Let’s celebrate with takeout!
Said no one ever.
There is no activity more synonymous with celebrating life’s milestones and accomplishments than going out to eat. How many anniversaries and birthdays have you memorialized in restaurants? Same here. There is a reason we ask customers at my own place, Bellevue Brewing Company, if they are celebrating anything special, because so often the answer is yes. Life is celebrated at restaurants.
Unfortunately, there is a good chance your favorite restaurant is permanently closed or, like my place, fighting for survival. Accumulation of wealth to survive a pandemic was never part of any restaurateur’s business plan. Owning a restaurant is a labor of love, and the margins are decent only if you do everything right. Restaurateurs and the regular customers we attract are there because it’s our happy place.
It’s understandable that people are angry at state governors for shutting down their happy places. This anger is misplaced. Even before Gov. Jay Inslee closed Washington’s dine-in restaurants for the first time back in March, more than 50 local restaurants had already closed. In the days and weeks that followed, hundreds more joined them. The virus had done its work before the ink was dry on the governor’s order.
Had the official shutdown not occurred, restaurateurs still would be facing an unsustainable number of empty tables, not to mention the unthinkable prospect of playing a role in getting people sick. No bankrupt restaurant can argue that they’d still be alive if it wasn’t for the shutdown. In fact, I’m sure that if it hadn’t been for the shutdown, many more restaurants would be out of business, including my own.
The shutdown saved Bellevue Brewing Company. It reduced our expenses to sustainable levels. With no prospect of securing a replacement tenant, our landlord became very interested in negotiating. After losing an alarming number of customers to bankruptcy, the farmers and food distributors to whom we owed money were calling asking how they could help. The shutdown underscored that we needed each other for our mutual survival. It even made the heart-wrenching process of furloughs a bit easier because closing down was someone else’s call. Thanks, Guv, for taking one for the team.
We are not surviving the shutdown. We are surviving because of the shutdown. Now, eight months later, Bellevue Brewing is again closed by Inslee’s order. Of course, we saw it coming. Virus spread was increasing. Customers got nervous. Our business dropped off sharply weeks before he made it official. My only complaint is that he waited so long.
But enough is enough. Every time we shut down, food goes to waste. We have to replay another set of painful layoffs and the days of paperwork that go with them. Every time we reopen, we have to nag customers about masks and social distancing. There is little profit in these phased re-openings anyway. No decent dine-in restaurant can make enough money at 25% or even 50% capacity to matter. Nor are we designed for efficient carry out without investing money we do not have. It’s time for state and federal decision makers to coordinate and end this whiplash. If you want your favorite place to survive the pandemic, a general shutdown is what you should be rooting for. This will end the risk of spread and, with the right stimulus, allow us to hibernate until the vaccine is deployed. Let’s give those who specialize in takeout their time in the sun.
Shuttered restaurants won’t need the level of stimulus that the criminally wasteful Cares Act provided. It made zero sense to pay us to reopen and simultaneously pay our workers not to work. Instead, the stimulus needs to be aimed at putting restaurants into sustainability mode while also allowing landlords, farmers, distributors and workers to get similar relief. The key is to treat us as the codependent ecosystem that we are or the stimulus will fail. None of us can thrive unless we all do.
The stimulus need not be all government handout, either. A little federal pressure on the insurance industry, which has pocketed billions in business interruption premiums and paid out nothing, could prod it into being part of the solution. Plus, it could process payments far faster than Uncle Sam.
One day we’re going to emerge from this pandemic. And when that happens, people are going to want to celebrate with the friends they haven’t seen for months. It’s a good bet those celebrations won’t include eating from Styrofoam containers using plastic forks.
Closing restaurants is the best way to ensure they will be here when the parties start.