Winter Is Coming: Restaurants Face-Off With Shutdowns and Congress

COVID-19 — DEC. 10, 2020

Winter Is Coming: Restaurants Face-Off With Shutdowns and Congress

A conversation with Camilla Marcus, founder and restauranteur of New York City’s west~bourne and co-founder of ROAR, and Oyster Sunday’s Elizabeth Tilton provide perspective on the needs and challenges of the restaurant industry nine months into the pandemic.

Interview by Antonio Diaz

In early August, Life & Thyme released its latest short documentary, Boiling Point: The Fight to Save America’s Restaurants. It chronicled the heart-wrenching situation from a boots-on-the-ground perspective through conversations with chefs, owners and purveyors across the country. They candidly shared their accounts, giving context to the industry’s fight for its life, facing economic devastation and uncertainty due to COVID-19. From independent restaurant owners to celebrity chefs, the one consistent demand Life & Thyme heard was a call for governmental relief. This, most agreed, was critical in order to have a fighting chance of survival for the eleven million hospitality workers.

The relief never came.

As we enter December, recorded cases and deaths are surging across the United States. With a lame duck in the White House and Congress quibbling over whether citizens should receive assistance for months, despite having over 280,000 American deaths on their watch, restaurants are once again forced to close and restrict their business operations. More than 110,000 restaurants have already closed and the industry is projected to suffer a $240 billion loss by the end of the year.

To make sense of the dire situation restaurant owners are facing heading into the winter season, I turned to Camilla Ruth Marcus and Elizabeth Tilton. Marcus is the restauranter and founder of New York City’s west~bourne restaurant, and during the pandemic has launched ROAR, a nonprofit initiative providing financial assistance to New York City restaurant workers. Marcus is also part of the founding leadership team behind the Independent Restaurant Coalition. Since March, Tilton has used her consultancy business, Oyster Sunday, to publish open-sourced resources, worksheets and tools for restaurants to utilize for their business—from rent negotiation letters to a comprehensive checklist on how to survive the winter.

The following conversation has been condensed for length and clarity. 

Camilla Marcus, owner of west~bourne, co-founder of ROAR and Independent Restaurant Coalition | Photo by Emily Schindler

Legislators are in the midst of a $908-billion stimulus package. 

Camilla Ruth Marcus: It doesn’t include the restaurants. Mind you, we’re the only ones getting closed down. We can’t legally work from home. I keep saying, “You’re basically handcuffing people and then wondering why they can’t move?” We, as a collective and citizenry, are paying for this loss and cost one way or another. You’re either going to pay for it in social services. You’re going to pay for it in an obliterated tax basis, or you’re going to pay for people to stay employed. Whether or not you call it a grant or you call it social support, you’re still going to pay for this industry that’s tanking.

The Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) has proposed its own plan: the RESTAURANTS Act. What’s in it?

Marcus: It’s $120 billion in grants. It’s meant to plug the sales difference between last year and this year, and then you net what you’ve taken or used in [the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)]. So the idea is not a double dip, but it’s essentially meant to keep restaurants whole, and solving a lot of the issues. PPP is not being properly tailored to our industry. The goal is to get financial runway until a vaccine—so suppliers can be paid, rent can be paid, people can be rehired.

The problem with PPP is it works if you have sales and if you have enough scale to spread it. You should be okay using it, but it doesn’t work when restaurants get shut down. A lot of restaurants have different entities that are on the lease versus who is operating, and that doesn’t work.

What we keep hearing is, “Well, we can’t go down the path of industry-specific aid, because then everyone else will want it.” When has our government ever been fair? 

They had industry-specific aid for airlines.

Marcus: It’s ridiculous. Fairness is not our number-one value, but I think that argument doesn’t hold water. Like I said, when you think about it, most industries can work remotely, at least to some extent. We absolutely can’t.

Has the RESTAURANTS Act received bipartisan support?

Marcus: Huge bipartisan support, but Mitch McConnell doesn’t want to do it and neither does [Marco] Rubio. They’re the big blockers. It’s become an extraordinarily partisan struggle in getting relief to the finish line. We’re in December; we should have had an aid package created in the fall. It’s unfortunately a very selfish circus.

I think sometimes we forget that cities have a lot of control over the future of restaurants and how they operate. Elizabeth, what are you seeing from New Orleans of how the city is working or not working with its restaurant community?

