Coronavirus is having a huge impact on D.C.’s restaurants. 96 percent of them are small, independently owned small businesses. When customers see small plate prices creeping close to $20, they may may think restaurant operators are rolling in it. The truth is margins are as thin as a sheet of nori. At the end of the month, almost every cent is accounted for, after paying for rent, labor, insurance, trash, taxes, supplies, and maintenance.
Even before coronavirus, restaurants reported feeling stretched thin. Minimum wage has increased to $14; many restaurants are staring down higher rents after renewing their five- or 10-year leases; and the cost of ingredients has gone up as diners have (rightfully) come to demand higher quality products that are sourced as sustainably and locally as possible.
Some restaurants have insurance plans that cover loss of sales of up to one year should a business experience damage from things like fires, leaks, and extreme weather. Two operators tell City Paper their plans don’t cover global pandemic. “That would be like getting volcanic eruption insurance in D.C.,” says Coconut Club chef and owner Adam Greenberg. No one could have anticipated anything of this scale.
Restaurants are in bed with so many other industries. The bars and restaurants near the Capital One Arena just learned they’re not going to get the crush of business before Wizards game because the NBA and NHL suspended play until further notice. The same goes for establishments near concert venues like The Anthem, 9:30 Club, and U Street Music Hall. Staff members who work at entertainment venues that have had to close down are out of work and restaurants and bars that are still open aren’t in a position to hire.
According to Espita Mezcaleria partner Josh Phillips, restaurants near the Walter E. Washington Convention Center are particularly vulnerable because they depend on conference attendees for business, including buy-outs. Events DC canceled all conferences at the convention center until April 1. Then there are restaurants abutting college campus that no longer have students milling about in search of a meal.
Washingtonians make up a good portion of business in area restaurants, but tourists also put butts in seats. Restaurants should be gearing up for their busy season as peak cherry blossom bloom approaches. Flights heading to D.C.-area airports aren’t full.
With D.C. under a state of emergency, diners are canceling reservations and private event bookings. Restaurants have tough decisions to make, such as whether to eliminate jobs or tighten menus to cut food costs.
Tipped workers won’t see normal earnings they depend on to pay rent and feed their families if dining rooms are empty. Shortened schedules mean less hours for kitchen staff. Anxiety among workers is high. Restaurants will also have to think about how to pay sick leave if employees fall ill. Restaurants with 25 to 99 employees must pay a minimum of five sick days per year. Those with 24 or less must pay three. The recommended quarantine timeline for someone who suspects they have the virus is 14 days.
To assuage concerns many restaurants have been sending emails or posting on social media about the extra precautions they’re taking to make restaurants as safe to eat in as possible, such as increasing the frequency with which they’re disinfecting door handles, menus, and food prep areas.
In some of these emails it’s hard not to hear panic in the voices. But restaurant operators aren’t doctors, lawyers, or epidemiologists. Their business goals don’t necessarily align with public health goals. The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan says it’s working with city government to see if there’s a way to bring financial relief to hospitality businesses.
Save for continuing to go out to eat, City Paper asked restaurant owners, chefs, and employees what diners can do to support their favorite bars and restaurants at this precarious time. We will continue to update this list with more suggestions as they roll in.
Food writer Kristen Hartke makes a case for purchasing gift certificates. Doing so potentially gives a restaurant immediate income and the gift certificate can be redeemed at a later date when coronavirus is no longer a threat.
Consider ordering delivery. It’s not risk-free, and most delivery companies take a significant cut of the cost of the meal, but it’s a way to patronize your favorite restaurant without leaving your house. Some restaurants that didn’t serve delivery previously are jumping onto the apps. Poke around on Caviar and UberEats to see what’s new. “You can put in your UberEats notes for driver to leave food at the door,” says restaurateur Jackie Greenbaum. Some restaurants are waiving delivery fees in their immediate neighborhood, including Nicoletta Italian Kitchen in Mount Vernon Triangle and Shilling Canning Company in Navy Yard for Arris residents
Stock Up Strategically
Fill your refrigerator and pantry with supplies from small businesses instead of chain grocery stores. Several D.C. restaurants have markets attached to them including Cork Wine Bar & Market, Centrolina, and Officina. “For us, people can stock up on their favorite wines and cheeses to go, which are great to have in your house when you are quarantined or as I suspect will happen soon, when your kids are home from school,” says Cork co-owner Diane Gross. “We are also offering limited delivery of those items.”
Call Your Mother co-owner Andrew Dana recommends picking up a dozen bagels (or two!) and freezing them for future use.
Tune In From Afar
DIVE in Dupont announced that they plan to allow their booked musicians to play regardless of whether any patrons show up or even if the bar is open to the public. Performances will be live streamed and the bar says they’ll provide artists’ Venmo accounts if people want to support the bands.
Make a Commitment
Some restaurants offer what’s known as a “house account” through a company called inKind. Diners essentially pay for meals in advance at a restaurant they know they’re planning to frequent regularly, giving the restaurant an immediate cash infusion. These house accounts come with perks. The more you pay online, the more complimentary credit you receive. At Thamee, for example, if you spend $500, you get $650 to spend on meals (or $150 free). Emilie’s, Maketto and ABC Pony, Pluma by Bluebird Bakery, Reverie, Sheesh, and Hot Lola’s all offer house accounts in the area.
Does your favorite bar, restaurant, brewery, distillery, or coffee shop sell t-shirts, sweatshirts, mugs, or other items? At Pow Pow on H Street NE, for example, you can add a t-shirt to your online order.