I apologize if the headline misleads you, because I am not going to talk in any detail about what “Phase 2” will mean to restaurants. That is because in many cases it will not mean a great deal to restaurants.
As I understand it, the guidelines will continue to require 10 feet between tables, and for a lot of restaurants that means the difference between 25 percent occupancy and 50 percent occupancy is statistically meaningless.
That does not mean the shift in attitude that will inevitably come from the government allowing things to open up more broadly will not be important. More people will feel comfortable dining out and more restaurants will be able to serve at capacity. The question is whether that capacity means they can stay in business.
Even at 50 percent capacity – assuming a restaurant could make that work – you’re looking at approximately a 50 percent cut in your gross income. Most of your overhead costs haven’t changed, because that’s rent/lease payments on the physical property. If you still owe money on equipment, that’s not going down commensurate with your business. And then you have staffing. If the only place you can really cut back is in payroll, you end up hiring fewer people than if you were operating full-time.
It was hard for restaurants to find reliable workers willing to stick around for the long term before the lockdown. From anecdotal evidence, it’s still difficult. So how many people do you bring on board if you have to worry that some percentage of your staff won’t show up on a given night? If you have four servers scheduled and only two show up, service suffers and no restaurateur wants that. But if you have to spread hours among a pool of people, how does anyone make a living?
I saw recently that Cake Café is closing, and I think that’s what prompted this piece. I really like Cake Café. It is what New Orleans neighborhood restaurants should be – great food, welcoming, and with true roots in the people who live around it. I had the chance to interview Steve Himmelfarb twice over the years and I really enjoyed both conversations. He’s a very sharp and very talented person with a lot of fans and I have no doubt he’ll be around and doing his thing if that’s what he wants.
There will be other restaurateurs, even those like Himmelfarb who could financially make a go of it, that will not. Because owning and operating a restaurant is not something you do if you want to get rich. The margins are always pretty thin and while there is money to be made, the work is hard and the hours are long. It’s not the sort of thing you do successfully if you aren’t called to it.
And please do not misunderstand me – in my immediate circle of family and close friends there are several people who are at high risk of bad outcomes if they contract COVID-19. We have been doing our best to self-quarantine because the inconvenience pales in comparison to how we’d feel if our loved ones became sick. I hope that the numbers of infections continue to decrease, or increase only slightly, because as more testing comes online even a slight increase in diagnosed cases represents an overall reduction in the trend.
I hope that because I want to be able to resume a normal life again. I want to be able to see people’s faces in the grocery store. I want to stay six feet away from people because I don’t like people, not because I’m afraid they’ll cause me to get my friends’ kid sick. I want to be able to watch sports on TV with crowds, and I want to be comfortable eating at restaurants again. But those are petty, selfish concerns given everything going on now.
One thing I am confident about is that our hospitality industry will remain critical to New Orleans. It’s so ingrained in our culture to treat food and dining as important that it’s unthinkable for us to not celebrate our local food as long as the city exists. We will mourn the inevitable losses, but we need to celebrate the successes and do what we can to make sure the latter outnumbers the former.