Locked business door
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The year that devastated the hospitality industry is coming to an end, but 2020 will have lasting effects. Many restaurants and bars will never reopen, with fond memories and scorched livelihoods left behind. Now-empty storefronts will soon be ready for the next generation of restaurant operators. What adjustments will these brave new souls make based on lessons learned from both the pandemic and the racial reckoning that rocked the industry this year? 

The pandemic exposed the restaurant industry’s value and its fragility. Everything from labor models to payment methods to sourcing could dramatically shift in the aftermath. The ghost kitchens, heightened reliance on takeout, and retail components of restaurants that patrons have come to enjoy could stick around. After reporting on the crisis for the past 10 months, City Paper ends the year with six lingering questions. 

Who is responsible for ensuring restaurants and their employees survive? 

Every few months in 2020, a different celebrity chef or lobbying group projected what percentage of independent restaurants wouldn’t make it to the other side of the pandemic. It’s too soon to tell who won this shit guessing game, but in D.C., COVID-19 has been an extinction event. Even some institutions couldn’t make the numbers work—Johnny’s Half Shell, Capitol Lounge, Eighteenth Street Lounge, and Fado Irish Pub all closed, as did many other restaurants and venues.

When a city loses small restaurants and bars, it loses more than food and drink. It loses employers who hire some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, like immigrants and formerly incarcerated people. It loses neighborhood gathering spaces where conversations take place and achievements are celebrated. It loses charitable partners, too. Restaurants regularly host fundraisers and support a wide range of causes. It loses venues for performers and artists.

But most importantly, it loses jobs. Restaurant and bar workers make up a significant portion of the more than 160,000 unemployment claims the city has received since the public health emergency began in March. This figure doesn’t include undocumented immigrants, who, despite paying taxes, aren’t eligible for formal benefits. These indispensable workers largely had to turn to community groups for support instead. Others sold pupusas to make ends meet.

City Paper chronicled how laid off workers struggled to obtain their unemployment benefits every step of the way. They sent unanswered emails to the Department of Employment Services and waited on the phone for countless hours. Some stared down the prospect of becoming homeless. Others say they wouldn’t have anything to eat if they weren’t coupled with an income-earning partner.

As Mayor Muriel Bowser and her administration guided the District through its phased reopening process, loosening restrictions, then tightening them again to slow the spread of the virus, the unemployment process became even more complicated. Restaurants brought back employees only to lay them off again

At times, only frazzled, emotionally drained owners were staffing some of D.C.’s most popular restaurants. They were simultaneously applying for grants, fighting their insurance companies in court, negotiating with desperate landlords, building streateries, learning how to do takeout, questioning cookie fines, and deescalating conflicts with customers who didn’t want to abide by mask mandates. 

When the pandemic is finally in the rear-view mirror, we’ll be able to assess what could have been done differently to better protect these businesses. Who should have rescued restaurants? Despite being shorted $750 million in the CARES Act because of our lack of statehood, the cash-strapped District has directed aid to restaurants through a microgrant program, winterization grants, and the $35 million Bridge Fund. For some businesses, that wasn’t enough

The federal government needed to intervene and offer far more than the Paycheck Protection Program, which wasn’t a perfect fit for hospitality businesses. A second round of PPP approved in the relief bill that Congress passed at the end of December is only marginally better

The biggest what if—the one we’ll still ponder years from now—is whether the carnage could have been prevented if Congress had paid restaurants to stay closed and paid workers to stay safe at home. Since this didn’t happen, the burden of sustaining the neighborhood bars and restaurants that make D.C. so special fell on customers. “Ride-or-diners” went above and beyond to ensure the survival of their favorite spots. Cash-strapped themselves, they shouldn’t have had to shoulder that burden.

Will the District further regulate gargantuan third-party delivery companies? 

Third-party delivery services like DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Grubhub are not the altruistic team players the promotions that flood your inbox make them out to be. These tech giants are amassing even more power as they merge. DoorDash and Caviar became one this year, as did Postmates and Uber Eats. Whether it’s the high commission fees that strip restaurants of revenue, poor customer service, a $200 million fight against reclassifying drivers as employees, or adding restaurants to their platforms without permission, there’s plenty room for improvement. 

