dining in covid-landia

With the covid-19 pandemic in full roar, we the small, independent restaurants, are facing an existential crisis. It is a storm that many of us may be able to ride out, but only if we get help from the communities we are in. Please allow us to explain.

Restaurants have always seemed a recession (or depression) proof business. Sure, the individual business could struggle and fail, but as a whole, whether in economic doldrums, scary, unsure war times, and even during the Great Depression, restaurants thrived, grew and succeeded. People have to eat, and people like to drink, and people love to be social. Special occasions happen all the time; it is always someone’s birthday, or anniversary, or graduation and people need a place to make it… special. The other end of the spectrum of quick, daily sustenance is filled with food trucks, small take out joints and the entire fast food sector. The Industry keeps chugging on.

Anyone who is reading this is aware that the last 30 years have given rise to the internet along with mass and social media. This has allowed us to share skills, knowledge, ideas and traditions with each other in new and unique ways – the proverbial melting pot. It has brought this country a veritable bounty of culinary choices and delights, from celebrity chefs and the food network™, to more personal awaking of a world of full of exotic spices, heirloom vegetables, ancient grains, craft beers, boutique wines and artisanal spirits. It has helped to drive small, independent eateries and restaurants to the forefront of dining in America. Our cities and towns are stocked with amazing chefs, professional bartenders, and stupendous waiters. We have local farmers markets filled with regional pride and global awareness. That all makes for a more diverse and interesting food and drink scene than ever existed before.

Sure, there are still the large chains (either franchised or owned by large conglomerates and backed by deep pockets) pushing the same mass-produced food that is cost driven, heavily advertised and lacking in love. These “restaurants” – food businesses really, have always been focused on putting profit first, but even they are trying to keep up with the trends from the little guys. This has been a very good couple of decades to be a foodie.

We (the little guys) are much better at poaching that duck egg, stirring the Manhattan or remembering your cat’s name than we are at cash flow or P&L reports. We love the food, we love the drink and we love the community. If we understood money, we would be bankers instead. Our understanding of analyzing sales is usually along the lines of “more butts in seats = more money!” Which brings us to the problem we are facing. We cannot simply put “more butts in seats.” We can’t even have as many seats as we did before.

Often smaller restaurants get by with “ok” sales Sunday to Thursday and crush Fridays and Saturdays. We often sell as much in an hour on the weekend as we do over an entire Tuesday. With social distancing, we have lost the busy Friday and Saturday nights (what would happen to retail if you took away black Friday to Christmas?). We have lost our bar seating, and our two-top tables (which means we seat a walk-in party of 2 at a table for 6 because that is the only one left). We have lost the ability to just add a seat to the end of a table, or to squeeze one more person in. A lot of us have lost 70% or more of our potential seats. We don’t have enough seats in a socially distanced dining room.

What we do have is time. We have the early hours of the night, and the later hours of the night and the rest of the days of the week. We can often seat many more people on Tuesday or Wednesday or at 4:30 or at 9:00 than we do now, because the dining culture evolved around the idea that you go out to eat around 6:00 or 7:00 on the weekend. Places that are packed on Friday at 6:45 are where to go. Busy means quality, and if a place is slow, it must be bad. We must change those ideas for small restaurants to survive.

We want more people to make reservations so we can plan better. We want people to start dining earlier and later and on different days. We want couples to start a tradition that “date night” can be on a Tuesday, not just Friday. We need people to start to feel that they can have a great meal and a great time on any given night and not just on the “busy” nights, because there aren’t any “busy” nights when we are socially distanced.

The problems that small independent restaurants face is not unique to us or to other industries. We are literally “all in this together” (cue heartfelt music). The social distancing required for us to beat this virus affects the corporate chain restaurants too, it is just that they have deeper pockets, better cost controls, and often an ability to operate at a loss. If we have a war of attrition with this virus, at the end of the day, only the large chains will be able to last. The industry will keep chugging on, just without us.

We can adapt to these changes so we can continue to serve our community and friends. We ask that you adapt and change you habits along with us.

rye food & drink
Jeffery Passerotti, Wendy Watson, Kiyallah Heatherstone