Amanda Cohen is the owner and chef at Dirt Candy an all-vegetable restaurant on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Cohen was planning her spring menu when the State ordered a lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, she was forced to lay off her entire staff, over thirty people.
Cohen says that if she had been given a finite timeline on when her restaurant could reopen she might have been able to keep at least some of her staff on the payroll. However, two months later, the restaurant remains shuttered and there is still no clear indication as to when she might be able to resume business.
The industry in the United States consists of 500,000 restaurants and employs some 11 million people, making it the third-largest employer in the country. Many of those restaurants won’t reopen and those that do face incredible challenges in a world changed by the coronavirus crisis.
Cohen has been a vocal critic of the industry set-up in recent years, and one of the first chefs to instigate a no-tipping policy in her restaurants. The fact that her employees made a higher base wage than tipped restaurant workers meant they were eligible for higher benefits under the furloughed workers scheme, but that was not the case for the vast majority of restaurant workers in the United States.
Cohen says she has taken out a massive loan under the government's PPP scheme, which requires her to rehire her staff by a certain date. However, by the time the date elapses, Dirt Candy won't even be open. It's a major flaw with the scheme, which industry voices, including Amanda, are calling to be rectified.
“This is looking more to me like an 18-month problem,” says Cohen, as she calls for help to allow restaurants to weather the biggest storm in generations. Only 9% of the PPP economic relief fund went to independently owned restaurants, which Cohen says is not enough.
“We need a specially earmarked stabilisation relief fund, that will allow us to hold on,” says Cohen. “So that when things return to normal, or some sort of normal, we’re there, ready to serve people meals, otherwise we’re going to have incredibly depressed cities for a very long time.”
Even when restaurants do open, their occupancy will be heavily regulated to 50 or 60%, says Cohen. However, many restaurant owners, Cohen included, will only feel like opening when the numbers are at 66 or 75%. “That’s when the numbers start to make sense,” she says.
The Covid-19 crisis has forced the industry to confront some harsh realities. Restaurants have for years been eking out a hand-to-mouth existence, with only enough cash in reserve to cover maybe a month of overheads. That was not sustainable, in a time of crisis, or indeed in the long-term future.
According to Cohen, restaurant workers need to be treated like professionals with a career, “not some out of work actor who needs a gig between shows.” If the current crisis has highlighted anything it is that hospitality employees need health insurance, which most independent restaurants can’t do on their current business models.
“We need to fix our system of sick leave,” Cohen pints out. Under current conditions, the Federal Government will generally provide one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked by restaurant workers, which forces some, if not most, of the workers to attend work, even if they’re sick.
“If this generation of restaurant owners is to leave the industry better than we found it, we need to institute wide-ranging and systematic change, and we can only do that if we’re an actual industry with widely accepted standards and enforceable regulations,” says Cohen.
Getting back to the tipping issue, Cohen says that if a restaurant returns to business and can only operate at 50% capacity, tipped workers will be looking at a 50% pay cut. The coronavirus crisis has again pushed the tipping issue to the top of the agenda. Perhaps now it is time for restaurants to trust that their customers will be willing to pay more for a meal at their favourite restaurant in the future? If not, they may not have a restaurant to go to.
In the thick of a crisis it can be difficult to think beyond the here and now. But Cohen is imagining a better future for the millions of restaurant workers, and she believes the vast majority of diners buy into that vision, even if it means paying more for their night out.
For Cohen, the key to a better industry for all is organising and uniting an industry with shared ambitions and values. “For years, our customers have relied on us to help them celebrate their anniversaries, their birthdays, to be there for them when they wanted a special night out. Maybe now it’s time for us to rely on them, to be there for us, while we grow and change?”