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American restaurants are dying and Covid is killing them. More than 110,000 US restaurants have closed during the pandemic – and more are likely to shut, with winter limiting outdoor options, cases surging and states imposing new restrictions.
While Congress is negotiating a package that would include new relief money to keep the airline industry afloat, there’s no expectation of money set aside for restaurants, and the small business funds that might be in the deal are an imperfect solution for the restaurant industry.
CNN talked to Edward Lee, the chef and author, early in the pandemic and he painted a grim picture. Things now are worse, he said this week when CNN checked in for an update on his restaurants and his work helping through the Lee Initiative and the Restaurant Workers Relief Program.
His latest project at the Lee Initiative is working alongside musicians to feed the live concert workers crew who have been out of work since March.
A lightly edited version of the email exchange is below.
A once-successful business is barely afloat
WHAT MATTERS: We spoke back in May about the challenges for restaurants. At that point you had not opened and were skeptical of how you could. Can you bring us up to speed with what’s going on with your restaurants in Kentucky, Washington, DC, and Maryland?
LEE: Back then in March and April of 2020, I never thought that this pandemic shutdown would last this long. I was optimistic back then, I am not right now. It has become so bleak and hopeless, I am struggling just to stay afloat.
I had a vibrant restaurant group employing hundreds of people and now it is a far cry from where we were just eight months ago.
I have had to close two restaurants but I fear that more may close before it is all said and done. In DC, of the two Succotash locations, one is open and the other in Penn Quarter is temporarily closed and we hope to reopen in spring.
The end of independent restaurants
WHAT MATTERS: You told Bon Appetit this was, “This is the end of the independent restaurant era.” That’s a really stark assessment and I wanted you to say a little more about that. What does a future with fewer independent restaurants look like?
LEE: It means that we will lose the culture of all of our American cities.
It took decades and so much blood, sweat and tears for every single American chef, bartender, manager, waiter, busboy, dishwasher and hospitality worker to create this amazing restaurant renaissance in America.
We were the envy of the world and every independent restaurant was at the center of communities, of revenue-generating tourism and a dynamic culture that people loved and supported. We will lose so much of that and we will become a nation of corporate chain restaurants that will look and taste the same in every city. We will lose the culture of regionalism and civic pride in every city in America.
The pulse of US cities, abandoned
WHAT MATTERS: Why can’t independent restaurants bounce back after the pandemic winds down?
LEE: Independent restaurants are in so much debt, in bankruptcy, in foreclosure. We were cultural institutions, much like museums, but a living breathing physical location where people felt the energy and pulse of a city.
We represent the culture of a city as much as a museum does. But unlike museums, we are not federally funded, we are not given tax breaks, we are not heralded as the beacon of a city’s tourism.
We contribute to society in so many ways but we are treated the same as a business that sells toilet paper. We function on paper thin margins because we truly loved what we do and we truly love our cities and towns. But we are being abandoned in our most critical time of need. I don’t see how we bounce back both financially or spiritually from this.
Helping restaurant workers and farms
WHAT MATTERS: You’ve been an activist trying to raise money to help both restaurant workers and the farmers and producers who supply restaurants. How are these projects doing so many months into this pandemic?
LEE: We have served over a million meals on over 25 cities, we have given out almost $1 million in grants to small farms across America. We have fed the public school system families in Louisville, we have given over 30,000 in toys to restaurant workers who could not afford Christmas for their children.
We just launched a program to also feed live concert workers in four major US cities. We have given out almost $4 million dollars in direct aid since March. And we have no intention of stopping until there is a light at the end of this dark, dark tunnel.
It takes thousands of meals to pay for a new outdoor dining setup
WHAT MATTERS: I’ve seen places investing money in curbside yurts and even more complicated installations for outdoor dining in winter. How well does that really work out for the bottom line?
LEE: Every restaurant is different. We invested $8,000 in outdoor dining structures only to be halted by the cold temperatures of winter. Heaters eat up expensive gas, structures are expensive and PPE is now wildly expensive. Asking our staff to run in and out of the cold is just brutal. Every step of a restaurant’s service becomes more costly when we have to serve meals outdoors.
Do you know how many meals you have to sell just to make the money back to pay for an outdoor dining structure? It’s in the thousands. We are clawing our way to make just enough to pay our staff and yet with every new restriction, we are just losing more money. It is impossible to navigate.
The supply chain has changed
WHAT MATTERS: We saw a lot about supply disruptions last spring, and professional suppliers reorienting themselves to sell to home cooks. Has that snapped back? If not, will it?
LEE: Prices have skyrocketed for basic things – toilet paper, sanitary gloves, sanitizer. Beef prices have become unsustainable. Specialty items are in short supply. When we place orders from our purveyors, we have no idea what will actually come. Sometimes we get 75% of what we ordered which is a good day, sometimes it is only 50%. Do you know how hard it is to write a menu for our customers when we have no idea what will arrive in our kitchens? And any restaurants trying to use organic vegetables and meat are even more challenged. So many farms that we love have cut down their supply drastically. We can’t get the beautiful meats and produce that were once plentiful.
Advice for home cooks
WHAT MATTERS: People are now used to cooking more at home. As a chef is that good, or would you rather people order in, if they live somewhere they can?
LEE: It’s great that people are cooking at home. It gives people a perspective of how hard it actually is to cook and serve a great meal. I hear from so many of my customers that they have a new found appreciation for chefs after they have had to go for weeks cooking three meals a day. I do think that so many people are ready to just go to a restaurant and let chefs cook for them for a change.
WHAT MATTERS: Has the pandemic changed food habits? And maybe I’m just clawing for something positive to ask you, but have you noticed any food innovations?
LEE: I think the general public misses restaurants so badly. Every time we reopen from a shutdown, we are flooded with calls. Many people have upped their home cooking game which is an amazing byproduct of Covid. But they also understand that they can’t cook at home every night and that the prices most restaurants charge is a value compared to the cost and energy of entertaining friends at home.
Hypocrites at the French Laundry
WHAT MATTERS: Last question. We cover a lot of politics in this newsletter so I wanted to get your take on the fact that California’s top political leaders were busted on social media violating distance guidelines at the French Laundry. For me, I was angry at their hypocrisy and jealous of their meals.
LEE: It is an insulting slap in the face. For every politician who has not taken a pay cut to then turn around and announce policies that are literally ruining families and forcing people into poverty and then flagrantly bypass their own laws by dining out is so outlandish, it is beyond comprehension.
I have nothing against anyone dining at French Laundry. In fact, if you have the money, please go out and spend as much money as you can on fine dining because we have to save them too. But as a public servant, your role is so much more crucial. In times of so much desperation and struggle, we look to you for guidance, for hope, we trust in you to nurture us to a better future. This hypocrisy is tantamount to the Roman emperors tossing rotten meat at their own people while they feasted on the spoils of war. They eventually got their punishment and so will our current politicians who refuse to listen to our cries for help.
This story has been updated with additional details of Lee’s relief work.