My heart may be “as cold as hockey gloves” (to quote one of the most underrated street poets of the last two decades) but as longtime readers are aware, I hold a special place in that frigid domain for restaurants and bars.
As recently as 2016, I was a mainstay at nearly every local establishment. That partly reflected the fact that moving from Manhattan to a smaller island dramatically circumscribed my options. It’s easy to be a “regular” when there are only a half-dozen open doors.
No matter how dedicated one is to the “cause” of imbibing, it’s by definition impossible to count yourself a “regular” among anything but a tiny fraction of New York’s restaurant and bar scene. While foodies might describe the City as a veritable wonderland, anyone accustomed to “conquering” large swaths of drinking territory by sheer force of a large bank account and an insatiable thirst for fine spirits, is overwhelmed by the enormity of it.
All too often, I found myself in a state of what seemed like compulsory indecision — paralysis foisted upon me by the impossibility of choosing one whiskey bar over another. They all offered ample opportunities to spend hundreds (indeed, thousands) of dollars in a single sitting. The bartenders were professionals, in the truest sense of the word. And the food was good.
But the atmosphere(s) felt contrived to me. Instead of naturally-occurring biomes, too many Manhattan bars felt like biodomes. If they survived long enough, they’d develop the trappings of the genuine article, but it was hard to shake the reality that the moment you stepped out the front door (or stumbled out the back), you might get run over by a taxi. And that’s if you were lucky. If you were unlucky, it was too windy for your umbrella, but too rainy not to use it. Or it was too late to catch the train you planned to catch, but far too early for the next one. If you were day-drinking and accidentally ventured too close to out-of-towner territory, you might get accosted by one the dozen Ironmen, Mickey Mice, Elmos, and Batmen vying for tourist dollars in Times Square.
In fact, looking back on it, Manhattan nearly ruined my lifelong affinity for restaurants and bars. But my faith in the industry was promptly restored upon exodus and subsequent arrival in what, by comparison, is Eden. Here, where I’ve called home for what seems like an eternity on some days, and mere hours on others, I was reminded of why I dedicated such a large portion of my life to dining out and working (in various states of inebriation) from the corner stool of so many bar tops.
Whether you realize it or not, when you go out to eat, even if it’s just for lunch, your dollars make an immediate and direct impact on the lives of the servers and bartenders with whom you interact. If the establishment is locally owned (even if it’s part of a consortium run by a local restaurateur), those dollars may determine the fate of that establishment. Is that location viable? Maybe. But maybe not. You decide when you walk in the front door (or, if you’re me in a past life, the side door).
That’s true for any business, of course, but the connection isn’t quite the same. Retail outlets, especially those operating under the aegis of a national brand or large corporation, can persist in virtual perpetuity, even after it becomes obvious to everyone that paying a location’s employees is akin to watering a dead tree. I’ve been to countless small cities dotted by strip malls featuring Old Navys or, when I was in the South, Stein Marts, in various states of disrepair and financial stress. And yet, until the pandemic anyway, they’d invariably still be there on my next visit — still waiting to sell you a pair of $4 flip flops, a three-pack of undershirts for $9.99, or a discounted Nautica button-down that would be right at home if you could DeLorean yourself directly into the living room of a late-90s, high school house party.
Restaurants and bars are a bit of a different animal. Owners I’ve known over the years fret over bad weeks, and sometimes over a single bad lunch. Even franchisees operating chain restaurants that enjoy national brand recognition (like Applebee’s), can run into trouble relatively quickly if the location isn’t “right.”
But forget the owners and franchisees. For the staff, your decision is make or break. A server who can depend on visits twice per week from a half-dozen regulars who tip generously (say, 50%), can live relatively comfortably assuming the rest of that week is business as usual (15% tips from walk-ins). A bartender who cultivates even a small clientele can do quite well, as long as the local cost of living isn’t exorbitant. The kitchen staff generally don’t make much at lower-end restaurants, but the key consideration is that their employment is as precarious as the business itself.
I once knew a manager at a J.Crew in what I’d describe as a “third-tier” US city. Around the same time, I knew a line cook who worked just up the street at a family-owned Italian joint. I never heard the J.Crew manager mention firing any of her staff despite the store’s seemingly lackluster foot traffic. It just didn’t seem to matter. If the doors were open, the store supposedly “required” the same number of salespeople, and that number didn’t seem to be contingent on actual sales. Something could always be re-folded, after all. And if not, maybe the window display needed a refresh. The line cook, on the other hand, was perpetually afraid of losing his livelihood. On slow nights, he’d wander up to the bar, sit down next to me, and explain that he was off early because… well, because other than me, there were only a handful of other customers in the building. As such, there was nothing to cook.
