The economic ramifications of COVID-19 are being felt across every industry from aerospace to publishing, and that includes right here at Orlando Weekly.
"We simply don't have a path forward with our full staff and revenues so severely compromised," said Orlando Weekly publisher Graham Jarrett. (The company hopes to rehire its furloughed staff members once the economy has stabilized somewhat.) It's a sentiment shared across the labor divide, particularly in the restaurant world, where COVID-19's virulence has made the outlook very bleak.
Joe Creech, who runs Hunger Street Tacos on Fairbanks Avenue, echoes Chin's distress.
"I'm worried about providing for my family and staff through the dog days of summer. We need people to order takeout and delivery from us and our delivery partners. As it stands right now, we're at one-third our regular business. Can't survive long like that," Creech says.
Indeed, most restaurants (as of press time) have closed their dining rooms to dine-in service and pivoted to a takeout and delivery model. Many are even offering curbside service so customers don't have to get out of their cars.
In fact, it's hard to think of any restaurant in town that isn't going the to-go/delivery route given the do-or-die circumstances in which they find themselves. Even Kadence, a high-end omakase house in Audubon Park, is making the transition, despite knowing it's not a sustainable long-term approach.
Transforming into a ghost kitchen is a stopgap measure at best — no restaurant can sustain themselves on this sort of approach for very long. It's an attempt, and a flailing one at that, just to keep their heads above water.
Momofuku empire's David Chang thinks even making the effort is futile, calling it "fool's gold." He also tweeted, with characteristic bluntness, "We are so fucked."
Naturally, corporate-backed restaurants and those with deep-pocketed investors behind them are in a far better position to withstand the downward spiral. Unfortunately, that could mean a return to a very insipid restaurant landscape.
"What worries me," says James Beard Award-winning chef Norman Van Aken, "is the very real possibility that industrious, talented people in their 30s and 40s will be crushed financially by this pandemic. And it goes to follow that it might terribly stunt the growth of our flowering hospitality business. We need these entrepreneurs to continue the battle against mediocrity and corporate blandness."
Jaleo at Disney Springs, has set up an Employee Support Fund e-Gift Card program whereby all sales proceeds from the e-gift cards (currently available at a 20 percent discount) will be divided evenly, with half going toward extending employee pay and benefits and the other half going to the company's ThinkFamilyFund, which provides financial relief to employees and their families.
Others, like Chelsie Savage of Proper & Wild and Sanctum Cafe, are shunning pessimism and despondence and doubling down on their mission and core values to raise the health of the community by springing into action.
"Literally overnight, all three of my restaurants (Proper & Wild and two Sanctum Cafes) reinvented their business models and implemented multiple platforms to do just that."
In addition to offering to-go orders, curbside pickup and delivery – executed by the restaurants' in-house employees, not a third-party delivery service – Savage launched realdamngoodfood.com, an online ordering platform for family-style and pre-packaged bulk meals.
Henry Moso, the James Beard Award-nominated chef of Kabooki Sushi, says he's in survival mode. Moso closed Kabooki Sushi Sand Lake this weekend after business dropped by more than 80 percent, and focused on a one-time gig feeding 600-plus employees of a large seafood plant in Tampa.
"If I can do this on a weekly basis, then great. At least I can employ a couple of my cooks," he says.
But COVID-19 has also led to the cancellation of conventions, large gatherings and events, which has really hurt food truck operators like Jimmy Nguyen and Chau Vo of Hot Asian Buns.
Hot Asian Buns will launch on Grubhub March 20, and is looking at offering takeout and pickup orders, but their plight just underscores the great need for immediate financial relief for food truck operators and restaurant owners alike.
"Governments should cease sales taxes, payroll taxes and utilities until we can operate normally," says four-time James Beard Award-nominated chef Hari Pulapaka of Cress Restaurant in DeLand. "Landlords should give rent concessions or waivers, especially if the government aids them in turn with stimulus discounts."
$145 billion in direct aid to restaurants to help pay employees, as well as deferments in lease/rent/mortgage payments, $100 billion in federally backed business interruption insurance (many business policies exclude pandemics), $135 million in emergency unemployment assistance, $45 billion in affordable loans and $35 billion in community development block grants.
Some other modes of financial relief for restaurants:
- The U.S. Small Business Administration is offering low-interest loans.
- Florida governor Ron DeSantis activated the Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan Program to provide interest-free loans to businesses impacted by COVID-19.
- Grass-roots relief funds are being set up across to help restaurants and restaurant workers survive the downturn.
- The James Beard Foundation has set up an Industry Relief Fund to provide direct emergency funds to the community of culinary businesses negatively impacted by COVID-19.
- Join the Independent Restaurant Coalition.
"How much red tape will be required to receive assistance for affected workers? What is the real time frame? With the current environment, small business owners and their employees don't have the luxury of time."
Time is also of the utmost importance to Justin Kim, a restaurateur who's opening a sushi concept in the old Tasty Wok space on East Colonial Drive. The coronavirus has him rethinking his plans.
"It's making me reconsider. What worries me most is not being able to time our opening and not knowing when this pandemic will end."
It could be weeks, it could be months, but amid all the uncertainty, restaurants need our assistance and support now more than ever.
Here are ways we, the restaurant-going public, can help these vital meeting places in our communities:
- Continue patronizing restaurants. Practically every restaurant in town now offers takeout, curbside pickup and/or delivery. Some even offer pre-packaged meals and family-style portions.
- Avoid third-party delivery services as much as possible. They may offer free delivery to the consumer, but they take a hefty commission from restaurants. Many restaurants have their in-house employees execute deliveries, so call the restaurant first before heading to Uber Eats, Grubhub, Doordash or Postmates.
- Tip generously.
- Buy gift cards and restaurant merchandise.
- Reschedule restaurant reservations for a later date rather than canceling them outright.
- Consider signing this petition imploring government leaders to Save America's Restaurants.
It's an awful truth.
Says Van Aken, "The shape of our social lives is being transformed in nanoseconds, it seems. What was unthinkable a week ago is the new normal. And it ain’t my kind of normal."
Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, all bars and nightclubs in Florida were closed on March 17 for 30 days. As of March 18, Central Florida restaurants are still open for takeout and delivery, and grocery stores are open during limited hours. Follow CDC guidelines and Orange County advisories on staying safe.