We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami. For every effort we do, it just doesn’t stand a chance against the economic backdrop of what restaurants are going to face this winter. And what we’re seeing now is people who are basically considered middle class—who’ve worked their whole lives and never been on welfare—are suddenly food insecure. That is a whole new demographic that didn’t exist before. Some are too proud, or too ashamed, to admit that they’re food insecure. These are people I know: bartenders, waiters, dishwashers, line cooks.
Unfortunately for restaurant people, our skill set doesn’t translate well to other industries. We’re hyper-focused on one thing: hospitality. And when the industry crumbles, you have an entire population of people not equipped to do other jobs. I’ve devoted 29 years of my life to this; I can’t just go sell neckties or insurance. Yet the people in power don’t see that. They don’t see restaurant workers as a valuable sector of our society. Their attitudes are, ‘Well, they can go find other jobs.’ That’s just not the case.
There’s a huge feeling of abandonment. You devote your life to the restaurant business, you pay your taxes, and then you realize there’s no help coming from anywhere. People are suffering through a deep, deep depression. And the last thing you want in the restaurant business is for your restaurant owner, chef, GM, or waiter to be depressed, right? The whole point of the hospitality industry is for you to come to my restaurant and forget about your depression. We’re the ones who supply the entertainment; our positive energy is contagious. It makes you feel great to be in a restaurant full of people who execute their jobs with passion and joy.
We’re not professional actors. Everyone’s on the edge of emotional breakdown. It’s heartbreaking to watch dedicated young men and women who’ve honed a craft and made this beautiful thing we call ‘the restaurant renaissance,’ which brought pride and global attention to ‘American cuisine’ and two decades ago didn’t even exist, you know…making $8 cheeseburgers to-go just to make payroll.
But that’s where we’re at. Yet you drive by the local McDonald’s and there are 20 cars lined up for drive-through. It breaks your heart to see that, and to know that by the time all of the independent restaurants go away, it’ll be too late. The customers will say, ‘What a shame.’ The chance to save them is right now.
Old-timers like me can’t pivot; I am stuck in what I’m doing. But there are a lot of diverse younger people—so many Black and Latino and Indian chefs who are just starting out—saying, ‘Wait a second, maybe this isn’t the career for me.’ They have the creative energy and the verve and the youthful exuberance that the restaurant industry needs. If we lose them, I don’t see an industry that has anything to offer.
The shell of the restaurant may survive, but the beautiful energy inside may not. If the people are not there, or the people are depressed because they feel like no one cared about them during the pandemic, they’re not going to bring the same passion and energy and joy to it when they come back. It’s just a job—no difference between that and working at a chain restaurant. That, to me, will represent the end of the independent restaurant. We’ll see. I desperately hope I’m wrong.”
We’ve been following how the restaurant industry has been coping with the Coronavirus throughout the year. For more reflections from the people on the inside, read our Restaurant Diaries series.