With the winter ahead, restaurants and their employees are facing what may be the toughest part of the pandemic yet. But they’re not taking it sitting down.
“We’d all kind of climbed out a big hole that we were in, and August and September were pretty good months for restaurants,” said Tony Stafford, this year’s Loudoun Entrepreneur of the Year, the state’s Restaurateur of the Year in 2017, and the founder and owner of Ford’s Fish Shack. “Speaking for myself, we were only down about 15% for the month compared to last year. And then come late October, early November is when the bottom dropped out.”
That still can wipe out most or all of a restaurant’s profits, though—it is a business that operates on famously tight margins.
Stafford and other restauranteurs have joined together, meeting regularly to share their own experiences and figure out how to make it through the winter. Restaurants now are caught in perhaps the toughest spot of the pandemic—federal assistance for businesses has dried up, with no new action from Congress in months. At the same time, climbing COVID-19 cases, confusion around the governor’s orders limiting gatherings to 25 people—which do not change the rules guiding restaurant occupancy in the pandemic that already existed—and warnings against congregating indoors have kept people from going into restaurants.
It will come down to people continuing to do business with them.
“Restaurants are—I hate to use the words villainized, but every article you pick up about how COVID is spreading, a lot of them talk about restaurants,” Stafford said. But, he pointed out, many of the things done today to slow the spread of the virus, restaurants were already doing under food safety regulations, and those practices have only been stepped up.
“If anything, coming to a restaurant is probably a lot cleaner environment than what you go to when you go to a grocery store or a large department store or something,” Stafford said. “Our employees are trained, our managers are trained.”
And they, he said, are who he wants to protect.
“It’s not about me, it’s about my employees,” Stafford said. “I employ roughly about 120 people now. We’re down from 160 we used to employ, but we employ about 120 people. And my employees are scared. They’re seeing the drop off in business. They’re seeing going from serving 200 people a day to serving 50 people day. They’re coming to me saying, ‘Tony, what’s going on, are you going to have to lay us off, are you going to have to cut our hours?’”
And unfortunately, now could be the worst time yet to lose a job in the pandemic. Unlike the spring, he said, there’s no government help out there for them.
“By coming out in either a restaurant, or takeout, or buying a gift card, you’re helping not only the restaurant survive, you’re helping those employees keep their jobs,” Stafford said.