July 2020

The World Turned Upside Down

Restaurants and the pandemic

Most people don’t realize that during the American Revolutionary War, the British Army traveled with a very talented and fully equipped band. The British loved music to celebrate their victories. In the beginning of the war, the band played quite often; however, thanks to Gen. Washington and his brave and often outmanned army, the British military band had little to celebrate at the end of the war at Yorktown.

According to American legend, when Cornwallis surrendered to Gen. Washington, the British band played the English ballad, “The World Turned Upside Down.” If there is any reference that reflects how rural restaurant owners, chefs and servers feel about this pandemic, it is “the world has indeed turned upside down.”

In the midst of the economic downturn in 2008, I wrote an article about how tough it was for some restaurants to survive. I never thought that the restaurant business could experience an even greater crisis. However, here we are, and I believe the situation may be much worse than in 2008. As one restaurant owner states, “With all the trillions of dollars shelled out so far by the government, most small restaurants have been left behind. Rural restaurants are finding they are forced to operate with a new business model that produces far less revenues and even greater uncertainty.”

When the pandemic caught a foothold in the U.S., Congress moved to address this economic body-blow by passing the Paycheck Protection Program. This aid package was designed to fund payrolls, thus protecting workers from layoffs.

A good concept for some businesses, but not restaurants. Most small, privately owned restaurants operate on extremely thin margins. In other words, this week’s cash flows provide funds for next week’s operations. When most restaurants were required to shut down, there was an immediate hit to cash flow. The three-week delay in getting the PPP up and running may have been tolerable for some businesses in the economy. However, for restaurants, it was an eternity and was too late to save most restaurant jobs.

During the first week of the shutdown, many restaurants had to lay off staff, lacking internal funds left to pay salaries. Restaurant workers had additional concerns. As one restaurant worker explains, “This is not just an economic crisis, it’s also a safety crisis. Without widespread testing, you just don’t know if the next customer may be infected and bring the virus to my table. Working and serving tables becomes a risky affair.” The worker continues, “Until widespread testing is in place, it seems safer to just collect unemployment and stay home until things become safer.”

Rural restaurants are not just storefronts. They are often both the economic hub and social soul of the community. The welfare of the community depends on their existence. If government help is unavailable, how are these restaurants going to survive? In many cases, your favorite restaurant might not survive, which would be a huge loss to the rural community. The bottom line is now more than ever is the time to support your favorite restaurants, even if they are restricted to just carry-out. Customers represent the truest and best economic stimulus for our rural restaurants. Support them economically with your patronage and encourage them to “hang in there” for better days ahead.

Looking ahead, I would like for you to let me know at [email protected] what restaurant you would most like to eat at after restaurants open up again. In addition, in these uncertain times, I pray for your safety and as always … be of good cheer!