Give restaurants a fighting chance to survive, reopening at 25% won't cut it: Restaurant owner Buddy Foy Jr.

Imagine running a marathon with only 25% of your lung capacity: you couldn’t, and restaurants can’t, either

On September 30, New York City restaurants were permitted to reopen at 25% capacity for indoor dining based on coronavirus restrictions. The announcement was like music to the ears of customers who are eager to return to their favorite eating spots…but not for operators.

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What qualifies me for such a blunt observation? My wife and I own and operate a restaurant in New York State and over the past 6 months have been faced with unprecedented challenges.

Imagine running a marathon with only 25% of your lung capacity: you couldn’t, and restaurants can’t, either. A minimum of 50% capacity is needed to keep doors open, period. At this level, restaurants will have some ability to pay their bills – or at least the ability to negotiate flexible terms with their lessors, vendors, and suppliers.

Operating at a quarter level, not only will restaurants face struggles but so will the supply chain supporting them.

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At only 25%, most restaurants will need to buy ingredients at local supermarkets, increasing their costs, because vendors won’t be able to manage inventory breakdowns to consumable portions.

Restaurants will deplenish the supermarkets and vendors will lose money when their trucks have 75% less cargo. Not to mention payment terms: how can vendors work with restaurant operators on dated terms when they will be hanging on by a fingernail themselves?

Furthermore, restaurants will face brand new “COVID compliant” investments when they reopen. Where will the money come from to support social distancing safety measures?

It takes a lot more than serving customers at every other table to adhere to the guidelines. Not only do restaurants need to be continually stocked up with extra masks and bottles of hand sanitizers but it is necessary to employ additional staff for customer adherence and continuous cleanings.

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Margins in this business are tight at 100% and just not possible at 25%. This capacity level is simply a mirage – it will take 50%, for restauranteurs to see glimmers of light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. And that is the motivation needed to keep pushing forward.  So why are we making it so difficult for the restaurant industry which is one of the top 3 employers in the US? We can do it and here’s how I know.

From our reopening on June 4 through Labor Day Monday, our 200 seat restaurant served over 15,557 customers, with an average of 3 employees interfacing with customers and touching tables for each seating. This created 46,671 touchpoints.

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While most of this was outdoor dining, by adhering to all social distancing guidelines, taking employee temperatures daily, and wearing masks, none of our employees came down with COVID. And consider that 60% of our staff are students who are now back in college where testing is mandatory, and all tested negative.

What does this mean? It means we all get it – operators, employees and customers alike. The COVID-19 pandemic has swept in a new environment filled with new concerns that require new sensibilities and expectations for the dining experience. The way we can all achieve safety and success is to get open and start learning the new way. Whether we open back up at 25% or 50% capacity, the learning curve won’t be any different.

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So what’s the answer? Trust. We have to trust that restaurant teams want to stay safe and succeed by staying open and that customers feel the same way.

It’s time to get the industry back on its feet, start onboarding the 11 million employees and become a leading force in our economy again. Restaurants are built to operate at 125% capacity, not 25%, and customer demand is there.

The quarter percent capacity may help officials feel good about getting their communities back to work and answer the cries for a return to normalcy.

It’s just a number – so let’s make that number 50 and give restaurants a fighting chance to survive.

Buddy Foy, Jr. is owner of The Chateau On The Lake, in Bolton Landing, NY on Lake George, awarded Top 100 Restaurants in America and featured on the Food Network TV show Summer Rush. Follow him on Twitter @BuddyFoyJr

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