While the coronavirus shutdown continues, delivery and takeout sales are not paying the rent for many restaurateurs. In February, the owners of Urban Bar-B-Que in Rockville, MD unsuccessfully requested rent relief from White Flint Express Realty Group. Owners David Calkins and Lee Howard were forced to close the location, but they still owe rent on their lease, which doesn’t expire until August. Calkins and Howard and Calkins offered their landlord all the equipment inside and their security deposit in exchange for being released from the lease. But in a written response from White Flint Express’s attorney, the landlord threatened to sue Calkins and Howard for the full amount of the least through August.
Other realtor-restaurateur relationships are less contentious. On March 13th, the owner of Buffalo & Bergen in Washington, D.C., Gina Chersevani, received an email from her landlord, Eric Korsvall of Massachusetts Avenue Properties. “You probably have a lot of pressing concerns with respect to your operations, staff, guests,” Korsvall wrote. “Paying your rent at 3<sup>rd</sup> & Mass might be a concern, and we want to help you by taking that off the table for a few months. We want you to take care of your people first, and to help you do that, we will forgo any rent due.” The offer released Chersevani from paying potentially tens of thousands of dollars in rent while under the economic pressure brought on by the outbreak.
These are just two examples on opposite ends of the spectrum. Even if some landlords grant temporary rent relief to restaurateurs, many owners face mounting expenses and reduced business prospects as the pandemic lockdowns are extended.
Gov. Brian Kemp gave permission to restaurants in Georgia to start table service again on Monday, April 27th, allowing many to dip their toes back into business. Gov. Kemp’s decision came after health data suggested the state’s death toll had peaked. The idea of reopening a dining room still seems unthinkable to many American restaurateurs, considering the nation’s death toll has exceeded 60,000 and the majority of U.S. states have remained locked down.
“There is no fancy meal right now that is worth my people’s health and the health of other people who come into a restaurant,” said award-winning chef Hugh Acheson, who runs restaurants in Atlanta and Athens, Georgia. While some restaurateurs remain opposed to the idea, others are finding ways to reopen safely. Yardbird, a popular restaurant in Hong Kong, China, has installed plexiglass partitions between diners so they can still see and interact with each other and the restaurant staff safely. The dining rooms in China must follow strict regulations, including a table distance of 1.5 meters, customer temperature checks, health declaration form signatures, and a requirement for both workers and customers to wear masks at all times. Masks may only be removed to eat or drink with an envelope for mask storage provided by the restaurant. “You don’t have that huge vibe,” said co-owner Lindsay Jang, who opened Yardbird in 2011 with chef Matt Abergel, “but it’s still good. It’s still a restaurant.”
Gabrielle Hamilton, award-winning chef/owner of Prune restaurant in New York City, found herself in a tough spot this past March–10 days of inbox-clogging chaos among those in the food industry searching for answers on what actions to take in the face of COVID-19. With sales dwindling day by day, on March 15th, Hamilton decided to pull the plug on the operation just five hours before New York Mayor Bill De Blasio enacted the city’s shutdown, according to her article in the New York Times.
After closing Prune and watching many other restaurants on her street close, Hamilton had a realization. The independent “restaurant” we know and love today may not survive this turmoil. “You can’t buy a $3 can of cheap beer at a dive bar in the East Village if the ‘dive bar’ is actually paying $18,000 a month in rent, $30,000 a month in payroll; it would have to cost $10,” she said. Chef-owned restaurants already operate on razor-thin margins. Most have been struggling to keep the lights on for years, as food and labor costs have risen and staff seek adequate health insurance.
Takeout, delivery, and contactless transactions have given many restaurateurs a life raft during the coronavirus shutdown. But some are not excited about running such impersonal restaurants in the future. After all, the entire industry is built on person-to-person hospitality. “I started my restaurant as a place for people to talk to one another, with a very decent but affordable glass of wine and an expertly prepared plate of simply braised lamb shoulder on the table to keep the conversation flowing, and ran it as such as long as I could. If this kind of place is not relevant to society, then it — we — should become extinct.”
Linda Karlsson and her husband Rasmus Persson are opening a one-table, contactless restaurant at their home in Ransäter, Sweden. Set to open May 10, the restaurant will be named Bord för En, Swedish for “Table for One.” The idea was born after Karlsson’s parents, who are over 70 and at high risk for the coronavirus, visited their home unannounced. Persson and Karlsson simply sat them down at a table outside their home and served them food through the window, completely contact-free.
From opening day until August, one of their home’s two kitchens will be used solely for the restaurant. Reservations can be booked for one person a day anytime from 10 a.m. to 10:45 p.m. Bord för En offers guests a three-course breakfast, lunch, or dinner sent down a rope in a picnic basket. According to Persson, who grew up in Ransäter, Bord för En is possibly the first and only restaurant in Ransäter. The couple has received reservations from throughout Sweden and even Japan.
The entire menu is vegetarian, as the couple only occasionally eats meat that is humanely raised and locally sourced. Each course will feature a non-alcoholic beverage crafted by Persson’s childhood friend, Joel Söderbäck, who owns several upscale bars in Stockholm. Guests leave used plates and utensils in a bucket alongside the table between courses. When guests have finished their meal, the cost is up to them. Karlsson says, “There shouldn’t be a price tag that is too high for anyone to enjoy this” and believes that one-person meals will be here long after the pandemic subsides. .
European countries are beginning to set dates and regulations for reopening restaurants, such as Austria’s date of May 15 and Italy’s target date of June 1. Socially distanced dining will make restaurants quite a different experience across the continent. In Austria, staff must wear face masks, no more than four adults may be seated per table, and there must be a minimum of 1 meter (about 3 1/4 feet) between patrons. In Madrid, Spain, the city council may require the installation of screens that separate diners at outdoor tables.
The French government has not set a specific date for reopening its 240,000 restaurants and cafés, but mid-June has been suggested. Other countries have begun various initiatives to help the restaurant industry recover. It Italy, where as many as 50,000 restaurants may close for good, the businesses can claim €600 ($655.69) for every month closed and tax payments have been postponed. Italian restaurateurs can also apply for subsidized bank loans to be paid back after two years. In Germany, to help jumpstart the restaurant industry recovery, economy minister Peter Altmaier announced the government would cut VAT taxes from 19% to 7% starting July 1.
The Restaurant Employee Relief Fund (RERF), founded by Guy Fieri and the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF), has recently reached a new milestone of $20 million after PepsiCo chipped in with a $3 million donation.
Initially opened for applications on April 2, the fund was set up as a one-time $500 payment for restaurant workers, operated on a “first-come, first-serve” basis. However, the fund site immediately shut down due to the overwhelming number of applications. After another try just one week later, the site was taken down again for similar reasons. By the third week of April, RERF was able to send their first award notice and the fund has since approved and notified over 10,000 hospitality employees.
To be eligible, restaurant workers are required to have been employed in the industry for at least 90 days, had significant loss of income as a result of COVID-19, and have documentation of these circumstances. Income loss includes cuts in hours and at least a 50% reduction in pay. RERF has been processing grants and delivering much needed cash to former restaurant workers for over two weeks now, said Rob Gifford, NRAEF president. Applications are being judged on eligibility and “not all 63,000 people who apply for the fund are going to be proved eligible,” said Gifford.