Restaurants took a significant hit when COVID-19 barreled into America. At first, managers and owners thought it was a difficult, but manageable situation that could be fixed by adjusting seating arrangements and sanitizing spaces more frequently. Then, the industry started to tumble down a black hole of uncertainty as municipalities and entire states forced closures.
It’s been a long few months and we have no idea just when exactly things will be back to “normal” or whatever comes close in 2020. Till then, it’s all about adapting.
It’s been a hard roll for businesses when the entire basis of their model is being up close and personal. The rules of serving food right now aren’t easy. In fact, for the restaurant business, they’re downright hard: Employees must wash their hands every 15 minutes, sanitize surfaces every 30 minutes, and keep 6 feet away. And while some states are opening slowly others aren’t, and everything else, well, it’s confusing.
To say it’s been a bumpy ride would be putting lightly.
Everything is a scramble
Since enabling social distancing and other measures, businesses hang on through a lot of quick thinking. Many businesses have found a way to switch gears, while continually shifting their business model. Otherwise, this break in the action could mean permanent closure.
Restaurants have been among the hardest hit businesses. The National Restaurant Association says the industry lost around $225 billion. Even high-profile spots aren’t immune to this crisis. David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants have closed their doors and laid-off employees. It’s a brutal reality.
Even though owners and management want to take care of their team members, restaurant margins are slim. Taking care of hundreds of people is difficult when the money’s just not there and the rent is due.
A few places have found new ways to keep afloat in ways they’d have never imagined prior to the pandemic. Texas grocery store chain H-E-B has partnered up with local restaurants to offer their food in the stores’ hot items section. For places with a specialized menu, like Austin’s Fresa’s—where they’re known for their chicken al carbon—this is a huge win. People have quick access to prepared (and unprepared) versions of their favorite restaurant meals, and restaurants have a stream of steady demand while times are strange. In Texas, and other states, we borrowed a page from Louisiana’s playbook; alcohol, beer, and wine can now be sold and delivered. From a few bottles of Lone Star beer to full blown cocktails and margaritas, it’s all on the menu.
Other places are adapting, evolving, or outright changing their focus. A lot of bars and restaurants have launched GoFundMe accounts, while others are selling gift cards that promise a few fantastic meals down the line. Some have figured out how to keep business moving by offering curbside pickup. A few companies are even expanding into offering delivery outside of the usual players like Grubhub or DoorDash. Right now, every option is on the table.
An industry in flux
The restaurant community needed to rethink what its business model looked like. Some are changing up their game to make it easier to order or just to survive.
Here in Austin, we’re seeing a lot of restaurants offer bulk ordering, where for a flat fee, people can get things like brisket, turkey, charro beans, baked mac and cheese, a bottle of Pinot, two margaritas and a few rolls of toilet paper for around $60. The Gremlin down in McAllen has been using Instagram to let their patrons know about their daily bulk specials like chicken and waffles, ramen, and pizza.
We’re also seeing some of the best restaurants in the country offer new spins on their classic identities. Canlis—the James Beard award-winning, 70-year old Seattle institution—has gone from $100 tasting menus to unique $14 burgers.
For many businesses, the primary concern is doing whatever they can to keep the doors open for when customers can come sit at the bar or chat up the staff like normal. A lot of businesses have been selling their inventory of essential items. It’s hard to get things like hand sanitizer, flour, and hand soap at many grocery stores, so some enterprising minds are selling their stores’ inventory item by item along with fresh produce, meats, and cheeses specifically for home cooking. This is a smart way to liquidate back stock to at least break even.
Other restaurants in the community are changing to survive and going above and beyond to help their communities.
Out in New York, Rethink Food NYC Inc. launched a program called Restaurant Response, giving 30 different city restaurants a $40K lifeline to pay workers and keep the lights on while helping feed people within their neighborhoods. Because they saw soup kitchens closing, Rethink Food NYC has been working with each establishment to make sure the most in need are getting a healthy meal at least once a day.
Puesto, a small California-based restaurant chain, has been helping out their community by giving away boxes of both unprepared and prepared foods to hungry families – to the tune of over 5,000 boxes so far. By using ingredients like beans, rice, and fresh fruits, Puesto can put together a box that will last a family a week.
Restaurants are also among those stepping up to help the medical community. It’s hard for medical workers to get something to eat, depending on the time of their shifts or how busy they are. Nurses and doctors aren’t just doing their job; they’re putting their own safety at risk. Many businesses now offer different options, like extended hours or exclusive deals, to help take care of healthcare professionals just to say thank you.
A lot of the nation’s fast food and fast-casual restaurants are offering a host of deals right now. Good Housekeeping has a growing list of all of the places—like Chipotle, Burger King, and Pizza Hut—who all have different deals meant to feed families.
Patience is going to be the key
None of this is ideal for the industry, but these are moves that are helping a lot of places stay afloat with a skeleton crew until the pandemic blows over.
Until then, one thing you can do—if you’re in the position to do so—is eat local and support local businesses helping the community. When this is over, get out and support the restaurant industry by ordering big and tipping hard, showing our service industry friends how much we care about them, one order of tacos or pho at a time.