Has coronavirus changed restaurant life forever? How the outbreak hits hospitality hardest

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People stock up at the state-owned liquor stores before a state-ordered closure to slow the spread of the coronavirus. York Daily Record

A few months ago, I was out with a friend who ordered a gin and celery infused cocktail at the Horse Inn in Lancaster.

After the first sip, she smiled. “Oh, this is good. I usually don’t like celery.”  

It was the kind of evening that epitomized what I love about the restaurant industry and dining out. Good food, pleasant company, fine conversation, an introduction to a few new cocktails — and new memories made.  

This past weekend, I found myself visiting a few haunts in Philadelphia’s Fishtown. More good company, more conversation and more memories made.  

Except for an abundance of empty bar stools at each restaurant we visited — a telling sign of what was about to come.  

In just a little over a week, the coronavirus outbreak has left us living in a Draconian nightmare.  

The joys of dining out are quickly fading – a luxury we took for granted. Even worse, the restaurants we’ve come to know and love in our communities are on life support because of it.  

Take-out or close

“You can’t plan. There is no template to work from with this,” said Mark Yundt of More than Q Barbecue in Easton. 

Yundt operates two kitchens in the Easton Public Market: More than Q and Taylor Tacos. He’s my former sous chef and one of several former colleagues I know who are taking the COVID-19 hits the hardest.  

Both stands closed on Friday. “We had five orders in two days,” he said.  

More than Q’s catering business has come to a halt because of the shutdown and limitations on gatherings of 50 or more persons.  

“The phone isn’t ringing. This has thrown a wrench in everything,” he said.  

For now, Yundt has opted to collect unemployment and will wait to see how things play out. For him, uncertainty remains the biggest danger in this new, unkind world of hospitality.

The take-out and delivery model are a reactive measure – a failsafe without safety netting. 

Here in York County, at least 11 restaurants have temporarily closed since Gov. Wolf urged all nonessential businesses to close

For some businesses, it may be sustainable. For the industry, it may very well be a cataclysmic shift.

We’ve seen notable chefs such as Tom Douglas, Danny Meyer and David Chang all shut down their restaurants in the wake of this contagion

But the closures don’t tell the entire story.  

“People need to realize there is no business,” Don Mahaney said. “We need to worry about the one thing you need right now.”

Mahaney, who owns Scratch Food & Beverage in Pittsburgh’s Troy Hill neighborhood, has been watching the COVID-19 crisis closely. He first tried to modify his restaurant to fit the take-out model and quickly realized that trying to sustain any profit within that was foolish.  

“As soon as I realized what was happening in New York City and Italy … it changed from meeting this issue where it was and to where it was going to be,” Mahaney said.  

For many, the ability to still order take-out means a viable route to support your favorite eatery or local watering hole. What that option doesn’t prepare owners for is the long-game. 

As this situation continues, we’re not only likely to see more restaurants close, but also a shift in resources for hospitality. 

Hard times, bailouts and relief 

The National Restaurant Association reports 15.6 million hospitality professionals in the U.S.

As chefs and back-of-house employees may be employed during the delivery days we’re in, the majority of front-of-house employees are seeking unemployment.

With a low base wage for tipped-wage workers such as servers and bartenders, that minimum relief has led to several national and local campaigns to help alleviate the rapid decline in income. In Pennsylvania, the tipped minimum wage is $2.83. The lower taxable wage often means a reduction in unemployment collections.

Related: Restaurant life: Poverty, no healthcare & why no one says ‘I want to be a server for life’

More on hospitality: An open letter to bar, restaurant owners and employees related to the coronavirus

Chuck Moran of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association helped create a list of Venmo accounts for central Pa. to help support servers and bartenders who have been laid off due to the shutdowns. Similar fundraising efforts have begun popping up around the nation, including a virtual tip jar in Pittsburgh.

The Restaurant Opportunity Center has also created a resource page for hospitality employees seeking assistance.

Close now and live to open another day

Earlier this week The Handsome Cab in York closed just a day after testing delivery service. Owner Robert Godfrey was candid in an interview, explaining that the decision wasn’t taken lightly.  

Within a day of delivery service, he realized the restaurant wouldn’t be able to sustain any viable income. That’s a decision that his downtown York neighbors at the Left Bank made last week. At the time, the decision was viewed as drastic. 

Related: Pennsylvania food banks remain open, relax eligibility during Coronavirus health crisis

For Left Bank co-owner Mandy Arnold, it was the only viable option to keep her and her husband’s business alive

In an industry where profit margins are already slim (and one that was arguably ill-prepared for something like this), this new service model will force owners and the industry as a whole to adapt in ways we’ve never seen.  

At Scratch, Mahaney has already launched a grocery pick-up of sorts. The idea came to him after vendors informed him about difficulties within the supply chain. As he saw the disadvantages his restaurant had incorporating a delivery-only model, he pivoted. 

“You have to change to meet workforce needs,” he said. 

For Mahaney, the changes became less difficult once he began to further understand the scope of the situation. For one, dining room service shouldn’t be on any restaurateur’s mind. 

“It’s off the board right now; your dining room doesn’t exist anymore,” he said.

While he believes that things may get to normal, he urges restaurant owners to think about the present and have the foresight to understand a potential avalanche of changes throughout the industry that goes beyond just food service. 

A petition was recently launched to ‘Save America’s Restaurants’ launch via Change.org. The petition urges U.S. lawmakers to bailout the millions of workers in hospitality. 

It’s a noble idea, but Mahaney doesn’t believe it would work. To him, Americans need to first see the restaurant industry as a valuable commodity — as they viewed car manufacturers when the government initiated a bailout for automakers in 2008. 

“This is a health crisis with financial implications,” he said. “You can’t buyout the restaurant industry with a check and have them go to business as usual.”

And sure, the 2008 recession was also a sucker punch for the hospitality industry. But not like this.

More: York County restaurants are open during Coronavirus outbreak. Where to order delivery from

People could still go out. Foot traffic and reservations were still a viable option. The draw of crowds and potential patrons from downtown celebrations were still on the table.  

Today, the only hope might be loyalty.  

And unfortunately, that may not be enough.

Restaurants still need staff on hand to prepare meals. Few restaurants are designed for take-out service, and the competition for delivery has never been greater. Can higher-end restaurants adapt? Can mom and pop restaurants survive? 

Restaurants may have to sign up for Grubhub and Uber Eats — companies that have historically ravaged restaurant sales with marketing and delivery fees — to increase their delivery range and potential prospects.

While the fees have been waived during the crisis, it still raises a question – how long can this new normal last?  

Neil Strebig is the food & drink reporter for the York Daily Record and curator for the York on the Move newsletter. He can be reached at nstrebig@ydr.com, 717-825-6582 or via Twitter @neilStrebig

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