Food + Culture

The Last Meal?

Photographer: Lidye | Source: Unsplash

Yakitori 39 makes me happy. Tiny, cramped, and full of energy, it transports me. Yamashita-san’s bow and shy smile immediately puts me at ease, and his Hakata tonkotsu ramen is the best I’ve ever slurped. I ate my last meal out there, just three days before every restaurant in the tri-state area shuttered on March 16. Ever since, I’ve survived on delivery, home cooking, muscle memory–dependent bartending skills, and a deep longing to return to my go-to North Jersey neighborhood joint.

Six months later, restaurants and bars all across the country struggle to survive. Thousands closed permanently—life savings gone, jobs 86ed, and bills unpaid—as the virus spread and surged.

The math doesn’t lie: all the independent taco stands, chef-owned restaurants, and dive bars in the country add up to 500,000 small businesses (many family owned) with 11 million employees. There are a further 5 million employees—farmers, butchers, truck drivers—who are part of this ecosystem on the verge of collapse. Without intervention, America’s independent restaurants and bars face a mass extinction event.

Bringing the Fight to Washington

“We got on a call two days into the shutdown,” says Bobby Stuckey, master sommelier and partner at Frasca Hospitality Group in Boulder, Colorado. “And it was apparent that no one was speaking up for independent restaurants and bars during this crisis. The Independent Restaurant Coalition was born out of our realization that it was far easier to teach professional lobbyists about the restaurant business than to have restaurateurs and chefs learn how to lobby Congress.” This lobbying effort spurred creation of the RESTAURANTS Act, a bi-partisan bill currently before Congress that will create a $120B fund to provide grants to independent restaurants, bars, caterers, food trucks, and other small food and beverage businesses.

Restaurants are people-driven—cooks and dishwashers, sous chefs and managers, bussers and servers, barbacks and bartenders. It’s their dedication and skill that make restaurants rock every shift. But they are expensive; weekly payroll is one of a restaurant’s highest costs. Close a restaurant, reduce its occupancy or outlaw its bar seating and revenues plummet. Owners then have no option but to lay off staff. “It’s our pain and our struggle,” admits Nina Compton, chef/owner of Bywater American Bistro and Compere Lapin in New Orleans.

“We were the first industry to get hit, but I need to be open. My staff needs to work to pay the rent and feed their kids. It’s dire times. The industry’s broken, the country’s broken, and the RESTAURANTS Act may be the only thing that saves us.”

Thank God for the neighborhood—they’ve kept us going.

Angie Mar, chef/owner of The Beatrice Inn, NYC

Struggle and Adaptability on the Frontlines

As bleak as the current predictions are—that 85 percent of all restaurants will close permanently without further government help—operators fight on. “Responsibility for my team and for this amazing 99-year-old New York institution,” states Angie Mar, chef/owner of The Beatrice Inn, “that’s the life I’ve chosen. No way I’m giving up. We had never done delivery before. We figured it out in four days, and it really helped. Thank God for the neighborhood—they’ve kept us going.”

All successful restaurants—ambitious or modest, New York or Texas—are, at their core, neighborhood restaurants serving the people who live there. George Gerard, pit master/owner of Gerard’s Barbeque in Beaumont, Texas, is renowned for his smoked beef links and pork bones. “We’re a 50-year-old, Black, family-owned business,” says George. “And we do what we do. We never re-opened for sit-down. Drive-thru business, thanks to our regulars, has been our salvation.” George also acknowledged, that in this time of uncertainty, being debt free and running a lean staff—he’s always dreaded the thought of having to lay someone off—have helped him keep everyone employed and the bills paid.

Niven Patel, chef/owner of Ghee Dadeland in South Florida, closed Ghee Design District in Miami on August 3 as business dropped 90 percent. But the employees he laid off were at work the next day at Mamey, an “island-minded” concept restaurant with 68 socially distanced outdoor seats that he opened August 5 in the Thesis Hotel in Coral Gables. As scary and risky as any restaurant opening is in “normal times,” opening during a pandemic seemed certifiable, but Niven has been surprised by the response. “It’s all about escaping reality,” he says. “Guests want a two-hour bubble when they can treat themselves by socializing with friends and eating and drinking well.”

Farther north in Charleston, South Carolina, Brooks Reitz, owner of three neighborhood restaurants, says, “We’re really fortunate to have large outdoor spaces and parking lots for each restaurant. The city basically allowed us to take nearly all of our seating outdoors. We’ve kept the seats full and will keep on doing so until winter. But in the meantime, we’re totally upping our delivery and take out game.”

Red or blue state, north or south, we all eat and drink and love our favorite restaurants and bars.

The Geography Problem and How to Solve It

Yes, winter is coming. But open bars and 100 percent indoor occupancy aren’t coming. Not yet.

Survival or failure, in the absence of government intervention, may simply come down to geography—far enough south and you’ve got a shot thanks to outdoor dining. Farther north, come October and falling temperatures, shorter days may bring only longer odds for survival as restaurants continue to face an unpredictable enemy.

I’m selfish. I want my Yakitori 39 and Beatrice Inn, my North Jersey and NYC go-to’s. Red or blue state, north or south, we all eat and drink and love our favorite restaurants and bars. So it’s time to speak up: go to the Independent Restaurant Coalition’s website, saverestaurants.com, and join the coalition. Donate if you can, but definitely click the Take Action tab, and let your senators and representative know that it’s time to save our restaurants. Act now, before your favorite local joint is only a memory.

Blueprint contributor and acclaimed food writer Michael Bonadies

Michael Bonadies is president of international hospitality firm Bonadies Hospitality, LLC. An accomplished entrepreneur and James Beard journalism award winner, Michael is the author of Sip by Sip: An Insider’s Guide to Learning All About Wine.