As COVID-19 tightens its grip on communities across the United States, life as we know it has ground to a shuddering halt. But while many people are working from home (or trying to, anyway), scores of workers in the restaurant, bar, and hospitality communities are unable to do so. Increasingly strict ordinances governing how and when businesses can operate have effectively put these industries on hold with potentially devastating consequences. No one can say how long this crisis will last, but there's a queasy fear amongst industry folk that in the time it might take to tame coronavirus, many beloved restaurants, bars, hotels, and related businesses will fold — dealing a devastating economic blow to everyone from chefs to waiters to delivery people.
In New York City, which is home to nearly 5 percent of all worldwide coronavirus cases, some businesses' entire workforces — or close to it — are now without a job. Among those affected is Rachel Knox, a server at Meme's Diner in Brooklyn.
"My anxiety is definitely through the roof," said Knox. "I'm also just kind of… sad. I'm so lucky to be cooped up with a partner I love, but I miss my coworkers." To help her cope — and raise funds for her out-of-work colleagues — Knox has launched eighty-sixed, a zine for and about service workers featuring everything from service-themed poetry to stuck-inside movie guides. All proceeds will go to contributors. "We've always helped each other, fed each other, looked out for our undocumented colleagues, watched each others' kids when sick, etc, so now I'm trying to use the time I have to help," Knox said. "No one shows up for each other like restaurant people."
Also out of work is the 120-plus-person staff of new American spot Loring Place in Greenwich Village. Chef and owner Dan Kluger is beside himself.
"I closed my business that I have worked my whole career to create," he said. "When I close my eyes, I see the faces of our staff in tears as we shut the doors." Kluger has joined the loud chorus of voices demanding $455 billion in aid for the restaurant industry but says he feels helpless to assist his workers in the immediate future. "Some of them are minimum-wage workers that barely survived as it is," Kluger said. Even more devastating, Kluger said he's being forced to make difficult decisions as to how to best support his staff. Does he dole out cash now or ensure that the restaurant stays afloat, so there will be jobs when the pandemic is over? Is the right answer a combination of the two? "I need to be a little selfish or there will be no money to re-open," Kluger said.
It's a similar sad story for Delores Tronco-DePierro, owner of Southwestern-inflected eatery The Banty Rooster in the West Village. Her 33 staffers are now without jobs. Tronco-DePierro said she's currently managing to cover COBRA payments for her managers' health insurance and that she packed up her restaurant's food stores for staff to grab, but fears it's not nearly enough. "Sadly, it's going to take more than delivery and takeout to get us through this crisis," she said.
Sarah Barrows, the general manager of Route 66 Smokehouse in New York City's Financial District, said she wished she had a plan. After having to put 30 employees on an indefinite leave, it's now just Barrows and the executive chef at the restaurant, which is still open for takeout and delivery. "[We're] handling taking orders, cooking, preparing to-go cocktails, delivering, answering phones, cleaning, taking out garbage, changing kegs, you name it," Barrows said. "I'm feeling very sad… I also feel determined to get past this."
Chicago-based artist Neko Harris, who until recently worked as a bartender at The Dawson in the city's River West neighborhood, is also trying to maintain a positive attitude.
"I just don't want to be depressed all the time, you know?" he said. It's a challenge, though. "They laid off pretty much everyone in the company sans a few marketing and higher-up officials," he said. "I am effectively unemployed and it is absolutely terrifying," Harris said. The Dawson's parent company Gage Hospitality Group is offering staff help in filing for unemployment and has launched a GoFundMe relief fund, but the unknowns remain frightening to Harris. "Now the real juggling I have to do is making sure I stay as healthy as possible while working on producing as much artwork as I can."
Also in Chicago, Joe Fontana, owner of fried chicken sandwich spot Fry the Coop, said his company is exploring the possibility of taking out Small Business Administration loans. "We are on the verge of a huge recession and we are going to need capital to get us through this time," Fontana said. "The sad part is these loans will take years to pay off and they are for nothing but daily operations."
Laura Beth Reid, a server at Punch Bowl Social in Atlanta, Georgia, said she hasn't received anything in the way of support from her now-former employer. "My company laid 173 (our location alone) of us permanently off with a cold message and really nothing else," Reid said. "I took it upon myself to create a Facebook group to give my fellow teammates a safe place to go and express themselves, ask questions or for any help that might be needed. Even a few managers joined. I believe it has really helped them to know that we are in it together and we have each other's back."
Reid is in a particularly precarious predicament because she was already caring for her ailing mother, who is receiving in-home hospice care. "Keeping her safe has been a challenge," Reid said. Now without a paycheck, Reid is counting on her unemployment filing going through. She fears the restaurant industry will never be the same again.
Michael Sinensky, co-founder of Sushi by Bou, is one of several operators to launch a gift card initiative to provide relief to unemployed staffers, which in his case includes 250 people across ten restaurants in New York City, Jersey City, Chicago, and Miami. Fifty percent of gift card proceeds will go to staff while the restaurants are closed. Sinensky said that in a month, the company plans to evaluate if locations can reopen or will shutter permanently. "It's the scariest time of my life," Sinensky said. "The way this was handled [by the government] made all of us vulnerable to life, not just from the virus."
In Houston, Texas, Truth BBQ owner and pitmaster Leonard Botello IV said he's completely reimagined his restaurant's business model in the last few days, pivoting to takeout and shuttering an outpost in the nearby city of Brenham. Staff hours have been reduced and management has taken pay cuts.
"We are running on a mixture of logical fear and adrenaline, and just trying to keep up with the constant new rules and bans," Botello said. Working through the outbreak has been a frightening experience, he said, even with countless cleaning breaks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and maintaining a three- to six-foot distance between employees. "Do you risk getting sick? Or do you risk losing your house and running out of food?" Botello asked. "I'm not sure what the answer to that is."
With restaurants in crisis, suppliers are feeling the crunch. Among them is D'Artagnan Foods, the New Jersey-based fine meats retailer. Until last week, restaurant sales accounted for 75 percent of D'Artagnan's business. "As they are all shutting down, we are facing a new reality," founder Ariane Daguin said, adding that she's focused on assuring the supply chain for online customers and retailers. "[I'm] bewildered, sad, and wary of what the future is going to bring," Daguin continued. Her plea to consumers: "Keep eating sustainable foods—the farmers and ranchers need you right now! Without them, there won't be food!"
Leigh Villers, who with husband Gary Crowell owns the drinks incubator Legal Drinking Agency in Austin, Texas, is trying to look on the bright side, though. Villers and Crowell have already lost so much business that they're giving up their office space at the end of the month. But they're hopeful that once the coronavirus storm passes, the industry — and their business — will recover.
"People drink in good times and in bad," Villers said. "So there's that."
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the CDC website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.