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Dec 8, 2020 13 min read

Thoughts at 10pm on a Sunday About Our Current Restaurant Industry Crisis (and How to Help)

Thoughts at 10pm on a Sunday About Our Current Restaurant Industry Crisis (and How to Help)
We are SF. Photo: @knucklesamwick. Artist: @signsbylaf.
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Man, gut punches are the worst. Imagine getting the wind knocked out of you after you barely get up off the mat, wobbling, weaving. We’re watching our hospitality community in a grueling boxing match with a brutal heavyweight, with no coach, and the countdown is down to the end. 10. 9. 8. 7. 6. 5. 4. 3. Some are at 2. Some at 1.

This sudden stay-at-home order has massive consequences. So many workers to lay off or furlough, yet again (although this time it’s right at the holidays), with too many without any access to benefits, while unemployment benefits are ending soon for those who do have them (as well as paid sick leave and eviction protections). Rent and unpaid bills loom. Thousands spent on parklets and heaters (fortunately, businesses that either hold or have applied for a Shared Spaces permit are now eligible to receive up to $5,000 in reimbursement from the City). Farmers and purveyors and suppliers are suddenly needed less, or not at all, and just need to be paid. The hoped-for holiday income from this month has vaporized.

I have been reaching out to industry friends the past couple days to check in, while some are reaching out to me to share their thoughts. (Please know I implicitly include bars and clubs in this piece, as well as in my deep concerns, and am distressed on behalf of all our personal care folks and friends, too. We are thinking of all of you!) We’re seeing their farewell missives on social media, their pleas for support for their employees, their takeout announcements, the last of their inventory. It’s not just bleak, it’s desperate. It’s almost unbearable to witness. Restaurants can’t survive on takeout, it’s a bandaid on a severed leg, but all many can do is try and limp through the next month. Many are choosing to hibernate now, hoping the situation improves in January. Or February. Who even knows? Will they even reopen? So many of our mom-and-pop places, our independents, our 49-seaters, our 15-year-old neighborhood joints, they’re finally throwing in the towel. This current surge is a killer, on many levels.

Restaurants are once again having to empty their walk-ins and pack up food for their precious employees who have been standing by them, trying to ride these waves and vicissitudes and ever-changing restrictions and stay safe through all of the unknowns, and keep their customers happy and coming back, while also having to patrol and be exposed to their often-inconsiderate behavior.

Most owners and chefs who are angry and verbalizing their anguish over this stay-at-home order are thinking of their employees—this isn’t about prizing money over the health of our community, it’s about the survival of their team. They see the ripple effect, the spiral. They see the dependence on these paychecks—even with current limited hours and greatly diminished income—and what it means to turn them completely off. They’re so tired of everyone being jerked around. They feel deep responsibility for their service team. So many are deeply concerned for their employees’ mental health, let alone their own. Another wave of depression has been unleashed.

No owner wants to endanger people and for anyone to get sick: their employees, their regular customers dining at their patio tables, their fish guy. We all know this situation is dire in certain counties, the numbers are alarming. I truly believe our Mayor London Breed and Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco’s Director of Public Health, have our best interests—our lives—deeply at heart, even if we feel like they don’t understand the drastic impact their decisions have on our businesses.

They see numbers and data and reports and implications that we don’t. They also aren’t being totally transparent with us. While speaking with Laurie Thomas, the Executive Director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (listen to her early episode on On the Fly here), she says there’s a messaging problem: if there’s going to be faith in our leadership, and if we’re going to modify our behavior like we’re being asked, then we need more clarity about the criteria for how these drastic decisions are being made, and what is our target.

I know many people are questioning: where is the data about virus transmission during outdoor dining? Why didn’t we get to reduce outdoor capacity, instead of wiping it out with two days’ notice—especially when we were just told by Governor Newsom that we probably had a couple weeks before that could happen? (Thanks to the GGRA, we got the shutdown pushed from Friday night to Sunday night, partially based on the fact that restaurants had already ordered their food supplies for the weekend.) Why is our five-county group (San Francisco, Santa Clara, Marin, Contra Costa, and Alameda counties, and the city of Berkeley) preemptively shutting down before the state (which set the ICU threshold at 15 percent capacity)? We lauded our Mayor for being in front of things in March, so all I can do is hope we’ll be thankful in future hindsight once again.

