There is a special role that restaurants play that few people have discussed: restaurants give back to their communities. Imagine the toll their absence takes on neighborhoods in which they are situated. Restaurants help feed those who are food insecure during holidays, donate leftover food to local churches; support school fundraisers; hire from the community; promote from within their own staffs, and participate in community causes like fundraising to beautify local parks, teaching a cooking class to local school children or hanging local artwork on their restaurant walls.
I do not own a restaurant, although I have a non-profit that had been supported by restaurants until COVID-19; together we bought fresh produce from local farmers for nearby food pantries. None of these restaurants are famous, none of them are chains. They are home-grown and independent. The proverbial ‘mom-and-pop’ type. But in partnering with them to buy produce, I learned how much else they do, and this has not been discussed when we talk about bailouts for the ‘little guy’.
What we lose when restaurants close down is not just good food and social engagement but community.
Restaurants bring people into neighborhoods. They are a huge source of jobs, skilled and unskilled, and employ more minority managers than any other industry. Before COVID-19, the National Restaurant Association counted over 15 million restaurant employees in the United States. Seven in ten of these restaurants are single-unit operations – those that frequently hire from the community and tend to promote from within: nine in ten restaurant managers started in entry-level positions. Many restaurant owners live in the same neighborhood where they work. (This makes even more sense when you think of the long days, from early morning orders and deliveries to late night closings).
So – we are talking about a terrible domino effect: a small restaurant closes, the workers become unemployed, the landlord loses a lease, the community loses a supporter.
I have lived in Harlem for over 20 years, seen it grow and gentrify, and seen businesses close and others blossom. But the restaurants have always maintained a foothold in the community – organizing free musical events, buying local ingredients, providing meeting spaces for fundraising groups at no cost, helping local schools fundraise by donating dinners for two, donating turkey dinners at Thanksgiving, supporting the local soup kitchen with food, and, of course, hiring and promoting within their own communities. You get the picture. Each restaurant has a story. Each one loves their community. Each one that closes is a loss, not only for the food and the ambiance, but for its deep commitment to the neighborhood.
And in that vein, restaurants have once again stepped up to help during the COVID-19 pandemic: those that stayed open for deliveries are now also feeding healthcare workers, fire fighters, NYPD, other essential workers as well local food insecure families. – and now, many of them are also feeding their own out-of-work employees. But it’s winter in much of the Country, and more restaurants are closing because they cannot seat people outdoors in the cold safely, without pouring more money into heating and light. If they are not closing, they are ‘hibernating’ – closing from January through March in order to save costs on food and labor, etc so their only cost is rent.
Meals For Good is committed to helping distribute groceries to newly unemployed restaurant workers in Harlem, and will continue to do so once per month at least until spring when ‘hibernating’ restaurants will hopefully open again.
Yes government has to do better by them – Congress must create a special bailout to help these mom-and-pops survive, so they can, in turn, continue to breathe life into our neighborhoods and jobs for our residents. But we can do better too – if you can afford it, please order take out from your neighborhood restaurants as often as possible.