A couple of weeks ago, I finished Kevin Alexander's Burn the Ice, a non-fiction book about the rise and continual fall of American restaurant culture. Alexander follows the stories of popular food figures including chef Tom Colicchio, pitmaster Rodney Scott, and personality Guy Fieri in their culinary journey. The style of the piece, in my opinion, really hints at the origins of the "hipster food movement" in America and broader questions around how much longer it can sustain itself. 

The most recent challenge to the resilience of America's food culture is obviously the COVID-19 pandemic. The James Beard Foundation reported that nearly 51% of restaurant owners have taken on nearly $50,000 in debt obligations due to COVID-19. And in an industry with such low profit margins to begin with, it is likely that many of your favorite restaurants will close for good. The National Restaurant Association, in a New York Times article, estimates a loss of over $225B and permanent closures of 75% of independently-owned restaurants nationwide. 

The government and community response has provided temporary relief for restaurant owners and staff, but not enough to protect them in the long-term. Coalitions, petitions, and finance proposals have floated around over the past few months, but without much success. America's independent restaurants are in trouble, and takeout/delivery will not make a dent in their chances for long-term viability. 

Although corporate-owned chains have had to reduce their services and modify their operations, they have a much better chance of surviving the pandemic than independent venues. Corporations have significantly larger amounts of capital,  greater access to loans, and geographic brand association. Domino's and Papa John's both reported net gains during the first quarter of the year. Wingstop reported a 2% net sales increase over previous years. 

The plight of America's independent restaurants also yields disproportionate impacts on communities of color (POC). In this Pop Sugar article, author Yerin Kim details the impact of anti-Asian xenophobia in American cities. Misconceptions surrounding the virus' origin may have led to an 80% reduction in business by early March 2020 as well as racially-motivated graffiti, physical attacks, and verbal slurs. Further disproportionate impacts on communities of color stem from racial disparities in both kitchen and wait staff. Independent restaurants dependent on cheap, often POC, labor are not as likely to provide long-term salary assistance to those in need. Furthermore, POC also face greater institutional barriers to real estate, financing, and wealth accumulation. 

What can you do to support independently-owned restaurants?

Order directly from restaurants rather than using UberEats or DoorDash. These companies charge restaurants a fee to join the delivery network- which lowers their already low profit margins. 

Join #rallyforrestaurants on social media. Purchase a gift card, share a photo with the hashtag on social media, and encourage others to do the same. 

Like them on social media and give them a positive review on Yelp. Words of praise go a long way!

Buy from independently-owned restaurants rather than corporations. Chipotle, McDonalds, and Dairy Queen don't need your money.