Customers are willing to pay only so much for food, yet rent, utilities, insurances, taxes and food costs keep going up. We’ve survived by cutting our labor costs to the bone, but that has left us in the industry still on the edge, while cooks, porters, servers, dishwashers,and bartenders have no significant savings, health care or a safety net. Lots of restaurants have started relief funds for their staffs and that’s great, but if our workers need charity so badly now, maybe owners weren’t doing this right in the first place?
After this shutdown, we’ll have to rebuild the city’s restaurant business from scratch. A few restaurants with deep pockets can probably return to business as usual, but the bulk of places in this city would reopen with enormous debt. We’ll be welcoming back workers whose bank accounts have been drained, who will bear significant health care costs, who will more clearly feel the need for child care and sick days.
This shutdown has shown us that the only moral choice is for the industry to provide a better safety net for our workers. But right now I can’t see that happening because I don’t think customers, many of them also feeling more financially precarious, would be willing to pay the cost. They’ll buy gift cards and give to charity, for which I am grateful, but will they pay more for their mussels, night after night?
Restaurants are our meeting places, they’re where we mark our birthdays and anniversaries, and for years we’ve shown that we’re comfortable celebrating our plenty while those who wait on us go without.
New Yorkers need to ask themselves if they would they be willing to pay $8 for a latte instead of $5 if it means their barista has health care. Will they pay $100 instead of $75 for a couple of burgers and a few beers if it means the person serving them doesn’t have to rattle the cup the next time there’s a disaster?
New York has about 26,000 restaurants. What does the city look like with 20,000? With 15,000? Will we be a happier city with fewer restaurants that charge more but pay better wages and provide health care? Will we be the same city?
When this pandemic ends, will customers really crowd back into restaurants? Or will they be more cautious with their social distancing and their money? Will we be ready to make sacrifices to build a better future for the people who pour our coffees and mix our drinks? Or will we turtle up with a vengeance and focus on our own comfort until the next disaster?