The state has been divided into five regions, and the ICU capacity for the Bay Area region is at 25.7 percent availability (as of December 7th), actually up from 24.1 the day prior. But Laurie is questioning what is the ICU capacity for our five-county Bay Area group, what is the average, what are the criteria? It’s unclear, and makes it hard to agree with the decision to shut everything down so quickly. We know we don’t want to duplicate what’s happening in Southern California (10.9 percent) or in some hard-hit neighboring counties, and we will likely continue to take on some overflow from other counties where they are out of ICU capacity, and from prisons, but our ICU capacity is not below 15 percent, or even 20 percent. Outside our region, yes, ICU beds are being filled, exhausted hospital staffs are being stretched ever-so thin, and more patients will need to be hospitalized as infections continue to rise. Talk to anyone you know in healthcare and you will hear things do not look good as of this past week.

As for San Francisco, when you look at today’s hospital capacity, intensive care has 37 percent availability (as of December 6th), even more than our usual average at 20 percent (partially due to less elective surgery right now and lower flu infection rates). At the same time, sadly, our case rate is at its worst: on December 7th, SF Public Health Officer Tomás Aragón (the soon-to-be California Department of Public Health Director) stated San Francisco recorded 316 new COVID-19 cases, a single-day record that far exceeds the previous high of 273. This is a crisis-level surge and it’s up to all of us to dial it down.

There are definitely some bad actors to blame, flouting the distancing rules, allowing unmasked gathering and crowding in their outdoor spaces and secret parties and they absolutely ruin it for all of us. These owners are in survival mode, and making dangerous choices because they don’t feel like the local government cares one bit about their business, their team, their future. They have become hardened and rebellious and as selfish as their unmasked patrons.

I have been disappointed in the City for a lack of enforcement and not shutting the outdoor street parties down. Grant Ave. is like Covid Alley. And the Marina? Come on down for brunch in the Covid-19 Corral! Don’t even get me started on the sketchy operations of some places during our indoor dining blip—and how entitled customers weren’t even trying to keep their mask on while at their table. And yet, we act surprised that we’re here in this shutdown, once again.

But how can we allow our businesses to perish in the process? Where is the aid? It’s enraging—our beloved industry has been left outside in the hurricane, getting pummeled and ripped to shreds and blown away in the storm. Every day that soulless and wretched Mitch McConnell stalls and obstinately continues his devastating power games, this industry and the livelihoods of the 16 million of people in it crumble.

I don’t know what it’s going to take to make this stimulus stalemate end and get some version of the RESTAURANTS ACT (which would provide $120B in grants to bars and restaurants) included and through the Republican-led Senate before they adjourn for the year; this bill passed the House in October and has been mostly ignored and plodding through the Senate since then. They only seem to care about corporate bailouts and protections—the fate of our 500,000 independent restaurants are obviously of little import to them. At least President-elect Joe Biden recognizes the importance of small business, and included restaurant relief as a topic in a recent economic roundtable; Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is a co-sponsor of the bill. Our restaurants require federal aid—our dwindling city and state resources aren’t enough.

There’s such a gross disparity between who had access to federal PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans and who didn’t, let alone what will actually be forgiven (or now taxed!), and who can even get loans. So many small, immigrant-owned businesses received nothing, while corporate chains gobbled up millions. Another round of PPP is not the answer. The industry needs direct aid.

Signing the Independent Restaurant Coalition letter to Congress (please sign it) and petition to the Senate (sign that too) and war dialing Nancy Pelosi’s office (some say she needs to compromise more) and blowing up our Mayor’s Twitter feed and our Governor’s Instagram posts aren’t doing enough. Let’s move past shaming them for The French Laundry disappointing and hypocritical B.S. and focus more on the truly important issue at hand.

