The devastating effects of the coronavirus crisis on the American restaurant industry have yet to fully play out. But as many prepare for phased reopening, it’s worth remembering how the restaurant community came together to help each other out in their moment of greatest need.
Prior to the cataclysmic events of early 2020, the American restaurant industry was experiencing its most sustained period of success, and it is the James Beard Foundation that traditionally measures and celebrates that success.
So when Governor Gavin Newsom issued a stay-in order to the citizens of California in March - setting in motion a domino effect of closures across 50 states, and bringing an industry worth $900 billion a year and employing 15 million people to a halt - industry awards were put on hold.
“We decided to postpone our annual awards until the summer of 2020,” says Kris Moon, CFO of the James Beard Foundation. “Of course we still believe in recognising the work of chefs and industry professionals over the last year, but with the coronavirus crisis crippling the industry, we saw there was some more urgent work to do.”
The James Beard Foundation, with their accolades furloughed, so to speak, put together a relief fund for small independent restaurants to help them through the toughest moments of the lockdown.
The purpose of the James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund was to provide critical financial assistance to small, independent restaurants that, due to the national coronavirus disaster, had an immediate need for funds to pay operating expenses to keep from going out of business.
The coronavirus crisis could be seen as a pivotal point for restaurants, as many industry norms have been flipped on their head. Three-Michelin-star restaurants switched to takeout, awards lists switched to relief, and companies operating in the sector dug deep into their pockets to give back. S.Pellegrino, with a donation of $1 million, was the biggest donor to the fund that has to date disbursed $4 million to independently owned restaurants around the country.
“We very quickly realised the scale of the problem with the spread of the coronavirus,” says Moon. “It was clear that it wasn’t going to be the type of thing that would just blow over, so we really had to put our heads together to see what we, as a cultural institution, could do to help America’s restaurants. Our whole raison d'être is to nurture and celebrate chefs and leaders in America’s food culture. So if the element of celebration is disabled, we had to focus on nurturing. That’s where the idea of the relief fund came from.”
“We knew this was a crucial time for America’s restaurants, this is a once-in-a-100-year event, already millions of jobs have been lost and many, many restaurants won’t be able to reopen, but hospitality is nothing if not resistant, and as a part of that community, thanks to our sponsors, we were in a lucky position to provide financial aid to restaurants across the country.”
While the relief fund may be a drop in the ocean in terms of what is needed to help the industry bounce back, the $15,000 grants awarded to small restaurants often made the difference between survival and suffocation. The future will present challenges for restaurant owners, but the first step is staying afloat.
America’s main strength has always been its diversity; of people and societies, economies and geographies. Many governments around the world responded to the coronavirus outbreak with a single set of sweeping rules, something not possible in the vast 50-state nation of the US. Every state reacted differently depending on the nature of the outbreak and the potential threat. New York, for example, the hardest-hit state of all, had to impose severe restrictions given its population density, while rural states could afford to be more flexible.
For each restaurant in receipt of a grant there is a different story to tell. They each serve unique communities, and yet their experience of having to shutter their premises overnight, of struggling with having to furlough employees and pay suppliers, of facing an uncertain future with no revenue coming in, is something that the whole industry has shared during these few months.
Amanda Light, owner of Ronin at the Ice House, Bryan, Texas explains what the grant meant to her. “Without this, we would have been like so many other restaurant businesses around the country with shuttered doors and dashed dreams.” Light used the grant from JBF to pay her seafood supplier in Houston, to cover utility bills, and to help with payroll.
Perhaps in these troubled times we'll see restaurants as more than just places to eat. Rather, they become recognised as a focal point for communities, a hub through which local producers reach local people, and where food traditions and craft are passed on. Their value beyond merely feeding people has never been more apparent to us.
Restaurants have always been the places we go to when we want to celebrate. Now it’s time to celebrate restaurants. As we move out of lockdown and return to the world of dining out, perhaps we’ll appreciate the role these places play in our lives that little bit more?
This month, we'll be profiling some of the restaurants that benefitted from the James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund grant as a snapshot of how the coronavirus pandemic affected the US restaurant industry. The series will focus on those who, even before this pandemic, were operating with exciting, new and innovative business concepts, making up the rich and diverse fabric of a hospitality industry that came together in a time of need.