By Larry Levine –
I step off the curb to set out on my half-hour walk in the neighborhood. That’s what my doctors recommend in normal times, 30 minutes of exercise five days a week. Walking counts.
We’ve lived here nearly 40 years and I never walked the neighborhood before this pandemic forced me to seek fresh air, sunshine and exercise where it could be found. I see nice looking homes I’ve never seen or noticed before. I wave to other walkers as we take care to maintain a distance. Some are sitting on porches. There’s a man playing catch with a kid who probably would rather be with his Little League team. People are walking dogs. I don’t see many people on any given day. But those I do see are friendly. We wave from across the street and from behind our masks we tell each other to “stay safe.” We may not see each other again after this, but we no longer will be strangers.
Today I’m thinking of the restaurants we are not attending. Then I realize that in the grand scheme of what is happening, restaurant are just a one small part, until I think of the people who go with those restaurants.
Tina, our favorite waitress at Art’s Deli … is she being paid? Even if she is, there aren’t the tips so vital to her. And all the others there who are squeezing by at a restaurant that is serving only take out … Is Tina and the others out of work collecting unemployment? Are their landlords or mortgage holders being reasonable?
Magda and Massimo in management positions at Panzanella … how are they doing? And the wait staff and bus staff and kitchen staff and bartenders and valet car parker. The Drago Brothers, owners of the restaurant where we ate several times each month, they decided they would do take out at a couple of their restaurants. Panzanella is not one of them.
Mark Okuda opened Brothers Sushi a little more than a year before this pandemic hit and now is serving a limited number of take out dinners each night. He left a good job as the number one sushi chef at Asanebo to take on this challenge. Things must be tough for him and his wife and kids. His wife is a nurse. How is she doing?
Todd Murakami at his Melrose Avenue sushi restaurant … He’s more than a sushi chef to me. Todd taught me most of what I know about eating sushi. He’s been cutting fish for me for 30-plus years. Now it’s takeout only and he’s too far away from me.
Asanebo, my Friday night Michelin starred sushi standby … The chefs are working, filling a limited number of takeout orders each night, but the waitstaff, what of them. And the parking lot attendants who live on the tips we provide for their services. My sushi bar friend Allan says he’s been ordering takeout every Friday. He and others like him probably help.
The small Chinese restaurant across the street from my office, Mom’s BBQ a mile from our house, Nat’s Early Bite where I ate lunch most days, the Thai and Mediterranean restaurants from which we bring in food, Le Sanglier … how will these come through this?
Josiah Citrin re-opened the Michelin starred Melisse and opened the new Citrin late last year and just as quickly had to close … We were going there for our 50th wedding anniversary dinner in March. It will be a delayed celebration. But when?
Will we ever walk through the doors of these restaurants again to greet the staff as friends? Will they be there when we’re ready to return? And when might that be? I don’t see myself rushing out to restaurants, theaters, or baseball games as soon as some politician sounds the all clear.
Yes, the needs of a food writer who hasn’t had a restaurant meal in 29 days seem petty in the face of what the world is facing. Jennifer and I are eating well because I know how to shop and cook and we’re thankful for that every night. But then I think of them, the people who own the restaurants we love, the staff members who are out of work, the valet parkers, the suppliers who deliver the food to their kitchens. How difficult are their lives?
There will be casualties of this pandemic. The greatest will be those who lose their lives and the families and friends who grieve for them. What the rest of us feel for the loss of a favorite restaurant and the social place it filled in our lives won’t amount to a hill of beans by comparison. If they fail to reopen, the real loss will be for those who depended on our patronage for their livelihood.
That’s what I’m thinking of as I walk my 30-minute mile in the fresh air and sunshine.
Restaurants run on a narrow profit margin, give-or-take six percent of gross receipts for all but the most successful. Rent is the biggest fixed cost. In budgeting and financial planning this usually is targeted at 14 percent of gross receipts. The rent doesn’t go away in a shutdown, but the profits do.
When restaurants reopen, will they still need to enforce social distancing that would mean they cannot operate at capacity. Fifty percent of capacity would mean fifty percent of gross receipts and that would turn the six percent of profits into zero because the rent won’t change. Hardly sustainable.
And there’s the jackpot question of how quickly we’ll all be ready too go flooding back to the restaurants that have been important parts of our lives. As much as I want to help Asanebo pull out of the hole, how soon will I be willing to sit elbow-to-elbow with others at the sushi bar, separated from the chefs by less than the recommended six feet. Will the Friday night crowd reassembly just because some government agency, that I don’t wholly trust, says it’s OK?
Even at restaurants where table seating creates separation, do I want to be in a crowded dining room before there’s a vaccine to protect me, not knowing how cautious the people at the next table might have been?
In the meantime, we watch as a federal administration seems hell bent on charging ahead even as medical voices urge continued caution. Here in California, where the governor and most mayors are winning praise for strong leadership in facing this crisis, experience tells us there will be local officials in some cities who will yield to pressure from businesses, including troubled restaurant owners, and relax restrictions.
Then the question will become who and how many among us will see it as a gamble and be willing to place the bet. The restaurant industry could get ahead of this by assembling a leadership group to craft and recommend policies that will allow them to reopen safely with public confidence and at the same time allow them to rebuild the financial foundation on which they stand.