health inspections, and the art and craft of creating an experience special enough to keep people coming through the doors. When the pandemic lockdown forced hundreds of thousands of establishments to close, there was no backup plan. No one was prepared for the extent of the fallout.
The restaurant and fast food industry, the second-largest private employer companies, collapsed overnight. At least 5.5 million jobs evaporated by the end of April, and the number of people employed in food services is still 2.5 million fewer than in February. Technomic, a consulting firm for the food-service industry, estimates that 20 percent to 25 percent of independently owned restaurants will never reopen. And those restaurants uphold an ecosystem that extends to farms, fishmongers, florists, ceramists, wineries, and more. The damage has been so severe that the James Beard Foundation announced in August that it would cancel its restaurant awards this year because of the pandemic and a need to re-examine structural bias.
The most deeply affected were restaurant workers, who were either laid off so that they could file for unemployment or were asked to keep working and risk their health. These are people who often do not have access to health insurance, earn less than a living wage and disproportionately include undocumented workers, immigrants, and Black and brown people — the most marginalized people in this country.
It’s unfathomable to imagine a country without restaurants, but even more unfathomable to imagine a successful economic recovery that doesn’t include restaurant employees. As such a large slice of the world work force, they are not only essential to growth. How we support them will be a litmus test for whether the nation can ever build a fair, equitable economy.
Rebuilding the restaurant business can’t be just about diversifying revenue streams. It requires rethinking how employers and patrons value labor, which means shifting the restaurant model to one that’s centered on workers.
The onus for change should not fall solely on restaurants. The success of a worker-centered approach, especially in the middle of a recession, requires cooperation from customers and help from the government. With many restaurants now welcoming customers who are tiring of home cooking after an extended lockdown, and getting national attention by policymakers, this is the time to make a structural shift.
Nearly every restaurant that survived the pandemic so far has had to adjust its operations in to survive. The shift to takeout is perhaps the most visible and lasting change for restaurants. Takeout and delivery services have allowed thousands of restaurants all over the country to survive, and the experience is evolving as restaurants apply their creativity to this now ubiquitous form. Seven Reasons, a fine-dining restaurant in Washington, bundles orders with cocktails in Mason jars and sends customers links to Spotify playlists to listen to while they’re eating — a lockdown-appropriate approximation of dining out. Junzi Kitchen, a mini-chain of Chinese restaurants in New York and Connecticut, was inspired by restaurants in China to design an interactive, rotating takeout menu, with an accompanying Instagram Live by the chef, Lucas Sin, explaining the story behind each dish and how to plate it. Other restaurants have turned into grocery stores, offering their premium ingredients to home cooks. The New York restaurateur Gabriel Stulman started selling meal kits out of his West Village spot, Jeffrey’s Grocery, so that customers can replicate popular dishes at home.
These innovations will certainly help restaurants to hang on in the near term, keep paying their employees and even increase revenue once dine-in service is more prevalent.
But they don’t confront the larger issue: The business model of restaurants is built on the assumption of cheap labor. One out of six restaurant workers live below the poverty line, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the industry has an exceptionally high turnover rate — 75 percent in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with 49 percent for the rest of the private sector. In other words, jobs in the restaurant industry look increasingly like gig work — unstable, poorly paid and with few protections for workers.