Stimulus Approved: Now What will the Biden Era Mean for US Restaurants?

11 March, 2021
Joe Biden

There’s no doubt that countless restaurants will survive, at least for a while, as a result of the bill. At the same time, just as one of the defining aspects of restaurant life is the built-in requirement to start over from scratch every day, Blumenauer’s recent comment (in an interview for this story) on the larger context of the bill might be most instructive: “If we do it right, it will only be the next step.” 

It’s human nature to wish for a magic bullet, for salvation in a single piece of legislation, or in a politician-as-savior, as many restaurant professionals hope newly-minted president Joe Biden will be.

But the trauma suffered by the hospitality industry over the last year, and counting, won’t be undone by a single bill, even one that speeds $28.6 billion in relief to restaurants who have been waving their arms for a year. Nor will it be repaired by a swearing in, or perhaps even during one administration. Those milestones are battles in what will be a much longer and more protracted war to rebuild an industry battered by a pandemic that has, surreally, wrought all the death and economic destruction of a natural disaster, but without the commensurate physical devastation. 

As if that weren’t enough to swallow, let us not forget about the long-festering industry dysfunctions that have finally poked through to mainstream consciousness over the last year, and which also require addressing—slim margins, low wages, and racial inequities, to name just a few.

It’s a daunting thought. If there’s no immediate fix, and problems as big as an all-you-can-eat buffet, what’s the long-term prognosis? How should its leaders and workers expend their highly-allocated time and energy to win the support that for many will make the difference between survival and starting over? How are successes and failures determined and measured?

The answers are as complex and varied as the industry itself.

A nation’s name has rarely seemed more at odds with reality. United States hardly seems an apt handle for a country that’s more divided than at any time since the Civil War. When even scientifically backed COVID-mitigating protocols like wearing a mask have been politicised, and not a single Republican voted to pass the American Rescue Plan in the House or the Senate, how do we arrive at consensus for something as specific and expensive as the original piece of legislation put forward by Blumenauer in 2020, the RESTAURANTS Act? That bill is centred on a $120 billion restaurant revitalisation fund.

Many supporters make the case, effectively, with data that proves what industry folk have known for generations: the hospitality industry is the largest employer in the land after the federal government, and accounts for approximately five-percent of the gross national product. Moreover, the restaurant ecosystem sustains much more than just restaurants: farms, florists, linen launderers, and myriad other concerns are powered in part by eateries’ economic engines. Ironically, if they functioned in a vacuum, many of those businesses might be able to sustain themselves at this point. But attached as they are to restaurants, they can’t help being pulled down with them.

Reflecting all of this, in classic legislative fashion, the RESTAURANTS Act’s name is an acronym. It stands for Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed to Survive. The word doing the most work in that sequence is unique, which nods to the almost singular challenge restaurants face: it seems exquisitely, excruciatingly mundane, but the simple fact that eating and drinking require mask lowering changes everything. And so, for as long as COVID protocols linger, restaurants will suffer lost revenues, and closures. 

On the topic of uniqueness, Blumenauer adds that, in a city like Portland, Oregon, restaurants have anchored the revitalisation of entire neighbourhoods, and set the tone of many people’s relationship to food and nutrition. And on his travels, he’s seen the same dynamics throughout the country. It’s as surreal as the pandemic: businesses associated with convenience and celebration have been stealth drivers of huge swaths of the economy. To individuals they are indulgences, but collectively, to society, despite all appearances to the contrary, they are too big to fail. 

Factor all of this in, and understanding just where the industry stands can be confusing. According to the National Restaurant Association, as of December 1, 2020, 17% of restaurants had closed long-term or permanently. That’s heartbreaking, but not as catastrophic as the seventy-five percent many industry figures predicted in the first, disorientating days of the pandemic. Then again, the true number is likely worse than what’s been reported. 

“Sadly, the statistics for who’s closing are not current,” says Andrew Zimmern, the chef, restaurateur, television host, and a founding member of the IRC. “If you see a ‘temporarily closed’ sign in the window, there’s a very good chance the restaurant doesn’t reopen.”

Zimmern estimates that when the books are closed on the COVID era, nearly forty-percent of restaurants will have closed. “I really do fear for an extinction-level event,” he says.

