Restaurants Support Our Communities—Here’s How We Can Support Them

The industry is getting creative to make things work, but still needs our help.

April  7, 2020
Photo by Julia Gartland

Now more than ever, home is where many of us are seeking refuge and solace in light of the novel coronavirus. This is a tough time, but we’re here for you—whether it’s a new pantry recipe or a useful tip for your kitchen, here are some ideas to make things run a little more smoothly for you and your loved ones.

Hugh Acheson is still cooking. Though he had to lay off 100 hourly workers in March, while closing one of his Georgia restaurants and pivoting the other to takeout only, the chef and author will never not cook. In fact, Acheson was cooking while we spoke on the phone last week. But I’m not going to tell you what he was making, because that matters less than the act itself.

“Food at its core is pure nourishment, whether that’s emotional, physical, nutritional,” Acheson told me. “Somebody cooking a roast chicken with rice, gravy, and greens right now means something. But then a lot of America is locked inside eating frozen pizza…. That’s a reality, and still sustaining. Cook whatever you want, as long as it’s from the heart.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic courses through the country, restaurants, especially independent ones, have been hit hard. In the past few weeks, if all members of a restaurant’s front and back of house weren’t outright laid off, their hours were significantly reduced.

“The thing people don’t understand about restaurants is that we live on really thin margins,” said Acheson. “When we don’t have business for a week, we’re screwed. When we don’t have business for three and half months, we’re done.”

As restaurateurs were forced to make lightning-fast changes to their business plans, with the livelihood of all employees at stake, their establishments started to look more than a bit different. Vespertine, a Los Angeles restaurant known for avant-garde dining experiences where ingredients are referred to as “materials”, is now selling takeout family-style brisket, roast chicken, and chocolate chip cookies for $49; a meal there is usually over $250 per person. Other restaurants (fine-dining and casual) have made similar changes. Many have made the difficult decisions to close completely for the time being. They don’t know if they’ll reopen.

For a fighting chance at a future, money needs to come in now. Acheson came up with the idea to sell contracts for privately catered meals to local community members, to be cooked later. “It’s a very substantial gift certificate for future service… It allows us to circumvent some disastrous consequences.” Though Acheson was touched to see that dozens were able to purchase catering contracts (he also shared with other chefs how to set up their own versions of the project), he knows one good idea still isn’t sustainable for himself, or for others, in the long term.

“We’re relying on the federal government to get their act together and realize that restaurants are not the only thing to be affected by this, but we were the first line to get mowed down. We’ve put seven million people out of work. Politicians need to wake up.”

“It’s a trolly car problem, a moral dilemma,” observed chef David Chang on recent episode of his podcast. He described the struggle restaurateurs had to make this month: to close and not pay anyone, jeopardizing their present and future; or to stay open and potentially get staff and customers sick. “I don’t think anybody should have to make that decision. Restaurants had to... and the fact that we had no support from government officials was infuriating. We need to unify, we need solidarity.”

A few days prior to the recording, Chang posted a call to action on Twitter: “restaurants are too small to fail.” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez retweeted Chang, echoing his request for federal aid.

A funding package known as the CARES Act, a stipulation of which will provide financial aid in the form of loan forgiveness and payroll help to restaurants, passed on March 27. But the money is nowhere near what most independant restaurants need to return to their former glory—nor does it help service workers, many of whom are undocumented, buy groceries today. Many have taken this challenge into their own hands on a local level.

Anna Dunn, Seamus Branch, and Kelly Sullivan recently founded the Service Workers Coalition in Brooklyn, a grassroots mutual aid organization to benefit local service workers. Branch and Sullivan were front of house employees at Diner and Marlow & Sons respectively before the restaurants closed, and Dunn is a freelance writer, editor, and educator.

“We thought we were starting a small community fund as restaurants slowed down or as people got sick,” Dunn told me over the phone. They explained that the team knew if New York City’s restaurants closed, thousands in the area would have no income. The Service Workers Coalition provides $50 a week stipends (or the equivalent in delivered groceries) to service workers in the New York City-area who are struggling to sign up for unemployment benefits or are unable to due to an undocumented status.

Originally hoping community members would donate what they’d typically spend in tips, expectations were exceeded: The Coalition raised about $45,000 in five days. At first, their inbox was flooded with volunteer offers. But in the course of a week, as more restaurants closed, these offers shifted to requests for help.

“These people have very little money in the bank; they have no safety net,” said Dunn.

Though the Service Workers Coalition was able to raise enough money to get started with their program, they’ve already run into issues with mobile payment services that aren’t equipped to support such a large-scale community project. This concept is sustainable, albeit dependent on the generosity of other individuals, which can never be presumed. Still, Dunn seems more convinced of local aid—expressing the urgency of rent suspension and supporting mutual aid funds like Service Workers Coalition—than the idea of federal help coming anytime soon. “It’s hard to imagine the government doing anything useful, but now they have to.”

Similar organizations have cropped up around the country, like the Greater Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Emergency Fund, the Seattle Hospitality Emergency Fund, and Hook Hall’s “helps” initiative, which provides care kits for any unemployed person in DC.

Starting this week, the apéritif brand Haus announced they will partner with Acheson, the Marlow Collective (which owns Diner and Marlow & Sons, as well as other New York restaurants), and other chefs—Edouardo Jordan of JuneBaby and Salare in Seattle, Ashley Christensen of Poole's Diner in Raleigh, Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymansen of Kismet in Los Angeles, among others—to create their own white label apéritifs through Haus. They're calling the initiative The Restaurant Project, and 100 percent of the profits from it will go the the restaurants.

“The plight of restaurants might seem like a frivolous concern. Americans might reasonably ask: Why should we worry about the independent restaurant industry when we’re worried about how to pay rent?” chefs and restaurateurs Andrew Carmellini, Tom Colicchio, Danny Meyer, Missy Robbins, Marcus Samuelsson, and Adam Saper wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times recently, begging for federal support. They mention that not only did their restaurants employ cooks, bartenders, and servers, but farmers and packers, accountants, goods importers, and laundry services as well. “As restaurants go, so go our communities.”

For those of us sitting at home, hearing the stories of struggling restaurants may make you feel helpless. But being inside doesn’t render you ineffective—you can still support your favorite places from afar. Many restaurants have started a GoFundMe or another relief fund to support their employees (whether laid off or still working). Food writer Helen Rosner put together an enormous Instagram highlight of restaurant merch, from coffee mugs to sweatpants that can be ordered and delivered wherever you’re weathering out the isolation. Many restaurants are offering contactless delivery and takeout, which is completely safe to eat. Some are selling off their liquor and ingredient inventory, letting local customers in one at a time to buy a rare bottle of wine or secret chicken seasoning blend.

On a national scale, you can donate to, among many others, the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation; the US Bartenders’ Guild; and Children of Restaurant Employees, all of which have set up direct ways to donate to those affected by COVID-19.

What are your favorite ways to support local businesses right now? Let us know in the comments.

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Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. These days, you can keep your eye out for her monthly budget recipe column, Nickel & Dine. Rebecca tests all recipes with Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.