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Last week, I sat with a new potential restaurant client, six feet apart and fully masked, of course. Let’s call her Viola.
Viola told me her story. She and her husband are both non-citizens, with a strong entrepreneurial spirit—and they opened a small restaurant a few years ago in Scottsdale, AZ. It’s in a hard-to-find location that is, however, usually found by tourists from all over the US and Canada in the booming tourism season in the Desert Southwest.
Enter 2020. Viola told me how they had finally picked up traction in their tiny spot; she shared stories of her regular customers, expanding hours, wine dinners, and more. They were so confident and excited, that she purchased a building to expand into with a new concept that would eventually also house her existing restaurant. That all happened in January.
Then came March. On March 17, restaurants were shut down for dine-in services statewide. Viola explained with tears in her eyes the pain she felt having to lay off her entire staff.
She spoke of haggling with her vendors over outstanding invoices; the cost of sanitizing products and how hard “to-go” really was for this tiny place with an elevated menu that didn’t offer take-out prior to the shutdown.
With every word, I felt my chest start to tighten. Her story is so similar to the dozens of restaurant clients I work with. The tears, the clenched fists—and the visceral pain—all too common in a year that has decimated an entire industry.
And hear this: when I say decimated, I mean demolished. Trashed. Ruined. Never to return to the way it was. I do not think the average person in America truly understands the shape this industry is in. It’s bad. It’s beyond bad. It’s dream crushing and soul upending. According to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), the industry as a whole is down more than $215 billion dollars over the past eight months.
In fact, the NRA put out a press release Tuesday essentially pleading with governors not to lay the blame for the second wave of COVID at the feet of restaurant owners. Many, if not all, of whom have spent millions of dollars (collectively) to comply with all the rules and regulations set forth by each state, hoping and praying it would be enough to restart dine-in services and to restart the necessary cash flow needed to operate at any level.
As more states start to reenact or tighten lockdowns on dine-in service, I fear my state may not be far behind. In March, before we had real data or even understood the virus, most of us accepted the fate of closing dine-in service in restaurants with minimal grumbling.
As the time has gone on, mask mandates, occupancy limits, etc., have allowed restaurants to reopen. Anecdotally, I have heard from most of my client base that many are tracking about 80 to 90 percent of normal revenue. A welcome change from being down those same percentages throughout second quarter and beyond. That is of course, the restaurants who remain still in business.
Nationally, according to QSR magazine, 100,000 restaurants are expected to cease operations permanently before the end of 2020. Moreover, 40 percent of restauranteurs surveyed did not think they could keep operations going at the current pace for more than six months. As one of my clients told me, “It’s really a matter of how long you can last before you simply run out of money.”
PPP dollars are long gone and, with a stalemate in Congress that seems to be stalling any sort of future relief, for many owners another shut down spells one thing: “G O O D B Y E.”
So, what do we do for owners like Viola and countless others?
First: Stop blaming restaurants for the spread without scientific evidence and contact tracing. They are a scapegoat and, frankly, have been through far enough in 2020 to continue to accept such a large swath of blame.
Second: For the love of all things holy, Congress—stop with the stalemate. Pass some comprehensive relief for small business owners.
Third, personal responsibility is truly the antidote to this virus. Be smart, don’t go out if you are sick, wash your hands, care about your neighbors, comply with mask mandates. Do what you can personally.
Finally, support your local restaurants. Dine-in safely if you are allowed or order carry-out. If you can’t or won’t do that, consider purchasing a gift card or two for future use. If you love a place, support them, because without that critical support, there’s a high percentage chance they won’t be open when we return to any semblance of normal.
Susie Timm is a former bank president who started a public relations and marketing firm in 2009, specializing in restaurants and hospitality.Published in