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Rebuilding San Joaquin County’s Restaurant Industry After COVID-19

After 15 months of global war on COVID-19, restaurants in San Joaquin County face a grim future. To date, dozens of restaurants have closed. Many more are expected to follow. I have spent my entire adult life working in and around the restaurant industry, and in my opinion we cannot afford to lose one more restaurant.

These unique businesses represent the very fabric of our communities. Sixty percent of restaurants are owned by people of color. Fifty percent of restaurants are owned or partly owned by women. And nine out of ten restaurants have fewer than 50 employees.

But running a restaurant isn’t all about cooking and serving food and drink.

And many customers barely understand how restaurants work. The thorny regulatory issues, physical demands and emotional pressures of the restaurant industry can be daunting.

Many federal, state, county and municipal authorities impose an array of laws, ordinances and regulations that require operators to comply – or face financial penalties. These general guidelines range from obeying copyright laws to obeying menu labeling rules. They also discuss issues such as the hours and tasks allowed when employing teenagers, the proper pooling / reporting of tips, the correct use of surcharges, and a seemingly endless list of others.

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A restaurant is a single link in a long chain connecting thousands of other people over thousands of kilometers. The removal of any restaurant has a direct impact on owners / investors, employees and their families. But it would also negatively affect livestock industries, farmers, fisheries, canneries and a variety of other food vendors.

And there are other companies that also supply paper products, linens, candles, flowers, ice cream, music, beer, wine, and spirits. A shutdown impacts the jobs of people who perform equipment maintenance, calibration, pest control, landscaping, and home delivery services.

Equally important, especially in our county, the loss of a local restaurant means it can no longer support ball teams, help fundraising activities, or donate to vital community charities. Not to mention the loss of the various taxes it generates.

It’s easy to identify the consequences of closing a restaurant – what worries me are the unintended consequences of such a calamity. What will a domino effect do to nearby stores, stores, and businesses that depend on restaurant enthusiasts – and the countless people who work there? Boarding windows marginalize lives, opportunities and dreams.

Restaurants are immediately affected by fires, floods, droughts, hurricanes and other extreme weather events that increase costs and cause shortages. Just look at what you pay to fill your grocery cart.

The Holy Trinity of successful restaurants is fine cuisine, excellent service and a pleasant atmosphere. Now the food is more expensive (and often with limited options), the service is necessarily slower – and often provided by a new entry-level hire. That is if the restaurant can even find staff.

As for the atmosphere, we endured the confusion of dining inside and out, a mask / mask existence, sitting between plexiglass barriers. Most of us now dine in a sanitized, contactless bubble. Taken together, these changes (imposed by fluctuating regulations) are hardly conducive to the pleasurable dining experience most of us desire. These are sad times for restaurateurs.

In a recent National Restaurant Association survey, 89% of adults feared their favorite restaurant was closing. While 56% responded that they knew of restaurants in their area that had closed, that number rose to 64% in urban areas. Their fears are well founded. In January of this year, 22 million people lost their jobs or were put on leave.

Various people have been credited with saying, “The first casualty of war is the truth. And the truth is, our global war with COVID-19 has ravaged the restaurant industry – and we have no idea how or when the restaurant industry will emerge – or what it will look like when it ends.

I urge those who support restaurants to speak with your favorite restaurateur / manager / chef about their plight. They are your neighbors. Their children go to school with your children. Learn how they hold up. Ask them how you can help them keep their doors open. Buy gift certificates. Organize business meetings in their restaurants. Increase your take-out purchases. Volunteer to partner with them in a charitable fundraiser – you both will win. And our community too.

John Britto has taught hospitality management and the culinary arts at community colleges and private institutions in California for over 30 years. He lives in Stockton.


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Richard Dement

The author Richard Dement