Pleading for relief in a decimated industry

Tim Carman

THE WASHINGTON POST – The chipped, salmon-coloured plate stood out among the sea of white china. Sitting atop grass that was beginning to go dormant on the East Lawn of the United States (US) Capitol, where many say lawmakers hold the fate of restaurants and bars in their hands, the plate was a symbol of the hospitality industry during the coronavirus pandemic: It was empty, save for a name written in black marker. It read “Athena”.

Athena is Athena Foltz, a 10-year veteran of the DC restaurant industry. She has worked at the Dabney and Le Diplomate, and now pulls down some shifts at the Rooftop at Union Market. Business has been slow. “They don’t have any plans to winterise the Rooftop, so we opened this weekend, and I worked all day on Saturday and made like USD50,” Foltz said while holding Lucia, her seven-year-old Boston terrier. “It’s tough.”

Foltz wrote her name on a plate to place on the East Lawn, both as a kind of prayer for her sputtering career and as a reminder to lawmakers in the House and the Senate that more than two million hospitality workers remain unemployed since the start of the pandemic, more than in any other industry in the country, according to the Independent Restaurant Coalition. The latest jobs report from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics showed that “food services and drinking places” shed 17,000 jobs during November, the first net loss of jobs in the hospitality sector since April.

Foltz’s plate, just one among dozens and dozens placed on Congress’ front yard on Monday, were part of the latest gambit from the industry to get lawmakers to pass the Restaurants Act, which would provide USD120 billion to help independent restaurants and bars with fewer than 20 locations. The act, introduced by Representative Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, is considered a lifeline to an industry expected to lose USD240 billion this year. Without the relief, some doomsayers predict that 85 per cent of small, independent restaurants will close.

Despite bipartisan support for federal relief, including endorsements from both US President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden, the new USD908 billion coronavirus aid package doesn’t include the Restaurants Act. The stimulus package does include USD300 billion in new funding for the Paycheck Protection Programme (PPP) and other Small Business Administration programmes, although as The Washington Post reported this month, the PPP has mostly benefitted large companies, not the small businesses it was designed to help. About 600 mostly larger companies received the maximum amount allowed under the PPP, USD10 million, including such chains as Legal Sea Foods, Boston Market and Cava Mezze Grill.

Owner of the Columbia Room Derek Brown and others on Monday lay plates on the Capitol lawn to protest Congress’s inaction on coronavirus relief for the restaurant industry. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Many plates had the names of unemployed workers or employees whose careers are hanging on by a thread

As the industry enters the cold-weather months, with infection rates spiking and jurisdictions placing more restrictions on indoor and outdoor dining, not to mention imposing curfews, restaurant owners and workers alike have been fretting about how they will survive. The Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), the trade group formed to lobby for the moribund industry, has been predicting disaster without federal assistance.

“We have warned Congress for months that winter will bring another wave of closures and layoffs – they’re here,” the IRC noted in a statement. “Outdoor dining is a distant memory while indoor dining has been restricted in many states across the country, and – unlike in March – restaurants have already endured 10 months of diminished revenue. We’re out of time and out of funds.”

The IRC latched on to an idea first promoted by Derek Brown, founder of Drink Company. On December 3, Brown sent a tweet that said, “I’m seriously considering organising DC bars and restaurants to deliver a few hundred thousand empty plates to Congress symbolic of loss our industry is facing and need for them to act.” He used the hashtag #millionplatemarch.

There weren’t hundreds of thousands of empty plates, but there were probably hundreds. Many featured the names of unemployed workers or employees whose careers are hanging on by a thread, such as Foltz’s. Some plates included the names of bars and restaurants that have closed, either permanently or temporarily. Some plates carried specific messages and reminders that many suffer when restaurants shutter: “What About Our Vendors,” read one plate. “Farmers Need Restaurants,” read another.

“Right now everybody is just in a place where we feel helpless. I mean, you can’t make money when people aren’t really coming through your door or you’re not really allowed to have them at the capacity you need,” Brown said during an interview before the demonstration.

“You can only spin around and pivot so many times before you can’t do it anymore,” he added. “All of us are in a place where we’re scared, where we don’t know what the future holds, even though we know that there is a break at some point. It needs to come sooner for us and everybody. There’s a lot of rage out there, too.”

Organisers said they don’t pretend to speak for every bar and restaurant across the US, even if they did receive a lot of encouragement and help in the days leading up to the event. Aside from the IRC, organisers received support from the DC Bar and Restaurant Workers Alliance and the group Bartenders Against Racism.

“It’s a very sombre reminder of how many people are suffering right now,” founder of Bartenders Against Racism Allison Lane said during the event. “Right now, we’re drawing attention probably to a lot of front-of-house workers. We’re thinking bartenders and servers, but really it extends well beyond that. You have your back-of-the-house workers, your undocumented workers. They’re not being supported right now.”

Daniel Kramer, the owner of Duke’s Grocery and Gogi Yogi among other establishments, said this winter will be bad.

His businesses are hanging on, he said, generating as much as 50 per cent of sales compared with last year.

But he doesn’t look at it as: “How is one of our locations doing?”

“I look at it as: ‘How is our ecosystem doing?’ And our ecosystem is in a lot of trouble,” Kramer said. “I don’t think that’s a controversial statement. It’s just a blatant fact. The sooner that can get the people in that building to kind of come around to it, in any way they need to see it, the better.”

He was nodding in the direction of Congress.

Despite all the plates, despite the media attention and despite the heartbreak for the industry, no members of Congress attended the demonstration. Even Blumenauer missed it because of his voting schedule, his spokeswoman said. But she did forward a statement to The Post.

“It breaks my heart to see restaurateurs and their workers go to this length to get the help that they need,” Blumenauer said. “If Republican Senators would spend more time listening to small restaurants and diners, they would know that the PPP loans helped some businesses, but didn’t work for small restaurants. I’m hoping we can get relief for them before more have to close.”