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Photo courtesy of Paul C. Reilly

Op-Ed: Why Restaurateurs Are Demanding—And Deserve—A Bailout

Chef Paul C. Reilly asks for the government’s help now, so independent restaurants can be here for us later.

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You may not realize it, but we all have five favorite restaurants. Five places that you frequent—be it once a week, once a month, or a couple of times a year. You probably consider yourself a “regular” at these spots. And if the restaurant’s ownership is clued in, they do the same, recognizing you as integral to their business.

Now, imagine a world without that favorite restaurant—or any of your go-to spots. No place to grab a quick drink and a chat. No place to celebrate a happy occasion. No place to gather and make memories around a table. This notion of life without restaurants is a stark reality now thanks to the COVID-19 crisis.

On a national level, restaurants are an essential piece of our economy and without them—without us, the hospitality industry—a recession is imminent. Besides providing essential sales tax dollars, restaurants and bars generates $880 billion in annual revenue. And with that in mind, it’s anticipated that there will be a $225 billion decline in revenue over the next three months, before restaurants and bars are allowed to reopen for in-person dining.

Let me say that another way: At any given time, there are 15.6 million restaurant employees in the United States working in more than one million different establishments. Independent restaurants, such as mine (Beast & Bottle, Coperta, Pizzeria Coperta), will be the hardest hit by the aforementioned losses. Nine in 10 restaurants in this country employ fewer than 50 people; seven in 10 restaurants are single-unit operations.

So much is asked of restaurants. We are always the first to help. From a simple gift card for your kid’s school raffle to spending unpaid time away from our kitchens to cook at charity events. When tragedy and national disasters strike, restaurants and chefs are right there behind first responders providing food, care, and stability to those affected.

Courtesy of the Independent Restaurant Coalition

Today, it is American restaurants that are in crisis. With the quick spread of COVID-19, we are faced with the decision to either close our doors completely or operate as takeout (and/or delivery) only. Without swift action from our local and national leaders, restaurants simply will not be able to weather this storm. But putting direct relief into the hands of business owners is efficient and will have a trickledown effect: from us; to our staff and their families; to our farmers, ranchers, and fishermen; to our distributors and suppliers and truck drivers; and then to our communities.

Unlike Wall Street and General Motors, restaurants did not bankrupt themselves. We were ordered to stop working. During the financial meltdown of 2008, the federal government bailed out institutions that were “too big to fail.” Industry behemoths received federal aid. Now is the time to provide support to the people who feed, nourish, and nurture our communities.

What could be more important in our current climate? When the United States turns the corner and comes out of the darkness, our industry wants to be ready to lead Americans back to a new normal, a healthy and stabilized society. Help us now so we can be here for you then.

This past Monday, my business partners and I had arranged a phone call for 10 a.m. We were assessing the damage and coming up with a plan for the upcoming week. Sales at both Beast & Bottle (which we affectionally call Beast) and Coperta had dropped 70-80% the previous week. We had already told our managers and chefs to freeze all orders and spending, knowing the weekend’s sales might not cover the following week’s payroll. We would come up with new menus every day using only what we already had in-house. There were many options on the table: Reduce hours? Run a limited menu? Close? Then, the news came in that Mayor Hancock was forcibly shutting all restaurants and bars down as of 8 a.m. on Tuesday, March 17.

The only option we truly had was to lay off all 50-plus employees. We sent our Beast and Coperta families home with their last paycheck, wine, toilet paper, and a care package of food. Everyone was supportive, even empathetic, but some staff members couldn’t look me in the eye. We told everyone to file for unemployment; myself and my partners, Aileen V. Reilly and JP Taylor, Jr., did the same. The next day, we discovered our employees’ health insurance would only last through March 31, after which they would have to pay out of pocket.

You’re probably wondering why we didn’t try changing our model to takeout and delivery. Why didn’t we retain even a skeleton crew and try? After careful deliberation, my team and I determined this was not an option for a variety of reasons: Primarily, if we stay home and do our part in social distancing, this nightmare might be over sooner than anticipated. A close second? The reality that without being fully open, there simply won’t be enough money to pay the bills or our people. Furthermore, so many restaurants of our caliber are doing takeout, I worry that we are all cannibalizing ourselves in competition.

So, here I am, an award-winning, well-respected chef and restaurateur of three establishments—and a father of three children under 10 years of age—on unemployment, hoping that I receive one-third of my paycheck in three weeks’ time.

But there is hope. In the last 72 hours, I have spent all of my waking hours at the front line of lobbying national restaurateurs and local leaders to unify under one voice, to create one unified message surrounding this crisis. According to the Good Food 100 Restaurants 2019 Annual Report, 40 Colorado restaurants (including mine) made a $29.4 million impact on the state economy. For every $1 chefs spent on food in Colorado, that dollar had twice the local economic impact. With this knowledge in hand, I have leveraged my standing and arranged one-on-one calls with Colorado politicians. They understand the scope and that we need immediate help. They have assured me that swift assistance is on the way. Will it come in time?

Before closing Beast’s doors on Tuesday night, I stopped in the walk-in one last time to make sure all of the perishables had been given away. My gaze fixed on a small piece of blue painter’s tape stuck to the refrigerator wall. “You’re a firework,” it read. That message—a Katy Perry lyric and a powerful reminder—has stuck in the same spot for four years, ever since a young cook affixed it to the wall. My guess is that most of my cooks have walked past it, never even noticing the tiny note of encouragement. But on this night, this last night, the message stopped me in my tracks and wracked my soul.

Keep pushing and shine on.

You can help by calling and emailing your local congressional leaders to demand that restaurants be part of the Senate’s economic stimulus package. You can be connected to the US Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121 or go to saverestaurants.co to help the Independent Restaurant Coalition.

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