Elizabeth Tilton: The one thing we realized four weeks ago is we created that adjusted critical path, because we realized it’s all going to come down the pike at some point. Everyone’s going to have to figure out adjusted operations. It’s more of just being prepared for it and learning what we learned in March. 

Orleans and Jefferson Parish are next door to each other. Jefferson had 45% occupancy when Orleans had 25% occupancy. You could go eat in Jefferson and come back home to Orleans. It’s just because both of those make up the Greater New Orleans area. How do you create controls and limitations of exposure and adjust operations and labor models when you can step across and have a completely different experience in the same city and the same state?

The community came together very quickly in the beginning. They had an email chain going with all the chefs and everyone exchanging information. Then as soon as the doors opened, I think everyone got back in their bunker and had to figure out how to fight it out. I don’t think it was with any malintent, but it was just because everyone’s trying to figure out how to deal with curveballs and hurdles and all the grenades that were planted. I wish that there was still more of that collaboration.

Marcus: Even delivery, it’s crap business. The margins are almost nothing. What you need is volume. There’s just not volume to be had right now. As everyone is constricting, people are very cost conscious. People are losing their jobs left and right. People’s wages are getting slashed. It’s not like we’re dealing in a pandemic that has no economic flip side. Consumers are also very cost conscious and economically concerned. That plays into how you’re buying food, right? It’s a big element of your disposable income.

Even government policy has been totally concerned with guest safety and has no regard for worker safety. In the beginning, you couldn’t even get [personal protective equipment (PPE)], even if you tried. Yet, everything was about, “What are you doing for protocols? How are you keeping guests safe?” Even the mask thing—it’s not required you wear a mask when a server is at your table. We’ve been pushing the city so hard on that, saying, “I’m sorry. Our team’s supposed to be wearing a Hazmat suit, and the person they’re serving—who controls part of their income—is off the hook?”

Elizabeth Tilton, founder of Oyster Sunday

Let’s be honest. Congressmen and city council don’t act unless they feel the pressure of the people. If there’s one thing this summer of social unrest has taught us all is people organizing and protesting at a city-specific level had clear demands of city-specific problems and after city-specific councilmen. I’m wondering if that is what it takes for restaurants to also get any support—any planning, anything—from their cities or from their mayors if they actually rally together and protest?

Marcus: I unfortunately do think that. Obviously, some things are so bad in New York. We faced a couple of challenges. One is we are feeding people; and going on strike, so to speak, has a very different context when you’re pulling food from people. If all of us are at a protest, we’ve now exposed all of our teams, all of our guests, all of our people. We then become super spreaders, which is also a big concern.

I think it’s against [hospitality workers’] DNA. I think the biggest challenge in all of this is we’re performers. Our whole way of being is helping everyone think that things are okay. That’s what we’re so used to doing. It is cutting against our better interest. Everyone was saying, “Outdoor dining looks so beautiful. It’s so great. The city’s alive.” All these people are bleeding cash to do it. They’re allowing you to pretend that this plaza life is so lovely when really, someone’s funding losses, someone is losing their job to make ends meet. I also think there’s a challenge of it’s hard to rally owners, and it’s also hard to rally workers. There’s a lot of rhetoric and disconnect amongst both of them.

For example, when you’ve furloughed someone or you’ve let them go, you really can’t and shouldn’t be, from a liability standpoint, messaging your employees. There’s a lot of liability that’s involved in that. So there’s also a little bit less of an ability to call to arms when your whole team is scattered. I mean, it’s all so hard. 

Organizing and protesting is the one thing that people have power over without being silenced. Relief for restaurants is really not part of the conversation at all, because it’s out of sight, out of mind. We don’t see hospitality workers protesting on the street. 

Tilton: I don’t know that unified voice exists in restaurants. The IRC is pressing governance. I think it’s a very formal attack that they’ve done a great job on, but I don’t think there’s that next voice. I don’t think there’s this centralized community build. In the same way, the IRC is aggregating, lobbying, collecting voices, but with a very specific intent.

Marcus: [The IRC has] done such a remarkable job of getting the facts out and proving why it matters, and fighting on behalf of restaurants. But as we continue talking about how specific it is to the city, I think it might have to be a city-by-city coalition. Someone has to catalyze it, like strike the fire.

What every city can do and what every state can do is unfortunately nuanced. I say unfortunately, because that’s why we have a clusterfuck of a situation right now.

That’s going to be the title of this interview, by the way: “Clusterfuck of a Situation.”

