Chef Paul Sorgule has seen a lot during his many years' experience in the kitchen but what the restaurant industry is going through right now is unprecedented. Here the seasoned hospitality professional reflects on the coronavirus crisis and its effect on the American Dream. This blog appears on Chef Sorgule's blog Harvest American Ventures.
To me, there is nothing more soul-crushing than to see a restaurant closed and for sale. Behind the sign on the front window is a story of a person’s dream, an all-out life change to become an entrepreneur, an investment of every personal penny, financial support from family members and likely loans to supplement.
Behind that sign are years of blood, sweat and tears, and a team of employees: cooks, chefs, servers, bartenders and dishwashers who show up every day to work and who depend on those meager paychecks and tips to pay their bills and support their families. Behind that window, sign is a bank that reluctantly gave that risky start-up loan, a cadre of vendors who will likely have to wait for a portion of the money that the restaurant owes, a landlord with an empty building and back rent that may never come, and many loyal customers who have lost their favorite place to meet and dine. The sign tells a story that is deep and troubling – a sign that represents the end of a dream, an indication of failed ideas, and the fear of uncertainty moving forward. That sign truly is soul-crushing.
The American Dream has built this country, a country of immigrants who saw this as a land of opportunity where anyone with an idea and a few dollars in his or her pocket could find a space, raise the capital, and open their doors to a bright future. This is a country where the majority of jobs are affiliated with small business, where every city is filled with storefronts that represent those dreams and people who buy into them.
“Over 99 percent of America’s 28.7 million firms are small businesses. The vast majority (88 percent) of employer firms have fewer than 20 employees, and nearly 40 percent of all enterprises have under $100k in revenue. 20 percent of small businesses are employer businesses and 80 percent are non-employer businesses.”
J.P. Morgan Chase
According to the National Restaurant Association – 70% of American restaurants are single-unit operations (privately owned small businesses) and 90% have fewer than 50 employees. This is the life-blood of the American economy and this is the heart of the American Dream.
Why restaurants? Restaurants, although banks are hesitant to invest in them, are still one of the easiest businesses to start (yet some of the most difficult to operate). Most people, even those without any professional restaurant experience, have a food concept idea that they toss around constantly – so it is ever-present. People rely on restaurants – so to many, it only makes sense that a restaurant has the potential to be great. Unfortunately, it just isn’t that easy, in fact it is damn hard to convert that idea into something that can age, grow, and be successful. So, when a restaurant leaps over the obstacles and reaches a level of success and then needs to close its doors – the pain is palpable. This is where we are.
Successful restaurants, all restaurants, are faced with a lockdown and an inability to pay their bills, keep their valuable employees on the payroll, and see light at the end of the tunnel. One week of closure can be navigated, two weeks are a challenge, and a month is the kiss of death.
As I walk down the street for my daily exercise (without contact with people) and stare into restaurant windows – chairs inverted on tables, lights out, a light layer of dust starting to collect and windows not as clear and clean as they once were – I feel that hollowness that comes from loss. I grieve for these folks – the people that I spent my professional life working beside, learning from, focused on serving the public, building skills, perfecting plate presentations and flavors, and laughing about our mistakes – I grieve for them.
The American Dream will survive, but many of these restaurants will not. Chef/Operator Tom Colicchio believes that 75% will not survive – I don’t know if we can accurately project that, but there is no doubt that many will never reopen and their dreams will come to an end. I do know that restaurants are essential to our way of life, they are there to service our physical, emotional, and mental needs and will once again become those neighborhood gathering places once we are able to do so. I do know that although some dreams will be shattered, there will be others to take their place. Restaurants are like that – they open, they grow, they close, and others are there in waiting to take their place.
It will take time, but dreams never die, they simply get put on the shelf until opportunity knocks. Opportunity will knock again and people will return to the comfort of those small privately owned restaurants – it will happen. In the meantime we must try to keep those dreams alive and help your favorite restaurant where you can, encourage them and if they fail – lift them up. These operators are the heart and soul of America and their staff members are the centerpieces of our economy. When the next generation of dreamers comes along – encourage them, help them, direct them, and counsel them. When they open – support them and hail the beauty of the American Dream.
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