This is the anecdotal reality of America’s leisure and hospitality industry. On Saturday, I noticed that at least a few mainstream media outlets ran stories which pointed to the outsized role restaurants and bars played in February’s impressive jobs report. Of the 379,000 jobs created (or “recovered”) in the world’s largest economy last month, 286,000 of them were accounted for by the “Food Services and Drinking Places” category. I mentioned that on Friday in my regular coverage, but I wanted to emphasize it again.
The figure says “Hope,” but it’s in the interrogative. A survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association last month noted that “most restaurant operators don’t expect a rapid return to a normal business environment.”
In fact, nearly a third of those surveyed said it would likely be 7-12 months before business conditions “return to normal.” 10% of those polled said conditions will never be the same. The Association underlined the word “never” in a press release — as if to remind an occasionally illiterate nation that “never” is a term that conveys finality.
The survey suggested that if you were to sample a large enough group of restaurant and bar operators, 10% of them would tell you that the deal is sealed. Even if they stay open (or reopen) something will have changed. For good. Where “good” actually means “bad.”
Fine dining establishments were the most pessimistic, but even among quickservice, fast casual, and coffee & snack operators, just three in ten and four in ten, respectively, said business conditions would return to normal within six months.
Importantly, the same survey noted that “normal” is a relative term. “A return to normal business conditions does not necessarily mean a full recovery to pre-coronavirus sales levels,” the accompanying color said. “Rather, it reflects an operational environment that doesn’t include indoor dining restrictions, as well as a vaccinated populace that feels confident going out to public places.”
In other words, it doesn’t account for shifts in behavior or, relatedly, the prospect that diners’ psychology is forever altered, vaccine or no.
Sometimes, it occurs to me that charts like the first one shown above may not be as poignant as simpler versions. Below, witness the devastation presented in the most straightforward manner possible.
On Saturday, the Senate passed a version of Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion virus relief bill. It includes some $25 billion in aid for small restaurants, including grants which, as CNBC optimistically mused, “could help independent eateries pay off bills, rehire employees and stay afloat, just in time for spring’s warmer temperatures.”
Fingers crossed, but count me incredulous. I don’t doubt that pent-up demand combined with good weather and elevated savings waiting to be spent into the services-oriented economy will create what might look, for a few months anyway, like a restaurant renaissance.
But like the more pessimistic participants in the National Restaurant Association survey, I fear the industry will never really be the same.
With that, I’ll leave you with a few passages from “Everything In Between,” an article published here on November 14. I’m quite fond of that piece — especially the excerpts below.
I’ve spent as much time in the smallest of cities as I have in the largest of metropolises. I’m an outcast by choice, but I can blend in anywhere. I can make small talk about the weather with the owner of local hardware store in West Virginia just as easily as I can talk econometrics with the ivory tower crowd the same as I can make a haughty debutante blush at a bar in Manhattan with my granular assessment of this season’s offerings from Yves Saint Laurent.
American cinema fans might recall a famous scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Harrison Ford is trying to throw the bad guys off the trail by pretending his friend is infinitely more worldly than he actually is. “He sticks out like a sore thumb! We’ll find him,” one of the antagonists says, to which Ford replies:
The hell you will. He’s got a two day head-start on you, which is more than he needs. Brody’s got friends in every town and village from here to the Sudan. He speaks a dozen languages and knows every local custom. He’ll blend in, disappear and you’ll never see him again. With any luck he’s got the grail already.
Unlike Marcus Brody who, in the film, is the furthest thing from the kind of chameleon Ford pretends he is, you could easily lose me out the back door of an Asheville hookah shop, just like you could turn your head to hail a cab on 42nd, only to turn back and see the top of my hat bobbing swiftly away through the crowd at Grand Central.
What I know from my extensive experience with locally-owned shops and restaurants, is that even as corporate America recovers, revenue streams return, and profit growth inevitably surprises to the upside (if only because the bar is deliberately set too low), tens of thousands of businesses you never knew existed in locales you’ve never heard of, will close, if they haven’t already.