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Perspectives from a restaurant owner during the COVID-19 pandemic

Perspectives from a restaurant owner during the COVID-19 pandemic

One of the lessons learned from this pandemic is how quickly people are to pass judgement about others. It has been a wakeup call and at the same time a great disappointment into who we really are. We would have hoped as a society and the very least as a community we would have taken the “we are all in this together”, “we are compassionate to others that have not weathered the crisis as luckily”, “we protect and offer empathy to people in the community who have lost jobs and lost loved ones”. But that is not how we have ended here 10 months later. We have let us down.

I can only give my perspective as a business owner and as someone who owns 5 restaurants in two different states. This has been hell. Our industry has been truly decimated and for many, lives completely destroyed. More than 100,000 independent restaurants have closed, right under 20% in the country. Ours is an industry that employs more than 12 million people in this country. We are the second largest employer of Americans besides the US Government. We employee more individuals than the Airline Industry, the Banking Industry and the Auto Industry in this country. Yet we have not received any bailout, any specific ACT or lifeline from the federal government to keep us alive, yet the Airline, Auto and Banking all had, immediately, some for the second time in the last decade.

My perspective as a restaurant owner is not an uncommon story. We are self-made, we are immigrants, we are commonly disenfranchised from other work forces and opportunities, and some of us are second or third generation entrepreneurs trying to keep our parents dreams alive and offer the same for our children. Many of us understood the opportunities in the corporate world would not allow us to grow, learn and thrive. So we took our own lives, freedoms and paths to success in our hands. We as women knew the challenges and games we would confront to climb the corporate ladder, we knew as immigrants’ hard work would not equate advancement, we knew that being out and gay at times would mean sacrificing what others saw as our future in management. These are not all the stories of entrepreneurship but they are some that deserve recognition.

Then I see on social media how quick our neighbors and members of the community are to judge why we would want to remain open during the pandemic. As if there is a logical choice being made between doing what is right and what is for money and security. Comments as though being open safely for 6 months with outside dining only, socially distanced, masked and following every guideline mandated was a choice being made to put the public and our employees in danger. Without the understanding that some of these restaurant owners do not have other sources of income, do not qualify for any unemployment benefits or any financial support from any governing body. Who are being threatened with eviction and their credit destroyed if they should try to ever rebuild. I can confidently speak for the majority of all owners that protecting our employees, our families and most who have become family, has and always will be our first priority. While I employee over 300 people in my restaurants, following the strictest health and COVID changing guidelines, I have not for one day totally understood and tried to reconcile how to open the doors for them to make a living and support their families and do so safely and with minimum risk. Yet these same neighbors and members of the community are telling us how vile and greedy we are for wanting to stay open.

With every one of the 100,000 restaurants that have closed permanently there is a generation of young people that will lose out on their future. Not just as children of restaurant owners who were trained and some expected to take over and run these businesses and live their own lives. But some as young employees who were able to start working at a young age, when most other industries would not give them a chance. I can say as someone who started bussing tables at 13 that this industry saved my life. Long story short is this gave me a place to show up every weekend during school and be around older young people who truly taught me that life gets better. It let me see a world outside of the struggles and pain of Jr. High and High school that hard work was rewarded regardless of who you were. It was a real lifeline for a young gay boy that knew if I could survive the next four years of high school that I would always be able to support myself and find my way regardless of who told me otherwise. It is crushing to think about all the local small restaurants, local bars and independently owned businesses that are gone and will not be the lifeline for so many young people that need that training and opportunities that doesn’t exist in any other work force. The most important part of my story is how NOT unique it is. This is the story of thousands if not millions of young people in this country and honestly all over the world. The restaurant industry deserves a lifeline from the federal government as many other industries have received that offer a much different impact on our culture and society. Our industry represents the broad reflection of America and touches every corner of the country and it deserves to stay alive.