How many heart-wrenching TV segments, how many tragic articles, how many desperate chef testimonials have been written and aired and shared? Still no aid. No relief. It’s such a slap in the face, to abandon the industry that employs 16 million people, that FEEDS US and the food-insecure and the guests at your charity events, that gives so much, that makes us feel good and hosts us and listens to our woes over a drink and roast chicken, that puts so much money back into the economy… They feel so devalued. Ignored. Starved. Exhausted. Honestly, I wonder: where are the protests?

It’s atrocious how little (and how late) our local, state, and federal government are actually doing to help the hospitality industry get through this—the lack of guidance has been appalling, it’s like trying to follow a faint trail of breadcrumbs on a dark and windy night. What is your Supervisor doing or saying to advocate for the restaurants in your district? What are they saying about this shutdown?

The industry was forced to shut down their outdoor dining in 48 hours to help keep everyone safe, but who’s keeping them safe? They’re yet again in extreme crisis management mode. Do they stay open? Do they hibernate? Do they close permanently? When do you keep fighting, when do you give up, how much debt can you continue to take on? What about the enforcement of personal guarantees by banks? When do you declare bankruptcy? Owners are selling what they can, assessing who on their teams can get unemployment benefits and who can’t as they downsize to a skeleton crew once again, negotiating how to pay for rent and utilities and bills due, how to change their menu for delivery and takeout only, and where to put all those tables and chairs and heaters. The future is so uncertain, but one thing is crystal clear: it’s grim.

There is so much need right now, everywhere we turn. I know many of us are experiencing limited funds, not knowing how each month’s bills are going to get paid. Some of us are experiencing food insecurity, perhaps for the first time in our lives. We don’t know when the next paycheck is coming, the next gig, the next job, the next bill, the next EDD check, if at all.

But if you have the means and can afford takeout in any form right now, this month, this week is the time to double down. As culinary activist Poppy Tooker of New Orleans famously says, “You have to eat it to save it!” I know some folks prefer to cook at home. But imagine your neighborhood without your favorite Chinese joint, your pub, your sushi bar, or where you like to go for your anniversary dinner. These businesses all form our city’s crown jewel and they’re being decimated right now. These next three weeks are especially dire. Why not order food for someone you know is struggling? Or buy your wine from a restaurant, some groceries, some booze? Look for their employee funds and donations. Buy a sweatshirt. A gift certificate. Do you eat at a place regularly? Why not buy a gift certificate for how much you’d spend in six months, and use it over the next year for meals? It would really help them now. Ask your favorite places how you can help.

Do you work at a company that would take out employees for a holiday meal? Restaurants greatly depend upon all those holiday buyouts and banquets. This is the year to send your team a special holiday meal at home—many of you have some end-of-year budget that hasn’t been used up, so please use it! (Thanks to a tablehopper reader for this suggestion!)

Takeout doesn’t have to be an expensive tasting menu or upscale handmade pasta. It can and should also be a quart of roasted goat birria en caldo from SanJalisco (Friday special!) with three housemade tortillas, chips, and salsa for $13, which made two homey and heartfelt meals for me. It can be some cocktails to go. A trio of tacos. A sandwich. Pancakes.

Honestly, if you can do your holiday shopping at all our local businesses, you will be giving the greatest gift of all: a shot at a potential future with their return, and all the jobs that come with that. Step away from Amazon, I beg you. Get creative. Give a bottle of sake instead. A dinner. Hot sauce. Leave a big tip. Support all those out-of-work cooks and bartenders with their side hustles, their tamales, their cookies.

Whatever you can afford, and then push a tiny bit more. It all counts, even your words of support, posting and telling your friends about things to get or do, your pledge to show up, taking the extra time to walk or drive to a place to pick up takeout instead of ordering delivery and watching them kiss 15 percent of that bill away. They need every dime! Plus, you get that good human connection. The moment when they hand you your bag with a smise (a smile with your eyes) over their mask and say, “Enjoy your meal. Thanks so much for supporting us.” It makes the food taste better, really. And until our damn federal government starts doing the right and necessary things, we’re the only support they’ve got. We have to show up now.

