Anyone living here—in fact, anyone who has ever vacationed here—knows the economic impact that our restaurants, cafés, food markets, pop-ups, food trucks, breweries, and bars make upon New Orleans. And this is not merely a New Orleans thing. Cities and towns nationwide are fully aware now, if not before, just how much local economies depend upon the food-and-beverage industry. Before COVID-19, the U.S. restaurant industry accounted for 15.6 million employees, and the pre-COVID-19 projected sales for 2020 were poised at $899 million. That's a lot of income for a whole lot of people. But it ain't gonna happen now.
Of course, there are many restaurants and bars reopening right now, as I sit and write this. But these are businesses that, even on a good day, always face fear of failure. There are simply no guarantees in this industry, and now, all bets are off. And the more I learn and listen about the "between a rock and a hard place" that restaurant and bar owners are finding themselves in regarding the PPP loans, the tougher things are going to be. For the government loans to be forgiven, the employer must use 75 percent of the loan for payroll. But what if the workers are unable to return due to health concerns or simply because they cannot live on the poor hourly wages and, for now, the severely reduced tips? It takes lots of customers to make those tips occur. Waiters generally are paid $2.13 hourly, and even if the PPP loans allow compensation for lost tips, I doubt it could equal the actual tips formerly earned, prior to the pandemic shutdown.
It is a fact that the industry has never been set up to take proper responsibility for its workers. But with that said, there are many good, fair-minded owners, and I, personally, have enjoyed the better part of 40-plus years working for such owners in this industry. I even enjoyed working for tips. But now, currently employed and/or unemployed food-and-beverage hospitality workers are falling between the cracks. Those very generously enhanced unemployment checks are about to run out, and if they return to work, they lose it, and if they don't return to work, they lose it! And all our food-and-beverage business owners are at risk of going under, with or without government loans. So, what can we do to help?
We, the customers, can and must spend our money—even if we, too, are struggling—to give monetary support. "But I really am falling into debt myself," many of you might say. I get it. I truly do. So, simply drop a dollar or two into someone's tip jar. Just walk into that neighborhood coffee shop and pop that buck in the jar and say, "Thanks, will be back to order some java when I can."
And if you are really lucky and benefitting from a surplus of income due to the stimulus checks or extra unemployment dollars, then share a percentage, large or modest, and dine (safely) in or out. If you are not comfortable yet with being in public places, then call in a to-go order for pick-up. If totally self-quarantined, then peruse a restaurant's website and purchase gift certificates for later use (a great way to sling some green to any small business). Many options to donate tips via virtual tip jars have been enacted for servers, bartenders, and musicians. Seriously, if everyone who has not fallen too deeply themselves into a money-less pit were to donate a buck a day or even a week to a work-for-tips employee, some small relief might be felt for them. But it takes a community to accomplish this.
Why so much concern for the restaurant and hospitality industry? Because we are New Orleans; because our food has put us on the map and rewarded our town's economy with revenue and tax dollars. If our reputation as one of the world's beloved culinary capitals goes down in flames, we all will be burned. This pitch to save our eateries and bars does not come from some elitist foodie attitude but rather from my gut. The soul of our city is directly tied to cuisine.
And it is also pay-back time. We need to say to our restaurants (bars, cafés, pop-ups, food banks), "We've got your back," in thanks for all the volunteer work they are currently doing to feed our unemployed, our first responders, and our healthcare workers. Also, when you have some extra bucks, donate to these food banks, churches, and organizers of food distributions. In a sense, these organizations (big and small) have been our surrogate restaurants and waiters during this pandemic.
For many, a "dining experience" has now become waiting in line for hours to receive groceries for their family. Food is a communal thing, so let's be that community that cares.
According to the National Restaurant Association (restaurant.org):
Restaurant Industry Facts at a Glance
• $899 billion: Restaurant industry's projected sales in 2020.
• 1 million+: Restaurant locations in the United States.
• 15.6 million: Restaurant industry employees.
• 1.6 million: New restaurant jobs created by 2030.
• 9 in 10 restaurant managers started in entry-level positions.
• 8 in 10 restaurant owners started their industry careers in entry-level positions.
• 9 in 10 restaurants have fewer than 50 employees.
• 7 in 10 restaurants are single-unit operations.
• Restaurants employ more minority managers than any other industry.
• 63% of consumers would rather spend on an experience than purchase an item.
• The number of middle-class jobs ($45K-$75K) in the restaurant industry grew 84% between 2010 and 2018, more than 3 times faster than in the overall economy.