Restaurants to Congress: We are terrified about our future and desperate for your help

I’ve worked in the hospitality business for 10 years and I’ve never been more afraid about our future than I am today

Anyone who has ever loved a restaurant, enjoyed a meal out, or worked in a restaurant at any point in your life, we need your help.

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For over ten years, I’ve worked in the hospitality business. There have been ups and downs, but I’ve never been more afraid about our future than I am today.

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Those of us brave enough to venture outside our homes will notice many of your favorite neighborhood restaurants have closed their doors. The truth is 75 percent of them are on track to never reopen. My fellow restaurateurs and I have never faced more pressure to fulfill our purpose: to take care of our employees, feed our communities, and operate a business.

The past few weeks have challenged those goals like never before– and our leaders have provided little guidance.

We need urgent help to save jobs for our teams. Our industry just conducted mass layoffs at a scale that has yet to hit the unemployment statistics, and without relief there won’t be businesses for our people to come back to. 

The government has sent perilous mixed messages on what we should do in such uncertain times.

We were told to remain open and practice “social distancing,” but what does that mean? People still have to work in a kitchen, inches apart, to prepare food and take care of guests. That includes preparing food for customers ordering takeout and delivery.

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At one point, we were instructed to operate at 50 percent capacity–with no definition of what that means–and no sense of how we could make up for a government-mandated decline in half our sales.

All of this while elected officials simultaneously encouraged people to dine out and support local businesses.

Ultimately there is no way restaurants can both be responsible members of their communities and stay in business during the pandemic.

While most of America have worked from home these past few weeks, we cannot.

Restaurant owners are watching the coronavirus pandemic unfold and trying to develop creative ways to pay our employees, our vendors, and our rent, while keeping people safe, just like other business owners.

What makes us different is that we are forced to operate on razor-thin profit margins as we navigate rapidly changing city, state, and federal rules regulating everything from employee compensation to food safety guidelines.

The government asks a lot of us, and we never complain. In fact, despite being more regulated than most businesses, we still employ over 13 million people and contribute about $1 trillion to our national GDP.

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Independent restaurants employ more people than national restaurant groups and we’ve never organized on a grand scale as they have. This time, we are.

We’ve taken it upon ourselves to create our own seat at the table. In New York, we worked in tandem with the NYC Hospitality Alliance to create Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants (ROAR) for the state. And in a matter of days, hundreds of chefs across the country launched the Independent Restaurant Coalition to speak for us at the federal level.

We need urgent help to save jobs for our teams. Our industry just conducted mass layoffs at a scale that has yet to hit the unemployment statistics, and without relief there won’t be businesses for our people to come back to.

This will lead to systemic consequences – from our people to the fishers, butchers, beverage distributors, and other specialized businesses we work with will join us on the unemployment line.

A substantial percentage of our nation’s workforce will be unable to pay their bills, and the entire economy will be at risk.

It’s a perfect storm, but one that could be made less catastrophic if our leaders act now. Our teams cannot work from home, and under the current state of emergency they don’t have alternative options for income while our industry shutters.

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Right now, sufficient sales are impossible with the public staying at home. Restaurants uniquely operate on razor thin margins, and we continue to face significant costs, often without cash reserves.

Plus, we are coming off a seasonally slow period for sales. Independent restaurants generate $880 billion per year in revenue but about 90 percent of that is paid directly to our employees, suppliers, and rent.

We need Congress to ensure our employees–without a size limit and including part-time workers–have at least six months of income, or about $440 billion, so long as we employ our staff, pay our rent, and continue relationships with suppliers.  An income-replacement grant program that allows us to pay our suppliers will empower these businesses in turn to pay their own, with a protective effect immediately felt up and throughout the supply chain.

The farmers, butchers, and fish purveyors who normally sell to us also need a clear pathway to distribute goods at grocery stores. The federal government can use the restaurant industry’s existing systems and relationships to administer aid across the many associated businesses that rely upon us to stay afloat.

Once reliable information is available, we need clear and direct guidance from our public leaders on how and when we can all resume social interaction.

The slow drip we experienced as we’ve been forced to close our businesses will be there when we try to reopen them, especially if this much uncertainty still exists.

Even without this existential threat, running a restaurant is hard work– we do it because we love it.

We are the places your constituents come together, share memories, and feel a sense of pride in where they live and work. We help keep people off the streets, ensure families are fed in times of need, and provide a place for groups to organize for change.

We’ve taken care of each of you countless times and have never asked for help. We’re just trying to keep our heads above water, and we hope Congress hears us before it’s too late.

Camilla Marcus is a part of the Independent Restaurant Coalition. She is the founder of west-bourne, a two-year-old sustainable restaurant in New York’s SoHo neighborhood. 

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