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Re-Opening Begins. Now's the Time to Think About How to Open for Good

Mitchell Davis

May 19, 2020

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Just a couple of months ago the U.S. restaurant industry was on its way to having its best revenue year ever, generating an estimated $899 billion in sales, according to the National Restaurant Association. Here at the James Beard Foundation, 2020 was proving to be our most exciting year yet—we had begun celebrating the 30th anniversary of our Awards, and our Impact programs and events were delivering on our Good Food for Good commitment: fostering women entrepreneurs, supporting sustainable seafood purchasing, training chefs to advocate for better policies, and otherwise finding ways to inspire and coach people in our industry to strive for excellence while pushing to make our food system more equitable, sustainable, and diverse.

How things have changed. Today the restaurant industry and the entire ecosystem which the industry supports—the farmers, producers, distributors, local communities, and others—are facing a severe crisis. Despite efforts to retool their businesses to provide take-out, delivery, and curbside pick-up; sell groceries; feed hospital workers and the food-insecure; or muster the hope for government and philanthropic intervention, most restaurants face an uncertain future. According to our research, more than one percent have already permanently closed, and some estimate that number may grow to 70 percent, which is unthinkable.

The uncertainty is insidious and pervasive. What new safety protocols will restaurants have to implement and who will standardize them? (For our public and employee safety recommendations about re-opening during the pandemic, see Safety First!, a joint project with the Aspen Institute.) What limits will be placed on capacity? Will anyone feel comfortable dining in public spaces again? Will the food supply chain be fixed? How much will restaurants have to charge to cover increased expenses? Will travel and private events ever resume to pre-COVID volume? How will we keep our employees safe? Will guests be conscientious of their behavior? Will there be a resurgence of infection? When will there be a vaccine? The uncertainty makes every business decision a gamble.

In the midst of all of this, restaurants around the country are beginning to re-open.

Having pivoted our programs entirely away from any events and in-person gatherings for the foreseeable future, the James Beard Foundation has endeavored to do everything it can to support independent restaurants as they move from survival, to rebuilding, to thriving once again. Now that the grants from our Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund have been disbursed, the lobbying efforts of our partner Independent Restaurant Coalition are gaining traction in Washington, D.C., and our service programs to help independent operators navigate the complexities of this time have established a regular cadence, we are turning our attention to supporting independent restaurants to re-open and rebuild.

The question is: how? And not just how to implement social distancing and delivery in a space designed to house a crowded bistro. Rather, how to take this opportunity to reimagine our businesses and our industry better than before. As politicians and the general public are learning, the hand-to-mouth nature of the traditional restaurant business model doesn’t leave much room for resiliency. As racial justice advocates have pointed out, exploitative practices haven’t given everyone an equal chance at survival or success. As labor advocates will tell you, restaurant employee wages and benefits lag behind other industries; and this lack of an employee safety net has been exposed like never before. As food-system change advocates have warned, the highly concentrated, national food supply chain may deliver economies of scale, but has proven rigid and unadaptable. As climate change activists know, the carbon footprint of our global food system, of which restaurants are an important nexus, can be vastly improved.

We recognize that raising these issues at a time of such uncertainty, when the very viability of every business is in question, can seem inappropriate and burdensome. We know that addressing any one of them will require creativity, ingenuity, and expense—the mental, physical, and financial resources for which are in short supply. And yet we believe that the tabula rasa afforded by the COVID-19 pandemic provides the unprecedented opportunity to consider how to do things differently.

In addition to our commitment to helping restaurants re-open, as an organization we are committed to helping small business owners figure out how to make meaningful change as they rebuild. Alongside that, we are determined to cultivate a dining public who understands, appreciates, and is willing to pay for food prepared and hospitality delivered according to this new playbook.

If there is any good to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic—a suggestion posed in full acknowledgment of the devastating price of the 90,000-plus lives and millions more livelihoods abruptly taken away by the coronavirus in our country—the opportunity to question our fundamental assumptions, reflect on our own motivations, and reorder our priorities is not something to ignore.

Through a campaign we are calling Open for Good, the Foundation is committed to helping restaurants re-open and rebuild in a way that is consistent with how so many of us wish the world to be. The campaign will include a playbook and programs that cover everything from new business models, to training and support, advocacy work, thought leadership, consumer awareness, and financial grants to help those willing to rise up to the challenge of substantive change.

Stay tuned to all of our digital communications channels as we roll out these new programs. Sign up for our newsletters so you are the first to know. Respond to our snap surveys and provide us feedback so we can tailor our work to be most useful and beneficial to you, the independent restaurants that we are here to defend and champion. These are difficult times. Let’s make the high price already paid and the massive change the coronavirus has wrought really mean something for ourselves and our communities now and for generations. There is much work to be done. Let’s open for good.

Learn more about our efforts to help independent restaurants #openforgood.

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Mitchell Davis is chief strategy officer at the James Beard Foundation. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.