The current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has caused some of the most widespread business shutdown orders we have ever seen. On Monday, March 24, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced the closure of all non-essential businesses.
The food and drink industry has been hit particularly hard, due to its inherent challenges like low margins and large amounts of required labor.
Foraged, a local restaurant in Hampden, first transitioned to doing orders for curbside pickup before switching full time to relief efforts, passing out food to industry workers who had lost their jobs and public servants such as police, firefighters and healthcare workers.
Unfortunately, as such a small sit-down restaurant that depends on a fairly regular customer base, Foraged was forced to shut down.
“We have seen over 75 percent drop in sales and are currently closed,” said Chris Amendola, executive chef and owner of Foraged. “The hardest part for us is the uncertainty if we will bounce back from this or when we will open again.”
Danielle Dandrea, a barista at Pitango Bakery + Café, said that she filed for unemployment eight days ago and just got a follow-up letter.
“I'm an hourly and tipped employee, so I currently have no source of income,” Dandrea said.
Dandrea has since obtained a temporary job at an Amazon warehouse and hopes that unemployment benefits will still apply, although she has yet to receive confirmation.
Leandro Lagera, an avid participant in the food world and a social media influencer under the moniker “foodnomad,” emphasized the importance of having enough subsidies for the food industry. Otherwise, he said, it won’t be just a few businesses that close. It will be all of them.
“My biggest concern for the industry is that if they don't get a government stimulus for both the restaurants and their employees... it will never come back,” Lagera said.
Other sub-sectors of the industry have fared better. Based in Towson, Cunningham’s consists of a restaurant as well as a cafe and bakery. The restaurant had already closed recently to be reworked into a different concept, so that part of the business has not taken severe losses.
Alice Zou, a member of the Class of 2018 who works at Cunningham’s as an overnight baker, said that the bakery has also been able to mitigate its losses.
“A lot of the restaurants we provide to, their business is down, so we are making less,” Zou said. “But because we’re doing wholesale [at the bakery] and have gained a contract with a grocery store, losses are not as bad as they could be.”
She believes that the pandemic will not have a severe impact on the business in the long run.
“There’s money behind the business, so you know it will do fine,” Zou said. “Although that doesn’t necessarily mean they will protect the workers.”
Some are taking advantage of the closure time to dedicate effort towards diversification. Josey Schwartz, head brewer at Suspended Brewing Company, explained that Suspended is currently working on mixed-culture projects as well as a bottle release to debut off-site sales.
“We’re taking this time to make stuff that no one else in Baltimore is making, stuff that will contribute to a vibrant brew scene,” Schwartz said.
He added that the business is fortunate because all of its staff has an alternative source of income.
“We were able to take our time and prevent ourselves from rushing into any overnight business model changes,” Schwartz said. “I feel that the socially responsible thing to do is to keep our distance, since we are financially able to.”
The crisis has not only affected food service business owners and workers, but also consultants like Dave Seel, founder of Blue Fork Marketing. Blue Fork Marketing is a firm that provides social media and marketing resources to budding hospitality and lifestyle concepts.
“Almost all my clients are food and beverage brands, so with the closures of restaurants there’s a lot of uncertainty for me,” Seel said.
On March 15, Seel started the Baltimore Area Restaurant Industry Relief Group, a Facebook page with over 1700 members at time of publishing. It serves as a place to pool together resources and tackle the crisis as a community.
“We have put together a petition that we have since pushed to the state level with a number of different recommendations on how best to rebuild and support the restaurant industry,” he said. “I think one of the biggest factors in our favor is the fact that restaurants are not required to completely close.”
The Baltimore Area Restaurant Industry Relief Group is also partnering with The Night Brunch to put together a food distribution system for workers in need that plans to be stationed in the Hotel Revival.
“We are working to file for a 501 (c) 3 status for the Baltimore Restaurant Relief Fund, and it will prioritize Baltimore City and Baltimore County in bringing money to industry workers and proprietors,” Seel said.
Despite the pandemic, consumers can still support the local restaurant industry from afar. Lagera believes that the best way to help is to continue spending money where you were spending before. Amendola suggested that people donate to restaurants’ buying orders for take-out and delivery. Seel encouraged people to buy gift cards, saying that the money goes directly to restaurants and their workers.
“We understand everyone is strapped as it is, but if you can afford it, then please do,” Seel said. “There are a number of creative ways people are earning revenue, like selling T-shirts or converting into grocery markets as well.”
Virtual tip jars and GoFundMe’s are circulating around the Baltimore area, where people can tip others in the industry. Dandrea, however, is not sure how effective virtual tip jars will be.
“Everyone, not just restaurant employees, are nervous about their job security, so they're less willing and able to donate money without receiving a service,” she said. “We have a Pitango tip jar GoFundMe, and so far, each employee has gotten about $20.”
Dandrea noted other ways in which consumers can support local businesses during this time.
“To support local bars and businesses, please buy alcohol from the bars instead of liquor stores,” she said. “Order carry-out from restaurants directly. Tip generously. Buy your books over the phone from Greedy Reads instead of Target or Barnes and Noble.”