Editor’s Note: On November 22, 2020, County of Los Angeles Public Health announced that they would suspend all on-premise dining beginning November 25 at 10pm in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. This partial shutdown marks eight months since restaurants were originally forced to close on March 15 and eight months without a comprehensive restaurant relief package from the U.S. government.
As uncertainty around the fate of the industry persists, Andrea Borgen Abdallah, the general manager and owner of Barcito in downtown Los Angeles, contributes a candid op-ed on the fight to secure a future for independent restaurants.
When our restaurant was shut down for on-premises dining on March 15, 2020 by Mayor Eric Garcetti, we had some grueling decisions to make. We could follow in the steps of so many of our friends and colleagues and go into hibernation, or meet the moment head-on, and attempt to survive. We made the tough call—and haven’t closed a single day since.
Because of this, we’ve been able to keep positions for our most at-risk employees—those who had no safety net—who couldn’t wait for unemployment to kick in. We furloughed our entire front-of-house, but committed to paying the full premium for their health insurance (the only thing that scared me more than losing my restaurant was throwing all of my employees off their health insurance during a global pandemic).
We launched High Road Kitchens, a pay-what-you-can meal program funded by grants from One Fair Wage, an organization committed to eliminating the sub-minimum wage across the country. We sold grocery items when our supermarkets were overwhelmed and our neighbors couldn’t access some of the most basic provisions. And we launched “Barcito & Bodega” a retail-focused, takeout-only natural wine and craft beer bottle shop. To date, our sales have taken an 80% hit compared to last year.
We’ve erred on the side of caution, refusing to open our outdoor patio, in large part because I couldn’t bring myself to pull our staff off of unemployment to work this new arrangement without the ability to guarantee their hours or tips. Here in Downtown Los Angeles, between the rolling out and rolling back of restrictions, curfews, boarded-up storefronts, heat waves, and hazardous air quality, my fears and apprehensions about the uncertain working conditions have been reaffirmed on nearly a bi-weekly basis. Even under the best of circumstances, the costs of opening and operating a patio, where our capacity would continue to be a fraction of what it once was indoors, eclipsed the potential benefits. Outdoor dining was never going to save us.
The should-they or shouldn’t-they of restaurant re-opening is a distraction. It distracts government officials from having to provide us with any tangible relief, prevents restaurants from organizing around a central message, and convinces the public that our survival is strictly tied to this single issue.
It’s polarizing, and confusing, and ultimately, it is not going to be the factor that seals our collective fate.
Amid all the noise, I’d like to turn our attention to something that hasn’t gotten nearly enough: rent. The question about what happens with our rent will—for the majority of independent restaurants—tip the scales towards survival or extinction.
How do we lobby our government to provide rent relief? It’s something that’s been worked on for months, at the local, state and federal levels. But any effort to legislate rent relief thus far has pitted landlords against restaurant owners, a fight the real estate lobby is poised to win again and again. We need landlords on our side, and from personal experience, asking nicely hasn’t been effective. We need to go on a rent strike. We need to join together, start withholding rent, and force our landlords to share this burden with us. Only then can we unite in demanding relief from our collective obligation to pay.
Restaurants cannot pivot their way out of thousands of square feet of retail space that has been designed, and permitted, and built out for an intended purpose. A purpose that has now been deemed a threat to public health. Regardless of where you stand on the spectrum of opinions about restaurant “re-opening,” I think we can all agree, this is not a zero-risk proposition. Our entire business model is built on the premise that guests will sit down, take off their masks, and spread novel coronavirus particles. People will get sick. Maybe not a lot. But not none.
We’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on plexiglass, infrared thermometers, and hand sanitizer. The problem for our industry is, this was never going to be about implementing new and myriad protocols to safely re-open. This pandemic was always a pass-fail group project, requiring the cooperation and consideration of our public, and as a society, we have miserably failed.
Despite the diverse challenges we face as a society in this unprecedented time, I think we can agree, we love independent restaurants. We want our communities to be filled with them, for these businesses to continue adding to the diverse cultural landscape of Los Angeles—and cities, large and small, all around the country. And it is their survival that hangs in the balance, in a state of crisis. What we need now is to come to a swift, concise, and conciliatory agreement on how to save this industry as a whole. Only then can we secure a future for our independent restaurants, for our communities, and for ourselves—before it’s too late.