Despite all of this, as the dearth of bipartisan support for the American Rescue Plan indicates, passage of the RESTAURANTS Act as a standalone, hospitality-specific bill is far from assured. One thing everybody can agree on is that restaurants don’t have the means to save themselves. A culture defined by servicing the needs of others now, against all of its ingrained instincts, must turn to others for help. It doesn’t come naturally, and it can be difficult to feel hope after the empty talk of the Trump era. 

“I don’t know if people realise how badly run the government was under the prior administration,” says Devita Davison, executive director of FoodLab Detroit, an organisation dedicated to building ‘a more equitable, nourishing, and sustainable food system.’ “The Biden-Harris administration’s success depends on putting experienced professionals in place with deep expertise to hit the ground running,” she says.

The prior administration talked a big game, but rarely followed through with organisation and action. Its most prominent gesture toward the hospitality industry was forming the Economic Council for Restaurants. That name sounded promising, but at the end of the day, its only accomplishment was spurring an outrage-fuelled news cycle over its makeup, comprising mostly white, male titans of expensive fine-dining restaurants, and the similarly monochromatic CEOs of fast-food and chain corporations. (The IRC publicly revealed at the time that they had recommended North Carolina chef and restaurateur Katie Button for the council but the White House rejected her without stating a reason.) 

Ironically, in hindsight, that composition made a point that can often be missed among ‘foodies’ who are exclusively focused on famous chefs and high-end destination dining temples: Restaurants doesn’t just mean independent and/or fine-dining establishments. Whether the 1% like it or not, the category also encompasses mission-driven stand-alones, as well as fast-food, fast-casual, and quick-service chains, and everything in between.

Put broadly, much of Davison’s independent and FoodLab-connected advocacy focuses on workers. As important as surviving this moment is, she hasn’t taken her sights off the longstanding inequities and regulations (or lack thereof) that predate the current crisis, and impact the full spectrum of restaurants and their employees.

For example, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour has been front-and-centre in American news recently, but when the smoke cleared was absent from the American Rescue Plan, enraging many Democrats. (Third-ranking House Democrat Jim Clyburn publicly decried the failing, likening the threat of a Senate filibuster on the issue to 1940s- and 1950s-era tactics aimed at denying civil rights.)

“Chefs and restaurateurs who get it are already paying workers $15 an hour,” says Davison. Eliminating the tipping system is also high on her wish list. FoodLab also does work in Australia where, she points out, there is no tipping. “Hospitality is a profession.”

Just over a month into the Biden-Harris administration, it’s already clear that even with a more empathetic and professional team in the White House, and slim majorities in the House and Senate, progress will not be easy, and no victories are assured.

 All sources interviewed for this story agreed that achieving any significant support and relief requires not sitting back and counting on elected officials to get it done, but rather in organising in numbers too big to ignore, even after the weekend’s victory.

Davison finds the fall of Adam Rappoport, former editor in-chief of Bon Appetit, who left the magazine last year after successive revelations concerning discrimination and lack of inclusiveness to be an instructive example. “What was interesting was that it was happening to them individually,” says Davison of the aggrieved Bon Appetit employees who came forward. “They didn’t realise it was systemic because they were purposely kept apart.” 

Whether it’s issues of equality or of wages, working conditions or other essential policies, Davison admonishes workers: “Don’t keep that stuff to yourself. Once you realise you’re not in this on your own, that these things aren’t right, you move forward to conversations that lead to a solution.”

On a meta level, Zimmern encourages any concerned citizens to work the refs across the board. “Anybody who sees it as monolithic doesn’t really understand,” says Zimmern. “It’s three-dimensional chess: you have to work locally, at the statehouses, and in D.C.”

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Blumenauer calls on the same spirit. Sending emails or letters in support of the RESTAURANTS Act is fine, he says. But he encourages restaurant owners and workers alike to make it personal and reach out to people they know in government. One of the many fascinating things about restaurants is that everybody goes to them. Consequently, restaurant people know government people, whether lawmakers themselves, or their staffers.

Blumenauer’s advice to restaurant owners and workers: reach out to those people and tell them what you need and why. 

The restaurant you save may be your own.

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