When Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shut down bars and banned dining in at restaurants this week to slow the spread of coronavirus, tens of thousands of people lost their jobs. Millions of service workers across the country had the same experience as states closed or limited service at restaurants like mine, Takoi and Magnet in Detroit.
While in many cases, the closures are currently only set for two weeks, we all recognize that the shutdowns could (and probably should) extend for months. We are only in the beginning of getting the outbreak under control and an extended closure may be the best way to protect public safety and limit the harm of COVID-19. Those of us who feed people for a living are cognizant of that, and don’t want to risk people’s health… practicing public health safety is inherently already built into our job.
But with mandated restaurant and bar closures across America we are witnessing our entire industry and those that supply it go down in flames, potentially with irreparable long-term damage. Damage that wasn’t caused by reckless lending practices or a generation of poor business and manufacturing decisions, but rather by doing what we have always done: serving our community and employing the proverbial “taking one for the team.”
We are not an industry with deep coffers or powerful political connections. We are the embodiment of the working class. We operate on incredibly slim margins, and at this time of year we are usually just a couple bad weeks away from closure, layoffs or finding new and inventive ways to finance to keep our teams working.
While the community has rallied to help us — which is amazing and greatly appreciated — this is not a crisis that we can dig our way out of with carryout, GoFundMe or gift card sales.
To highlight just how much is at stake, at Takoi and Magnet our typical payroll liability (including tipped wages and healthcare) is well over $100,000. That’s just two restaurants for two weeks. Now consider those that supply us. In that same time period, we spend roughly $30,000 on food, beer, wine and spirits, most supplied by other local small producers and farms.
Multiply those figures by thousands of restaurants and multiple payroll periods and the tally starts to get huge. If our industry is going to recover, we’ll need a lifeline. It will require our collective organization and influence to demand both short- and long-term relief from our city, state and federal representatives.
Expansion of unemployment benefits is definitely a start. So is tax abatement, business interruption funds and extending healthcare to displaced employees. However, our industry will have to collectively push for those measures to be taken, and we will ultimately need much more support to get back on our feet.
Restaurants are the very fabric of American culture. They’re one of the few remaining types of family businesses that so many paint as the picture of what America represents. Restaurants are our nourishment and our imbibement. Our work parties, holiday parties, business deals and community meetings. Our birthdays, first dates, engagements and anniversaries. Restaurants are interwoven in our lives and create memories from childhood to post retirement.
We are always here to serve. We’d love to continue to do so when the madness blows over, but we will all need to work together in order for that to happen.
Detour Detroit wants to hear from small business owners in the city and metro area. How are you weathering the crisis, and what will you need to survive? Take our survey here.
Brad Greenhill is a self-taught chef, proponent of the gratuitous use of fish sauce, and lover of all things sweet, sour, salty and spicy. As the executive chef and co-owner of Takoi—a James Beard Best New Restaurant semifinalist—Greenhill creates seasonal, Thai-inspired dishes that champion Detroit’s distinct culinary perspective. In 2016, Greenhill was named a Rust Belt Rising Star Chef by StarChefs for his work on Takoi.
In 2019 Greenhill opened Magnet in Detroit’s Core City neighborhood. The restaurant is defined by its entirely wood-fired kitchen and focus on vegetables, resulting in dishes with elemental simplicity. Taking inspiration from wood-fired fare the world over, Magnet marks a new kind of Detroit cuisine—one the chef has lovingly dubbed “fire food.”
Main image credit: Chris Miele