Marcus: Putting it kindly. With ROAR, we had a lot of pressure in the summer from members saying, “Why aren’t we in the streets? Why aren’t we protesting? Why don’t we do a strike? Why don’t we take extreme action?” I will say from the eye of that storm, there’s a number of nuanced challenges. One is [ROAR is] new. We formed only in March. It’s not like we have a very strong membership. I wouldn’t say it’s the same as some of these groups that have been around for a very long time and are able to organize a lot easier and probably more effectively.

Being new is tough, because we’ve only made recent inroads into government. There is a concern that being too radical closes down the conversations just as we’ve begun them. I think that also has a lot of risk attached to it.

All levels of government feel comfortable doing something once they’ve done it, but the problem is if you’re an industry or asking for something that’s never been done before, it’s moving a mountain, unfortunately.

Elizabeth, with Oyster Sunday, you have been publishing invaluable resources and worksheets for restaurant owners. I’m curious what that process was like for you. What kind of research did you do? What were the steps you took?

Tilton: When we started on March 16, we decided to do all free consultations to any operator that would call us. So, to date, we’ve talked to one hundred operators and just absorbed and listened. Some of those were actually not the critical path, but some of those were triggered by those conversations about the implications of taxes on gift cards and dining bonds, because we didn’t know the answer. We just sat there and put our brains together and researched it until we found it.

The one thing we are noticing is everyone in the beginning was really discussing who was closing, what delivery things are going out, but no one was supporting operators to determine what they needed to do. What was that checklist of what you need to identify first, how do you make informed decisions, and then what’s the next phase to continue to have alternative revenue streams and whatnot. I felt like that was the one thing that Oyster Sunday, we’ve been spending the year prior trying to learn.

And now we’re in the midst of it. Information is only as good as who you share it with. This industry has to float together in order for us to stay alive. So we sat there and said, “Knowledge is power. That’s all we got right now.”

How can we provide more information or empower workers to feel some sense of ownership to this fight—whether it’s to fight locally or to find ways to support each other? We have the IRC, which has done incredible work at a high-level perspective, but they’re also celebrity chefs and some of the biggest voices in the industry.

Marcus: It’s so nuanced and complicated. Take the owners who have been put in a position by the government to hire and fire their teams multiple times this year. Not because they want to; they didn’t really have a choice. If you don’t have a business, you can’t provide a job and everyone’s worse off. We’ve all had to make decisions that are brutal and deeply, deeply damaging and affect individuals who are supposed to be in our care. Like I said, we have a government that has not helped us smooth any of this out. 

I also understand that the flip side of that is someone has lost their job. They’re trying to provide for their family in a market that is close to them during a deeply brutal time. How do you even interview for a job? People aren’t even supposed to leave their homes. So, you then have someone who’s in a very desperate situation. How can you ask anything of them? 

I don’t know how to bridge the gap. I wish I did. If anyone has an idea, I would jump on it in a heartbeat, but I think that’s the toughest part. I think restaurant owners and our teams are actually trying to fight for the same things.

I want to end on the hopeful note. What have been some of the more inspiring or creative ways you’ve seen industry come together and help each other? 

Tilton: One thing I keep going back to is mass feeding programs, and people who are starting to participate and feeling an obligation to not only run the restaurant, but figure out a way to do feeding programs to their community for all the people who are out of work. It’s like Feed the Valley over at Bells and Los Alamos; they’re running one in that whole community and building mass feeding programs. 

It is crucial for the industry to not only to find the common business fibers that bind us together and speak with a unified voice (such as all the hard work IRC has done to give us a seat at the table in D.C.—thank you, Camilla!), but also better understand how we feed our hyperlocal communities right now.

Marcus: The huge silver lining for me has been that we have rallied as a community more. I mean, I’m on IRC calls five days a week, 7 a.m. [PST]. To see everyone there helping one another, really being there for one another in big and small ways—we’re a very collaborative industry, much more so than people realize. 

Comments are for members only.

Our comments section is for members only.
Join today to gain exclusive access.

This story is on the house.

Life & Thyme is a different kind of food publication: we're reader-first and member-funded. That means we can focus on quality food journalism that matters instead of content that serves better ads. By becoming a member, you'll gain full uninterrupted access to our food journalism and be a part of a growing community that celebrates thought-provoking food stories.

The Editor's Note

Sign up for The Editor's Note to receive the latest updates from Life & Thyme and exclusive letters from our editors. Delivered every weekend.