For restaurateurs in cities across the U.S., winter is arriving early. After a trying year of pandemic shutdowns followed by a dance of takeout, outdoor service and limited indoor service, the industry is looking at shutdowns again as COVID-19 cases spike throughout the nation.
"I was and am extremely concerned for our restaurant community," said Rachael Lowe, beverage director at Spiaggia, Chicago's famed Italian eatery. "To closely experience the myriad emotions our hourly employees are experiencing with the constant state of upheaval, closures, reopenings and then closing again, it's really devastating. So many people are not only without work, but now faced with decisions they might have never considered, such as another career path."
Local governments are reinstituting measures—including a halt on indoor dining—in an effort to help control the spread of the virus. Chicago banned indoor dining Oct. 30 and San Francisco followed suit Nov. 14. Today, new shutdown rules went into effect for indoor dining at restaurants and bars in Michigan and Oregon. New York, New Jersey and Minnesota have implemented 10 p.m. curfews for restaurants.
Restaurateurs that have survived the pandemic thus far are worried that their already-struggling businesses won't make it through the winter. According to Lowe, many former employees are either living off of their savings or unemployment checks with no stimulus support in sight.
Dining outdoors in winter?
Chicago was the first city to halt indoor dining for a second time. The safety measure went into effect Oct. 30 when the city's COVID-19 infection rate reached 7.7 percent. Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced on Nov. 13 that 1 in 18 Chicagoans have active COVID-19 cases. Still, the measure took some in the restaurant industry by surprise.
"It was absolutely devastating," says Adam Sweders, wine director of Dineamic, a local restaurant group. "While we were expecting reduced capacity, we were shocked about the complete closure indoors."
The city first allowed outdoor dining to return in early June, followed by indoor dining in late June, which was capped at a 25 percent capacity limit. On Oct. 1, the capacity limit increased to 40 percent.
According to Sweders, indoor dining, despite the reduced capacity, helped keep his restaurants afloat. "We had a clear change in our business model but were doing enough to keep the lights on and folks employed. We lost the weekly business clientele and corporate cards, but gained a lot of new clientele on the weekends we hadn't really experienced before. The lack of conventions and private events also proved to be devastating, as those are both huge avenues of business for Chicago restaurants."
Earlier this week, the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant group, which has 40 locations in Chicago, announced that it would lay off more than 1,000 employees by the end of the year. The employees had been on furlough since March.
At Spiaggia, Lowe reports that indoor dining was doing well at the restaurant. "When we reopened for indoor dining, even at a limited capacity of 25 percent, I found that those who came out still chose to spend money on wine," she said. "We definitely hit our stride about a month into reopening, where we would hit our maximum covers, based on city guidelines, on Fridays and Saturdays."
With Chicago's halt on indoor dining, Lowe said that Spiaggia will have to focus on takeout and delivery and other creative measures such as virtual events. Because Spiaggia is located on the second floor of a corner high-rise, outdoor dining isn't an option.
But even for restaurants that have been able to set up outdoor dining venues, the concern surrounding Chicago's cold weather grows by the day. "Currently, we have four restaurants [with seating] tented, covered and heated outdoors," said Sweders. He adds that outdoor dining is very busy at his "tented" restaurants, which regularly experience three full turns on the weekends. "It's actually quite pleasant, even if it's 40° outside, but come January, when the temperature sinks to single digits and the wind starts blowing, I'm not sure what we're going to do."
San Francisco halted indoor dining only six weeks after indoor dining resumed with a 25 percent capacity. The decision was made after Mayor London Breed announced Nov. 10 that COVID-19 cases in San Francisco had increased by 250 percent in the past month. The new shutdown has sparked mixed responses.
"In truth, I wish we had more coordinated and advanced notice from the city, or at least a coordinated set of standards that we could navigate by," said Andrew Green, wine and spirits director for Bacchus Management Group. "It's very challenging to make business decisions like staffing, purchasing or investing, when you aren't told what the rules are."
For Green and his team, which oversee several restaurants including the Village Pub in Woodside and Spruce in San Francisco, it's been about doing whatever it takes so support their restaurants and employees.
"The pandemic has had an enormous financial impact, but really our focus has been to ensure our employees are supported to the best of our ability," said Green. "We've set up employee relief funds, we pivoted our restaurants to offer more robust takeout menus, we've built outdoor dining rooms, and have found alternative job placements within our other restaurants where we could."
Others in the city's restaurant industry were not too surprised by the indoor dining pause and even supported it. "Personally," said Gianpaolo Paterlini, wine director at Acquerello, "and I must emphasize personally because not everyone at Acquerello feels the same, I do not think indoor dining should resume anywhere until there is a vaccine. So I disagreed with San Francisco allowing it, and now I agree with them rolling it back."
According to Paterlini, the Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning restaurant never reopened for indoor or outdoor dining. Instead, they have been relying on takeout and delivery since April, which has "been very successful." Even wine sales have been strong. "We have been offering a small selection of bottles and a suggested bottle pairing to go with our weekly menu, and we launched a curated retail operation called Acquerello Wine Experiences," said Paterlini.
Tonya Pitts, wine director of San Francisco's One Market, says they also didn't reopen for either indoor or outdoor dining because of the threat of a second wave. "We just felt there was still too much uncertainty surrounding containment and knew based on the information coming from the [Centers for Disease Control] and the state and city that there was a strong chance of another winter wave," said Pitts. "We didn't want to reopen just to have to close again. That would have been really difficult for us, but even more so for our staff."
Acquerello's fortunate and maybe even enviable position has enabled the restaurant to support its employees during this uncertain time, "We hired a few [employees back] for takeout, and we have been covering every employee's health insurance, including those who have yet to come back to work, since the lockdown started. I'm sure not having to stress about that is a big relief."
For restaurateurs across the country, the welfare of their employees, current and former, is their biggest concern. "Honestly, I fear things may get quite bad," said Sweders. "I've seen great people lose their jobs and take other ones in construction, retail, driving for Uber, etc. I've seen other people start to abuse drugs and alcohol. I've seen depression and anxiety like never before."
"I fear the worst is not over," he added. "And I pray every day for all my employees and colleagues. Please hang in there. Call a friend. Call a family member. We need each other to get through this, and we need positive people to lead the way. As I've been telling everyone: It's not forever, it's just not today."