As a member of society, a parent, and a restaurateur, I am sitting smack dab in the center of this question: Should restaurants be shut down or should they continue to be part of essential infrastructure and allowed to operate for take-out and delivery?
So many questions in our Brave New COVID World have answers that don’t give us fully what we want. We are living in a time when we must choose solutions that are less bad, where the positive outweighs the negative.
It would be false and shortsighted to say the safest thing is to shut down all restaurants. Yes, we can, and must, flatten the curve. I support social distancing, quarantines, and shutting down non-essentials. I agree grocery stores should be pacing their shoppers to avoid crowds, and I appreciate companies like OpenTable for rapidly created new software to do that for diners. I also agree UPS and FedEx drivers should keep working, as safely as possible—as should shelf stockers, warehouse workers, food processing plant workers, pharmacy employees, bankers, trash collectors, and many more who keep vital elements of society flowing and support the rest of us staying home as much as we can.
I also believe restaurants need to continue to feed us. At the simplest level, if restaurants do not play a role in feeding first responders, health care workers, and everyone who supports them, who will?
But restaurants have another vital role. All foodservice providers, which is what restaurants are or can become, are essential to all of us right now. We need to continue to provide food and other necessities to our communities.
If we eliminate the food and goods supply chain that restaurants have access to, there won’t be enough availability of food and goods in grocery stores. Let me repeat this: without the restaurant supply chain, the grocery supply chain becomes further overwhelmed, even more crowded and under-supplied than it already is, both on store shelves and what is available for delivery. And this is with many, but not all, restaurants continuing to provide take-out and delivery.
In our restaurant supply chain, we have access to products and packaging that the grocery stores do not or cannot use. What can a grocery store do with a 50 pound bag of flour, a box of 144 eggs on flats, or a giant box of individually wrapped toilet paper rolls? Not much. They need their products in retail packages with bar codes for scanning. But a restaurant turned retailer? We can give toilet paper rolls away with orders. We can create new, innovative ways to package and deliver food and necessities to our communities, all the while creating jobs, providing charity, and doing our part to keep society fed and healthy.
Our communities include those who are physically able to access food, and those who are not; those who can currently pay for food, and those who cannot. Restaurants are collaborating with one another, leaning on existing relationships and building new ones to feed laid-off employees, and joining forces to create charitable systems that bring in donations and push out food to those who cannot afford it.
So yes, let’s flatten the curve. We must. But please stop the narrowly focused “shut us down” messaging and thinking, whether you are inside or outside of the restaurant industry. It really fails to see the whole picture.
We have to accept we have a dilemma where either road we take can be indicted with a narrow view. Still, our best path right now is to climb up to the high road, eyes wide open, safety gear and systems in continual check, and do everything we can to care for our employees and our communities.
The government on its own cannot save us. I wish advocacy and government programs would be a comprehensive solution if every restaurant closed, but that is simply not realistic.
We need our restaurants to support our food system.
The restaurant industry is full of intensely hard-working, passionate, and entrepreneurial teams. We must evolve and innovate at a faster pace than once thought possible. We are making a difference in our communities now, providing food for so many, and keeping spirits up during these house-bound times. We know our work is essential to our communities. We want to stay in the fight.