We also need to respect the stay-at-home order the way our businesses have to. We all need to take a hit. I know, it’s the holidays. We miss our friends. We miss gathering. We miss eating together and sharing food and laughs. Talking with co-owner Jen Bennett of Zazie (listen to her On the Fly episode), she brought up a really important point, and I’m grateful for her perspective. She astutely notes that since we’ve been using all these parklets and outdoor shared spaces to get together, suddenly taking away that access is a form of prohibition and will drive things underground. It’s human nature. We keep seeing this: big house parties, underground clubs, weddings. Selfish scofflaws. We know how this virus spreads, and unmasked people keep gathering indoors anyway.

Jen cautions we’re in danger of a smaller version of these underground parties happening this month, whether you have a couple friends over for some holiday cheer, to visiting neighbors inside their home for dinner. It’s much more perilous than if we could just have dinner outside at a restaurant. And what the hell is going to happen on New Year’s Eve? [shudder] Riskier behavior is looming. We’re tired, we’re burnt out, we’re lonely, we’re depressed, it’s the holidays, we’re sick of this goddamn year. It’s cold outside. We all have those moments of “FUCK THIS, ALL OF IT!”

But we are also so strong. Resilient. Look how much we have gone through. We need to commit to staying home, staying safe, staying solo. We can do this. We have to do this. If you love someone, you’re going to stay away from them this month. We have to stop the in-person interactions (and infections) from different households. You’re going to do a spontaneous dance party with your friend over FaceTime like I did this past weekend. You’re going to get four friends together and order the same takeout and have a Friday night Zoom dinner together. You’re going to lovingly say “no” to invitations to “just come over.” Even as I write this, I feel the resistance prickle inside me. I have friends I want to see and share a bottle of bubs with. I am Champers the elf, goddamn it!

But it’s time to go within. Again. Instead of complaining or resisting or defying, how about celebrating your strength of commitment to vigilance! Steadfastness to safety. Respect for others. Let’s all be badasses at this stay-at-home order, no matter how much we hate it, and show each other how much we care about and cherish our LIVES. Everyone’s lives. Our exhausted healthcare workers’ lives. An estimated 1,400 healthcare workers have died taking care of us. The first vaccine was administered today in Britain—we can’t give up in the home stretch. As we can see, so much hangs in the balance based on our behavior. Our choices. The smarter and safer our choices, the sooner our access returns. Stay home to help our local businesses be able to reopen safely. Let’s turn this ship around.

I have been pondering how much we keep taking for granted. This virus continues to show us that, again and again. Our access. Our privilege. One night, I’m outside enjoying a beautiful meal with a couple dear friends on a magical SF evening. The next day, outdoor dining is ending. That restaurant could be gone in a few weeks. I could unknowingly infect a friend at that meal from laughing too hard. My friend could bring the virus to his mother’s house along with the lasagna he made for dinner that night. That family could suffer great loss, stepping in line with the millions of tragic losses playing out all over the world. It can happen to you. It can happen to me.

I keep replaying certain choices and little risks I have taken, and in hindsight, I have to decide: was it really worth it? How many times are we going to cavalierly press our luck? Even when we think we’ve made a measured and careful decision, this trickster of a virus lies in wait. We have to learn from any regrets in our reflections. Check in with yourself.

Meanwhile, so many essential workers don’t have much of a choice. Their daily exposure, their unsafe working conditions, their bosses who view them as expendable, the companies they work for that don’t keep them safe or provide enough benefits in case they get sick. We need to protect our most vulnerable. We all matter. We are all precious, divine beings. Let’s navigate this month with love, kindness, care, safety, generosity, and putting others first. Don’t let 2020 continue its horrid path, it’s time to change the script.

I believe in us.

If you can donate to some organizations helping to keep businesses afloat and people fed, here are some suggestions. Why not donate in someone’s name and make it a gift?

-SF New Deal

-SF-Marin Food Bank



-USBG Bartender Emergency Assistance Program (BEAP)

We are SF. Photo: @knucklesamwick. Artist: @signsbylaf.

We don’t know when we’ll see some of San Francisco’s most colorful tables again. (At SanJalisco in the Mission.) Photo: ©
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