Soon the darkest days of the season will be behind us, but the winter ahead looks very grim for food businesses across the country. Though many restaurants have managed to hang on through COVID, a new variant and months of freezing weather will be the nail in the coffin for countless owners. A recent survey from the Independent Restaurant Coalition found that 86% of restaurant and bar owners report they will close without a Restaurant Revitalization Fund grant—of the over 500,000 independent restaurants and bars in America, only 101,004 received any of this fund.
March 2020 feels like a lifetime ago: I was at the restaurant technology company Toast, working with businesses all over Boston. I was laid off a month later along with 1,300 colleagues, 50% of the unicorn fintech company. My side hustle at Mei Mei, the Chinese-American restaurant, was a literal lifeline; the business closed to do emergency catering for medical staff and mutual aid groceries for front-line and immigrant workers, while keeping the team employed through the spring. Chef/owner Irene Li decided to close the restaurant permanently, pivoting into a packaged dumpling company, in part because the immediate future for restaurants was and remains so unclear.
Restaurants and bars have lost over $280 billion during the pandemic, but have only received $28.6 billion in relief funds. “Saving restaurants” is not in the headlines anymore, but it has never been more critical to be intentional about our support for the businesses we love this winter. Here are actionable ways you can have a direct impact every time you eat out in the coming months:
Be safe: Wear a mask. Even if you’re double vaxxed and boosted, do it to protect the people around you and show respect for their health. Wear your mask when you get your takeout, and if you’re dining in, put it on when your server comes to the table, when you go to the restroom and when you get up to leave. We all know dining inside is a calculated risk and this is the easiest way to minimize the danger to you or the staff.
Be kind: If you have ever worked in service jobs, from retail to waiting tables, you already know to treat every server and cashier with kindness. But if you haven’t experienced this personally, just imagine what it’s like to police strangers’ masks and vaccine compliance while fearing for your own health and trying to show your tables a good time. Being a great guest means having patience, cutting everyone some slack, not making any unnecessary requests, following safety protocols and tipping well. Even if you can’t leave a lavish gratuity, it is free for you and extremely meaningful for restaurants when you’re gracious and let the staff know how much you appreciate them.
Be intentional about takeout and delivery: To get your food piping hot while allowing the restaurant to keep all of their revenue, call ahead or order online directly from the restaurant’s website, then go pick it up yourself. GrubHub, UberEats and the other delivery apps take all of the restaurant’s profit margins with their fees, up to 30% of your bill. Toast Delivery and ChowNow take a flat fee rather than a percentage, which many owners say is a welcome alternative. It is a deal with the devil that owners make because consumers demand delivery, but it is not sustainable. If you can’t or won’t go out, remember that every dollar you spend makes a real difference and if you absolutely must have food delivered to your door, call the restaurant and ask them which third-party service they prefer.
Be a good tipper: If dining in, tip 20% (or more for exceptional service) and for takeout, give as much as you can manage. Servers are still mostly making as little as $5.50 per hour, relying on your generosity more than ever. And they’re dealing with much worse conditions working in hospitality now than in the Before Times, so show your appreciation.
Buy gift cards, but don’t use them yet: Gift cards are like money in the bank, providing immediate cash flow. Here’s the trick: wait to use them till winter is over and patios are back, which is when restaurants will have much more money coming in. Think of it as a present to yourself to savor this spring.
Support progressive businesses: The restaurant industry is extremely unsustainable in many ways—the tipping system, lack of health care or other benefits and a low minimum wage. Some businesses are making moves to provide more equitable employment, including a fee on your bill that is distributed among employees, splitting tips evenly between “front” (servers) and “back” of house (cooks). At Mei Mei, there is an open book management practice of sharing all financials with the employees. It is extra hard to run a “successful” restaurant (average profit margins are 3%–5%) while also providing more progressive and equitable employment, so if you hear about any of these practices, make an extra effort to support those businesses! As diners, we need to be willing to pay much more so owners can create better workplaces while covering their expenses.
Spread the word: The most powerful form of marketing is word of mouth, so tell your friends and share on social media if the spirit moves you. Irene Li and I started a blog to celebrate our favorite mom and pops in Boston called @unsungrestaurants, and these businesses have told us how touched they are by feeling celebrated and recognized. Another huge way to give them a boost is leaving positive reviews on Yelp and Google, especially engaging posts with photos of your food.
All these actions can have a meaningful impact on local businesses in your community. The worst of winter is coming and we all have to do our part to ensure that our favorite restaurants survive. If you’re ever in doubt of how best to support your local restaurant staff and owners, remember that they’re people too, so just ask them.
Jessica Coughlin is the director of business development at Candid. She has a variety of fundraising, marketing and technology experience, from working in nonprofit sponsorship sales to customer success at a unicorn fintech company. Her passion is using business to fund mission-driven causes, always striving to inspire collaboration and foster organizational culture. Jessica has been involved with JArts for 10 years, serving as chair of Beyond Bubbie’s Kitchen.
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