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Independent restaurants

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Note from the editor

For independent restaurants, 2020 has been a test of survival. Operators already running on razor-thin margins were forced to close their dining rooms in March following state-mandated stay-at-home orders related to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Those that could switched operations to takeout, delivery and curbside while others simply shuttered their doors. By the end of March, 3% of restaurants said they closed their doors for good, and roughly 8 million restaurant workers lost their jobs during the height of the closures. The National Restaurant Association predicts the industry will lose $240 billion by the end of 2020. 

In an industry built on in-person interactions and long-term relationships with customers, the national crisis was a serious blow to the hearts and minds of many independent operators, especially since it meant laying off all or a portion of their staff.

But as dining rooms were closed, owners got creative in reaching their customers, such as Boston-based Juliet + Company’s creation of Instagram tutorials, Chicago's All Together Now’s expansion into family meals and Southern California's 101 North Eatery & Bar's addition of cocktail kits and curbside. 

And after months of waiting, preparing staff with new training on social distancing guidelines and adapting operations, restaurants faced a new crisis. Citizens took to the streets to protest systemic racism following the death of George Floyd. While many operators came out in support of this fight, setting up food stations and medic tents, many also faced damage to their restaurants and some had to shutter their doors just as they were reopening.

Even during this time of disruption and uncertainty, one thing is for certain. Independent operators are resilient and are doing what they can to try to make it through the next crisis.

This report covers key strategies of independent operators as they fight to survive:

  • How operators are grappling with layoffs while trying to stay in operation
  • Creative ways operators engaged with customers while their dining rooms were closed
  • How independent operators adjusted to off-premise during the pandemic
  • Ways operators can reopen to keep both staff and customers safe
  • How protests over systemic racism impacted restaurants just as they were reopening

These are just a few of the challenges that are shaping independent operator strategies. We hope you enjoy this deep dive into how independent operators are adapting and evolving during this uncertain time.

Julie Littman Reporter

Recent PPP changes offer restaurants hope, but calls for industry aid continue

The PPP Flexibility Act and streamlined loan forgiveness applications make the federal safety net easier for operators to use without penalty, but critics argue that key needs are still unaddressed.

DC restaurants: Reopening patios amid COVID-19, protests like juggling 'flaming knives'

The District's restaurant scene is emblematic — perhaps in extremes — of the tumultuous environment that operators across the country are fighting to survive in.

Third-party vs. direct delivery: Debate reaches boiling point amid coronavirus

There's no restaurant roadmap to survive dining room closures. But one thing is certain: pick the wrong off-premise game plan when the stakes are this high, and it could gut your bottom line.

States begin easing dine-in restrictions, but are restaurants ready to reopen?

Restaurants are formulating plans to ramp up operations as states like Georgia and Tennessee ease restrictions, but many think it's too soon.

5 steps restaurants should take before bringing back staff

Before restaurants consider reopening their dining rooms, experts say operators should review payroll practices, rehire based on seniority and develop ways to monitor employee health.

5 practices restaurants can use to keep customers safe

Operators should maintain social distancing standards, retool their menus and communicate with their guests about what is being done to minimize exposure when dining room closures lift.

Independent restaurants grapple with layoffs, but fight to survive

Establishments like Beast in Oregon and Agave Uptown in California talk about the devastating decisions to let employees go or furlough staff during coronavirus.

A Boston restaurateur is using Instagram tutorials to stay afloat

The owner of Juliet + Company restaurant group has developed online video cocktail and cooking tutorials, as well as a publication, to drive revenue and keep his 50 staff members employed.

Chicago hybrid restaurant offers a side of humor with 'social distance goods'

All Together Now altered its operations to provide a variety of pandemic provisions, including nightly dinners, small bites and its popular wine and cheese pairings for delivery and pickup.