Opinion: Restaurants Need Federal Aid to Survive
Chef Kevin Fink of Emmer & Rye explains how and why you should support the RESTAURANTS Act
In the U.S., full service restaurants are achieving 35% of their average sales since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Imagine living on 35% of your normal income. How quickly would your rope run out?
I represent five of the 500,000 independent restaurants in America. This is my story – the story of a family that risked everything to open a restaurant and is at danger to be in debt for the rest of their lives – but I guarantee it is a similar story to your local pub and your favorite special occasion spot. Across the country, we have already lost great restaurants, cultural beacons of our communities, and chefs have packed their knives for good. These closures and changes are early indicators of the tidal wave that is upon us and those closest to it already feel the undercurrent.
When the mandate came to close restaurants, our ability to employ people, support farms, save for my son's college, and give people a future vanished overnight. Restaurant owners became financial liabilities hoping we had enough runway to outlast this cataclysmic event. Despair set in and suddenly my life path felt nonessential. I questioned why I worked 100 hours a week for the last 15 years; why I was asking others to make this their journey.
The restaurant industry is the second largest employer in the nation. It is home to fast food giants worth billions and family businesses with five employees. In this moment, every single employee and owner of independent restaurants is in despair. The infrastructure, which before COVID-19 seemed too vast to change, now has collapsed upon itself.
This industry is broken. The cog that broke the wheel is without a doubt the pandemic, but it exposed some serious issues that have been simmering for a long time. Restaurants operate on razor-thin margins. The answer to lower business levels is almost always to cut prices or lower staffing levels. These options devalue the craft that millions of workers have dedicated their lives to. The industry is home to a diverse and uniquely skilled workforce: 60% of all chefs nationwide are minorities; over 50% of independent restaurants are owned or co-owned by females; restaurants are the number one employer of single mothers; restaurants have the highest percentage of minority-managed businesses of any other industry.
Restaurants need to be part of an industry that offers insurance, pays all employees a livable wage, supports having a family, implements paid time off programs, and addresses inequalities for people of color. These are basic rights. This cycle we are in needs to be addressed, but to do this, we must keep our doors open.
The fact is that there is no help coming soon. The PPP helped – honestly it did – but it was a two-month solution to an 18-month problem. I admit: I was angry when other businesses that lost 5% of their sales got the same help as an industry that lost at least 65% of sales. This abandoned the responsibility to address the most affected to blanket everyone.
The restaurant industry employs millions of your neighbors, funds millions in agriculture, and supports hundreds of other businesses tied to our industry, including manufacturing, trucking, wineries, even rideshare. I am championing the RESTAURANTS Act in Congress, with many other Independent Restaurant Coalition chefs, and workers across the country, because it makes financial sense. The $120 billion fund would pay itself back. In two years, it will generate up to $271 billion by helping secure up to 16 million jobs in the restaurant industry. These jobs are people; they have families, dreams, goals. The restaurant industry has a successful infrastructure; we just need a bridge. We need to be valued and we deserve to be treated with respect.
If you value what you put into your body, how it is grown, and the people that care for it, we need your support more than ever. What can you do? Go to www.saverestaurants.com/take-action and take a few minutes to contact your representatives, for without help the system doesn't stand a chance. Second, support the restaurants that are doing these things and the industry will follow. If we continue to consume by price and convenience over equality and product, then economics will continue to keep restaurants and all that work within them in this oppressive cycle.
Kevin Fink is owner and executive chef of Emmer & Rye, Hestia, Kalimotxo, Henbit, and TLV. Chef Fink was named Food & Wine’s Best New Chef 2016 and Finalist for James Beard award for Best Chef Southwest (2018 & 2019) and Best Chef Texas (2020). He currently resides in Austin with his wife Alicynn and son Hudson.
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