Nine months into the COVID-19 Pandemic here in the United States, local businesses are really struggling to stay afloat. Washington State initially shut down indoor dining mid-March, reopening at 25% capacity in the summer, and then more recently, shutting it back down again as cases have skyrocketed.
While we haven’t eaten inside a restaurant since February, we did some patio dining (even recently on nice days), but we’ve done quite a bit of take out, as I’ve written about a number of times during my Frugal Friday posts. I’ve mentioned my Eastside Restaurant Support group on Facebook a number of times, but I feel like this deserves its own blog post.
What do Our Local Cities Look Like Post-COVID?
While I don’t want to gloss over the deaths and millions of lives permanently altered by this pandemic and inadequate response in this county, the fallout doesn’t stop there. For those of us who do survive and attempt at the semblance of a “normal” life at some point in the future, whatever that looks like, our cities are going to look irrevocably different. But I have hope that maybe, just maybe, we can have some say in that outcome.
Washington State recently announced millions of dollars of more funding for local businesses, but it simply isn’t enough. This second round of shutdowns comes with higher costs and less money to give out. Businesses that held out through the spring had the summer months to look forward to; now, there is a long winter ahead, and too many small businesses aren’t going to be able to make it to next spring and summer.
The big chain stores, for the most part, will make it through. Wal-Mart, Target, McDonald’s, Red Robin. While some stores may close, for the most part, they will make it through. Our favorite taco truck? The local doughnut shop that donated in a big way to hospital workers in the spring? Their challenge is much, much greater.
The Restaurant Industry’s Struggle
Restaurants, as a whole, have very, very small margins. Even businesses that have been open for decades generally don’t have a lot of give. Even if they don’t have to pay rent (almost all do), the cost of keeping staff and buying food is high. Even with laying off most or all staff, many of these small gems are barely hanging on. Many have already closed.
Recently, the Maltby Café didn’t expect to make it into the New Year. Community support has saved that restaurant for now, but for every one Maltby Café there are dozens others that don’t have their story publicized and simply fade into nonexistence, like the local dive bar near us where the owner was pushed into an early retirement after thirty years. Many others have, and will follow.
So What Can We Do?
I started the Eastside Restaurant Support group back in March when things felt completely out of my control and I had a deep need to want to help. Somehow. Support came out strong, and my neighbors and neighboring communities rallied around our local businesses. GoFundMe’s were created to purchase meals for first responders and hospital staff. People tipped big when they ordered take out.
Nine months later, though, times are even harder than they were back in March. Many of the people who supported those restaurants with regular take out are now under or unemployed and can’t afford to eat out often or at all. Those who do still have jobs are concerned about the future and fatigued from the endless onslaught of this year.
While the light at the end of the tunnel is brightening with successful vaccines, we’re still in for a long, dark winter. What felt like a surreal moment and time has dragged on into the reality of most of a year. Everyone is tired. And money is tight.
A Thanksgiving Surprise
The week before Thanksgiving, I had recently written up my October Monthly Update, and I was feeling a strong pull to up my giving. We have been particularly fortunate this year, and I wanted again to do more. No matter how much it is though, the need is always greater.
So I decided to give away a $50 gift card in the Eastside Restaurant Support group to a household that couldn’t afford to eat out regularly. The group is almost 7,000 strong of local folks who are passionate about our communities and doing what they can to support our local restaurants to help them to survive into 2021 and beyond. That said, there had been a number of comments that they’d love to purchase take out more often but it simply wasn’t in the budget.
With that $50 gift card to a local restaurant offered up to the group, people started asking to be in for the drawing. The stories they shared of being out of work for three, six months and more and struggling with necessities broke my heart. In a generally affluent community, there are still so many who are just barely hanging on this year.
Along with those who asked to be entered into the drawing, others started to write to tell me that they would match that $50 and that I could pick a second winner. And then a third. And then a tenth. After just the single day the giveaway was open for, all eighty families that entered were given a $50 gift card to a local restaurant of their choosing. $4,000 was raised in a single day. My heart was so full realizing what our community could do to support our local restaurants and our local neighbors.
Since then, similar giveaways have occurred in a couple of different Facebook groups, and all told the number is closing in on ten thousand dollars. My group will be doing a second one for the December holidays. While it may not be enough to change the trajectory of the small business loss in our area, it feels like a really big thing.
In a year where my optimism has taken beating after beating, this experience with the local restaurant support has restored some of my faith in my local community. We are all in this together, and it feels good to realize that sometimes others realize that too.
PS – if you’re able to pick up take out and can afford it, tip big! These restaurants and their employees need us right now.