D.C. took the first step to regulate these companies by imposing a commission fee cap of 15 percent that took effect in May and lasts the duration of the public health emergency. Most apps charge closer to 30 percent, an amount that’s untenable when restaurants are barely scraping by. The delivery companies fought the fee cap every step of the way, sometimes in tactless ways.

In a May letter to the D.C. Council, Postmates pointed to the city’s painful inequities in an attempt to keep their pockets lined. The fee cap, they argued, “does nothing to help the hundreds of restaurants that do not partner with us, many of which are independent, minority-owned restaurants in wards hardest hit by COVID-19.” 

Postmates was the last to comply. And, many months into the public health emergency DoorDash attempted to raise its commission fees on restaurants that participate in its DashPass program. The Office of the Attorney General cited City Paper’s reporting in the cease and desist letter they sent to DoorDash on the same day the $38 billion company went public. The company reversed course.

There are rumblings that a couple members of the D.C. Council may look to regulate these companies further in 2021, especially as restaurants and diners are more reliant on them than ever before. In the meantime, local alternatives are cropping up including DC To-GoGo and Skip The Line. 

What should the labor model be after the pandemic?

Some consider the pandemic an opportunity for restaurants to hit the reset button and reform workplaces. The industry is not known for its high wages, especially in the kitchen, and benefits common in other employment sectors, such as health insurance, remain scarce. Operators blame low profit margins and fear increasing prices will scare patrons away. Customers foot the bill for the lion’s share of front-of-house wages through tipping, but there are fresh calls to examine whether tipping or at least taking a tip credit are still the best way forward. 

Restaurateur Erik Bruner-Yang told City Paper it might be time to revisit the no-tip model, but he hedged that might not work for all businesses. José Andrés also seems to be mulling it over, albeit in New York. A handful of D.C. restaurants experimented with adding service charges to bills either in lieu of or in addition to tipping in 2020. These fees are no longer considered gratuity and become property of the business owner, who decides how to allocate the money. They can share it with cooks, or put it toward staff benefits. Expect restaurants to experiment with various labor models in 2021 once they fully reopen.

Will restaurants “do the work?” 

The protests calling for racial justice following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many other Black Americans pressured every industry, institution, government entity, and news outlet to examine whether they were doing enough to be anti-racist. Food media was forced to grapple with the repercussions of its overwhelming whiteness, particularly in leadership positions. Restaurants, too, were called out for workplace cultures that don’t always value diversity and multiculturalism. Workers used social media platforms or the press to speak out and demand meaningful change instead of mere lip service from their employers.

What will become of the restaurants who made public commitments to do better? Will bars and restaurants promote Black workers and amplify their voices, invest in Black culture instead of co-opting it for commercial gain, examine areas rife with potential for implicit bias, and find ways to reimagine a system that wasn’t built with Black advancement in mind? City Paper will check in with restaurateurs that made pledges on Juneteenth in 2021.

Can we pause to remember who stepped up? 

Despite the hospitality industry being repeatedly knocked down for much of 2020, restaurants and their workers still managed to open their hearts and kitchens to keep the region’s hungry residents fed. Hook Hall morphed into a restaurant worker relief center. A dynamic team of World Central Kitchen chefs and volunteers cranked out hundreds of thousands of nutritious meals at Nationals Park. Medium Rare’s Mark Bucher delivered free meals to isolated neighbors in need and launched a community fridge program. Bruner-Yang, through his Power of 10 initiative, paid restaurants to make meals for the community, and small mom-and-pop shops like MLK Deli and Thamee helped out however they could. The year wasn’t short on heroes in the food space

Will the sandwich businesses that were born out of the pandemic outlast the crisis

Sandwiches emerged as comfort food currency during COVID-19 because they’re portable, affordable, and familiar. Several restaurants introduced pop-ups or ghost restaurants specializing in between-the-bread options. Ghostburger from Espita, Fight Club from Beuchert’s Saloon, and Your Only Friend from Columbia Room were smash hits. The minds behind all three ventures confirm they are actively searching for brick-and-mortar spaces for their newfound sandwich businesses. They’ll likely keep them open as ancillary businesses in the meantime, even once the host restaurants reopen.