Right now, in your neighborhood, there’s a restaurant on the verge of closing. In fact, there’s probably more than one that’s already closed. Maybe it’s a restaurant like those we went to in New Jersey or the D.C. suburbs that brought us closer to our Korean roots. Maybe it’s a diner you hung out at after school, or the place you went on a first date.
Behind the meaning and the memories, you’ll find the livelihoods and dreams of hard-working people trying to make their communities better and their futures more prosperous for the next generation.
For each of these restaurants and the people who run them, the Covid-19 crisis has been a disaster. The pandemic has forced states to shut down indoor dining, and tens of millions of people put out of work have cut back on spending, which means that even if a restaurant is partially open, its customers aren’t opening their wallets at the same rate.
When a small business shutters its doors, it has a ripple effect throughout the community. When a restaurant closes, its impact is far-reaching. A restaurant in New Jersey might largely employ people from its neighborhood, but it’s also part of a supply chain that could include beef sourced in Texas, dairy from Wisconsin, and citrus from Florida. Every neighborhood restaurant is a national operation.
But the neighborhood restaurant isn’t just a business, either. In a time in which the coronavirus has forced people apart, we should recognize the role restaurants play in bringing us together. Sitting down and sharing a meal isn’t quite the same on Zoom or FaceTime; in troubled times, sometimes you just need to see a friendly face and ask for another drink.
For all their importance — to our country, our communities, and ourselves — restaurants that have closed or are on the edge of collapse aren’t going to suddenly snap back. Restaurants typically live on razor-thin margins, and when large segments of their customer base are wary or legally unable to dine indoors, it’s going to take time to return to sustainable revenue levels. And even after customers can return, the economic shock of this pandemic will reduce consumer spending for months or even years to come. It’s hard to pay for a dinner out when you can barely scrape enough cash together for your rent or your mortgage.
Five months ago, when this crisis first started, Congress passed the Paycheck Protection Program to save as many jobs as possible. But because we’ve never effectively stopped the spread of the coronavirus, our industry is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels of business. The Paycheck Protection Program was more a temporary band-aid for those with the connections to access the money than the longer-term fix the restaurant industry needs. This is becoming even more apparent as many restaurant owners have shared with us their fears that the colder weather in the coming weeks will make outdoor dining difficult or even impossible.
So where does that leave us? This crisis in so many ways has laid bare the inadequacies of the status quo. It has forced upon us the choice to let an industry wither into something unrecognizable — or innovate into something better. We can take away an avenue for new immigrants, like both of our sets of parents, to add to the rich tapestry of America, or we can bring a fractured world closer together through the shared experience of food. We can let the dreams of entrepreneurs die on the margins of small profits and big gambles, or we can rebuild a system to make it easier to turn those dreams into real contributions to our community.
Our dream is not to turn the clock back to February. Instead, there is an opportunity to take the industry into the future and remake it to be stronger, resilient, and more creative. There is a chance to strengthen programs that help restaurants get off the ground, and keep restaurants afloat based on the quality of the food coming out of their kitchen, not the quality of their connection to capital. There are millions of jobs on the line and millions of dreams at stake, but most importantly for you, there’s the restaurant down the street. If we don’t act now, it will turn out the lights for the last time.
David Chang is the founder of Momofuku. Andy Kim is a Democratic congressman from New Jersey.