Can restaurants survive the pandemic?
Many eateries are on the brink. What's the future of dining out?
Dining out is a national pastime, but it has become a casualty of the pandemic. Can eateries survive? Here's everything you need to know:
How bad has it been? Beloved neighborhood joints and fine-dining landmarks are already going under, and industry experts predict that up to 80 percent of U.S. restaurants might never reopen. Restaurants, which employ 15.6 million Americans and generate $900 billion in revenue during a normal year, were very tough businesses before the pandemic, typically running on 5 percent margins. Government-imposed lockdowns in the early stage of the pandemic led to widespread layoffs, with food-service employees accounting for 60 percent of early unemployment claims. Local favorites like McCrady's in Charleston, S.C.; Locanda in San Francisco; and ThreadGill's in Austin are gone for good. Many restaurants in Arizona, Florida, and Texas that were allowed to restart indoor dining are closing again, at least temporarily, after the waitstaff or cooks became infected. To operate, restaurants in most states must comply with expensive sanitation rules while being forced to eliminate half of their tables so that customers are distanced. Chef and industry expert Andrew Zimmern calls the pandemic "an extinction event for independent restaurants."
How have restaurants gotten by? Some have survived by emphasizing takeout. A smaller group added to their revenue by selling premade cocktails, semi-prepared meal kits, and grocery bundles. Delivery and takeout surged 19 percent nationwide once lockdowns took effect, according to a Zagat's survey — a net negative for some restaurants because delivery platforms like Grubhub pocket at least 10 percent per order. Restaurants that operated "ghost kitchens" for delivery orders couldn't make up for lost alcohol sales and multicourse dine-in meals: In May, usually the most profitable month for restaurants and bars, sales plunged more than 40 percent. Only fast casual and delivery chains can endure pandemic constraints, says Naomi Pomeroy, a Portland, Oregon chef and co-founder of the Independent Restaurant Coalition. "Choosing between Subway and Papa John's — that's what we should be afraid of."
Can eating out be safe? Groups of strangers packed indoors for an hour or more, talking loudly as workers hustle from table to table is, unfortunately, a nightmare scenario for coronavirus transmission. Fortunately, scientists say food itself doesn't transmit the virus. The summer provides some relief, since being outdoors quickly dissipates virus-containing respiratory droplets and greatly reduces the risk of infection. Many small and large cities are closing streets in popular restaurant corridors to allow for expanded outdoor seating. Indoors, there are fears of air-conditioning systems thwarting social distancing by spreading aerosolized droplets, which can float in the air for hours. In January, a 63-year-old woman ate lunch with her family at a restaurant in Guangzhou, China. She was sick, and nine other diners were subsequently infected — most at other tables. Researchers believe the windowless restaurant's AC blew her germs around the room.
What about workers? Restaurant kitchens are notoriously hot and cramped, so distancing in them is nearly impossible. Just 35 percent of private-sector food-service workers have access to employer-provided health insurance, and most don't get paid sick leave — creating the incentive to come to work while sick. Federal guidelines for bolstering kitchen sanitation are vague and voluntary, and states differ on what, if anything, restaurants must do when workers fall ill. On the extreme end, Seven Reasons restaurant in Washington, D.C., now requires employees to undergo daily temperature checks and log their required hand washing and glove changing every half hour.
What can be done to mitigate risk? The starting point is spacing out tables and requiring face masks to enter and leave and while going to the restroom. Restaurants are rushing to install sneeze guards, offer single-serve condiments, and make restrooms hands-free. They are using plastic-wrapped utensil sets, contactless payment methods, and disposable menus or menus that diners access online. Many restaurants are requiring reservations to reduce crowding at the door, and some ask screening questions ("Has anyone in your family been sick?") or even take customers' temperature upon entering.
Can the industry recover? It could take years. Restaurants received less than 9 percent of federal small-business loans, and many owners don't want the loans because they would be required to rehire their pre-pandemic number of full-time employees — financially untenable while restaurant capacity is capped at 50 percent. Elliot Nelson opened most of his 20 restaurants in and around Tulsa in early May. He spent more than $12,000 on masks for staff, yet revenue in May fell 81 percent from last year; it will take him two years of normal sales to offset May's losses. In the meantime, he says, his dining rooms have a "post-apocalyptic, Walking Dead vibe." One silver lining of the pandemic, restaurateur Danny Meyer says, is that it may force the industry to redesign a business model that was in many ways already broken. "The system needs to change," he says. "This crisis is only accelerating what we were heading for anyway."
High-tech safety measures Desperate to put customers at ease, some restaurants are going far beyond masks and disinfectant. Manhattan's Magnolia Bakery installed a "cleanse portal" where customers rotate under a metal detector–like structure for 20 seconds while being bathed in UV light. Although some UV is harmful to humans, "far UV" doesn't penetrate skin cells but can deactivate airborne viruses, according to researchers at Columbia University who are testing the method. Some restaurants are installing UV lights in their air-conditioning vents to kill circulating virus. Another innovation builds on automats from the 1940s and '50s and would provide hot meals from vending machines. One Brooklyn dumpling restaurant wants customers to use their smartphones to unlock a glass locker containing their order. A high-end restaurant in Amsterdam took glass confinement further, building "quarantine greenhouses" to encase small outdoor tables. Fish Tales, a seafood restaurant in Ocean City, Maryland, adopted a slightly less elegant approach to social distancing. Their circular, standing "bumper tables" have wheels, a hole in the center, and are wrapped in large inflated tubes, keeping all diners 6 feet apart.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.