As restaurants rally to try and meet the requirements of the new protocol for operation – distancing tables, reducing customer volume, enforcing mask wearing, deep sanitizing of surfaces, moving to on-line menus or single use documents, removing anything from table tops that could carry the virus, and trying to calm the fear that both customers and employees share – they are even more concerned with the inability to convince employees to return to the job. From coast to coast restaurants that are open at some level are paralyzed by a lack of staff. This might seem counter-intuitive when one considers that unemployment rates have skyrocketed – but it is the reality.
As restaurant owners and chefs scratch their heads trying to figure out what’s going on – it might be helpful to look at the lessons that are before us. Restaurants have been struggling to attract and retain employees for years, but never at this level. Typically, when unemployment is high – people line up to find those open positions, but not now. So here are some thoughts:
TEN LESSONS LEARNED:
 PASSION FOR COOKING IS FRAGILE: Those of us who cook because of a love of the craft, the pride in the history of the profession, the joy of creating, and the energy derived from working with a team of like-minded people may not fully understand this – but there are many others who enjoy cooking, but discovered that their enjoyment was dampened by the reality that the work conditions, commitment of hours, and meager wages and benefits are hard to ignore. Passion is not blind forever.
 THE RESTAURANT BUSINESS IS EVEN HARDER THAN WE THOUGHT: The pandemic has demonstrated to owners/operators just how very fragile their business is. Obviously, revenue is critical to any business, but most others have the capacity to ride a storm for a period of time. Restaurants, like the employees who work for them, cannot survive more than a handful of weeks without sufficient revenue. Four months of lockdown is the end of the road for most restaurants, in fact one month was all that it took for the grim reaper to knock on their door.
 WE ARE THE POSTER CHILDREN FOR ECONOMIC DISASTER: Take note of the amount of press that restaurants have received as economists point to the devastation caused by the pandemic economic disaster. According to ABC news – more than 16,000 U.S. restaurants have permanently closed as a result of the pandemic and the numbers are growing – thousands more are hanging on by a thread. Yes, other businesses in numerous sectors have closed, but none at this rate. Low profitability, inconsistent business volume, and the inability to create an emergency nest egg have been at the root of this problem.
 THE SUPPLY CHAIN IS TENUOUS: The domino effect became apparent early on as meat processing plants were impacted by Covid outbreaks, farms found it difficult to attract harvesters, transportation systems were cut back as restaurants closed, and consumer hoarding made it difficult for businesses to keep their stock levels where they should have been. Suddenly, those items that were simply a phone call away from supplier to restaurant are faced with inventory shortages. As a result, normal menus have been challenged and restaurant storerooms are looking pretty challenged. All of this happened within a few weeks of a significant bump in the road.
 COMFORT AND SERVICE RULE THE DAY: Restaurants and chefs have long portrayed the quality of food, uniqueness of menus, and signature of the chef as being the key to success. The pandemic has shown that the fear of exposure has directed consumer attention to a much simpler formula: good tasting, comfortable food, prepared and served safely, and packaged in a convenient manner so that the guest can minimize exposure to others. This may put a different spin on what restaurants look like in the future.
 TRAINING REALLY IS IMPORTANT: The pandemic has made it acutely obvious that TRUST is at the core of success for restaurants. Trust must be evident to employees and customers and trust during the pandemic is based on training all involved about the necessary protocol to keep people safe. There has never been a more important time for employee (and management) training than right now.
 GOVERNMENT DOESN’T UNDERSTAND: It has become abundantly clear that federal, and in some cases, state governments do not fully comprehend what the restaurant industry is facing. They seem to waver on unemployment for employees who typically live paycheck to paycheck, fail to understand that if a restaurant is mandated to be closed – they are unable to pay their landlord, fail to understand that PPP to cover labor cost is great, but if it comes with a mandate to keep everyone employed when protocol limits business capacity to 25 or 50%, there is a disconnect, and seem to believe that throwing money at restaurants is the long-term answer, when what small operators need is expertise on how to weather this storm and prepare for the next.
 THE NATIONAL ECONOMY DEPENDS ON RESTAURANTS: We knew this all along, but now it is vividly apparent that the number two employer in the U.S., even though many of those jobs are close to minimum wage, has a significant impact on the economic health of the country. The restaurant industry needs serious assistance right now if it is to continue helping the national economy equalize.
 IT IS NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE TO SOCIALLY DISTANCE IN RESTAURANTS: OK, we can open (at some level), but the common sense protocols of masks and 6-feet of social distancing are quite impossible to maintain in a restaurant setting. Either we simply can’t open, or we need some very creative thought on how we can keep everyone safe and do it economically.
 WE CAN’T IGNORE THE NEED FOR FAIR PAY: Finally, the pandemic has brought home, even more so, that there needs to be a systemic change in the restaurant business, a change that makes us more efficient, more profitable, and able to pay a fair wage to our employees and offer a basic platform of reasonable benefits that any worker should expect. When the federal government offered expanded unemployment benefits and a $600 per week stipend to all workers – two things occurred: first – these employees were, in some cases for the first time, able to pay their bills and enjoy the comfort that comes from keeping creditors at bay; and these same employees realized that they could make more money not returning to work than if they did in the highly stressful activity of being a restaurant employee. This is a challenging combination for restaurant operators to compete with.
Out of every disaster comes a bit of sunshine, or at least clear vision of what is wrong and what the potential solutions might be. Hopefully this will be the case for restaurants and all of the stakeholders who depend on the restaurant experience.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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