As Closures Pile Up, Texas Restaurant Groups Among Those Desperately Pleading to Congress and Donald Trump For Help

Even ample patio seating combined with limited indoor seating does not provide enough revenue to sustain most restaurants during the era of COVID-19

The food court in The Galleria is offering take-out only. General seating has been removed while the full scale restaurants are open to 25 percent capacity. (Photo by Shelby Hodge)

The Tasting Room in Uptown Park closed at the end of May due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Savor in Dallas is just one of many popular restaurants nationwide permanently closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an unhappy situation that requires aid from Washington for industry survival.

As restaurants and bars across the country continue to slowly but surely shutter forever due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Houston-based Southern Smoke Foundation has joined forces with the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation in an appeal to Congress and President Donald Trump for aid. It’s an issue that is devastating for workers and affects everyone who enjoys a meal out.

In mid-August, the Yelp Economic Average reported that by mid-July more than 26,000 restaurants had closed across the country and many of those have shut down their kitchens permanently. Cities recording the highest number of permanent closures in order: Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Dallas.

In its list of 35 top restaurants that have closed due to the pandemic, USA Today includes Threadgill’s in Austin, Highland Park Cafeteria and Five Sixty in Dallas, the iconic Gotham Bar & Grill in New York, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans, Blackbird in Chicago, Bar Boulud in Boston, and the famed Hakkasan in San Francisco (sister restaurant of Houston’s Yauatcha which closed back in February).

Following are excerpts from the message sent to Washington and signed by John deBary, co-founder and president of the board, Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation; Chris Shepherd, co-founder, Southern Smoke Foundation; Kathryn Lott, executive director, Southern Smoke Foundation; and Michael Remaley, co-founder and treasurer, Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation.

The Restaurant Industry’s Plea

America’s restaurants and their workers are, yet again, on the brink of disaster, and no amount of delivery service, to-go cocktails, or al fresco dining will save them.

When COVID-19 became an undeniable threat to public health in March, restaurants across the country shut down, throwing 8 million cooks, dishwashers, servers, porters, hosts, managers, and bartenders onto unemployment. While stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment benefits, and rent moratoriums provided critical relief for much of the industry, those workers’ nominal stability vanished last month, along with their enhanced unemployment benefits.

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Restaurant workers live paycheck to paycheck. Fewer than 15 percent had health care before the pandemic, and without the additional $600/week in benefits, many are having to make impossible choices about paying rent, buying groceries, and seeking medical care. That’s not to mention the workers – among them an estimated 800,000 to 1 million undocumented workers – who never received government help.

From the onset of the crisis, nonprofits and relief funds provided a financial lifeline to the most vulnerable members of our community. With fundraising support from Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, Southern Smoke Foundation has distributed $3.1 million and counting to nearly 1,700 individuals facing perilous circumstances.

We always knew that the amount raised would pale in comparison to the need, and Southern Smoke estimates that it would take $47 million just to fund its current 28,000 applications – not to mention the influx they expect to receive in the coming weeks.

What are Southern Smoke caseworkers seeing now?

Recent applicants are five months behind on rent and child support. Credit cards are maxed out. Their cars have been repossessed, which makes it harder to get to work and takes away what has become back-up housing for folks on the brink of eviction.

Some 16,000 restaurants have permanently closed since March, and the Independent Restaurant Coalition estimates that 85 percent of the nation’s independent restaurants will be gone.

Restaurants that remain open are not thriving. They have months of unpaid rent. Owners have had to invest thousands of dollars in structural changes to enable outdoor dining and keep guests and workers safe, and many are going into debt just to operate. Takeout, reduced capacity dining, and outdoor seating simply don’t generate enough revenue for restaurants to bring back their whole teams. A recent report from Resy showed that New York City restaurants are seating just 23 percent of the diners they did last August.

“We need help”

The restaurant industry’s plea continues:

It’s clear that America’s vacationing politicians don’t understand or value the restaurant industry, despite the fact that it generates $899 billion in sales, nor do they recognize the growing crisis for America’s 15.6 million restaurant workers. Without a federal plan to back-stop restaurants and provide adequate aid and an employment plan to tap into workers’ skills and desire to work in safe, well-paid jobs, the prospects for most restaurant workers looks increasingly dire.

Will the government do what it takes to adequately support workers? It seems unlikely. Will individual American donors, foundations, and corporations step up again to meet the needs of millions of out-of-work restaurant people? We have hope.

We’ve seen Americans’ generosity before, and we know that the majority of office workers who have continued to work remotely and decreased spending because of sheltering-in-place have actually been able to increase their savings over the past four months.

We need help. We need everyone who loves restaurants to recognize what’s happening to workers and demand that the federal government create a real plan to help our community survive in a new reality where jobs will not return for a very long time. And if the federal government doesn’t act, we hope Americans will again give what they can to help restaurant workers who have spent their careers serving joy to so many.