Guest columnists Philip Korman and Claire Morenon: Let’s keep local restaurants going
Daily Hampshire Gazette, February 10, 2021
It’s almost hard to remember the feeling of being in a busy restaurant on a weekend night: people tucked into tight tables, leaning over bars, smiling and talking and laughing. Squeezing past strangers, running into acquaintances, chatting with someone new — many of us are really missing that connection to a casual social fabric, and being in the spaces that foster it, as COVID-19 has required us to withdraw into our homes and pods.
For the restaurants themselves, the future has never looked so bleak. From abrupt closure orders in the early days of the pandemic to costly adaptations needed to open back up on a very limited basis, restaurants have been hit hard by COVID-19. Restaurants, especially those that are small and locally owned, have always functioned on razor thin margins.
Local restaurants have hustled to keep going during the pandemic by shifting their menus, offering grocery items, adjusting their service models, and taking advantage of the extremely limited government help on offer. Still, too many local restaurants have announced closures — according to the Massachusetts Restaurants Association, one in four Massachusetts restaurants closed between March and December of last year, and Bon Appetit estimates that, on a national level, 85% of independent restaurants face imminent closure without more industry-specific support.
As the vaccine rollout continues and we can start to imagine a post-pandemic world, let’s consider what we stand to lose if the local restaurants in our communities don’t make it through the winter. Restaurants are enormously important to our local economy: according to the Boston Globe, pre-pandemic, one out of every 10 Massachusetts jobs was in the restaurant industry. By December of 2020, 35% of leisure and hospitality jobs had disappeared.
For local farmers, the springtime closure of their stalwart local restaurant customers was a big economic hit. In regular times, interesting and delicious restaurants are also a central feature of a thriving downtown, buoying other local businesses by drawing customers to eat.
Restaurants can provide a meaningful window into cuisines and cultures from around the world, and they also root themselves deeply into their neighborhoods as vital community boosters: over the years, they have donated countless meals and hosted innumerable events in support of community efforts.
During the pandemic, dozens have stepped up as partners on municipal and nonprofit led efforts to feed essential workers and food insecure families, such as Northampton’s Community Food Distribution Project, Amherst’s Dinner Delights, and the Franklin County Community Meals Program.
On a more personal level, think of the restaurants that have played host to memorable moments and meals in your life: family celebrations, gatherings with visiting friends, first dates. Or the not so memorable moments that make up day to-day life: a quick bite of lunch, urgent sustenance after a long workday, or takeout soup for a sick friend. What are the places that you want to be able to return to when the pandemic is over?
The state’s recent $20 million economic stimulus contains elements designed to support small businesses and, specifically, restaurants. This is much-needed and welcome help, and it will continue to be important to advocate for more small business support in the state budget.
But restaurants also need customers — and so many people are struggling financially right now, so this isn’t possible for every household — so if you are able, order takeout. If you can, order takeout this weekend, and next week, and as often as you can until this is behind us. Tell your friends about your local favorites and talk them up on social media. Drop off meals or gift cards for friends and loved ones, especially if you know someone who is struggling and could use a little extra help themselves. Tip generously — extravagantly if you can.
With real advocacy at the state level in support of restaurants and other small businesses, and with a community-wide effort to support them week to week, more of these beloved institutions can hang on until spring, when outdoor dining opens up, or through the summer, when the vaccine may allow for some return to normalcy. In the meantime, call in for tonight’s dinner, and let’s keep local restaurants going.
Philip Korman is the executive director at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture. Claire Morenon is CISA’s communications manager.