U.S. Restaurant Industry Fights To Stay Afloat As COVID-19 Takes Its Toll

Food & Drink

Every restaurant has a rhythm, whether or not you register it at the time. Beneath the sound of your own conversation and the carefully chosen background music lie a barely perceptible thrum of noises, from the tread of the servers to the tink of a fork against plate. Even a fast food restaurant has the roar of the ventilation and crackle of the deep fryer competing with the rustle of packaging and rumble of the ice machine.

new ad from industry group The National Restaurant Association seeks to remind diners of these sensory elements of the restaurant experience — a savvy move as restaurants cautiously reopen with proper sanitation protocols in place. 

I’ve written previously about the new eating habits being formed during the necessary distancing measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, as people become accustomed to delivery or cooking for themselves (through meal kits or groceries) without having to leave the house. Some brands sought to augment this experience and remind people of the dining rooms waiting for them upon reopening with zoom backgrounds or curated Spotify playlists.

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The campaign asks prospective customers, “Doesn’t dining out sound good?” Amidst the backdrop of the barely perceptible hum of restaurant life, the multimedia campaign leans hard into the nostalgic impulses of eating outside the house. “This campaign is about reigniting the memories we cherish about dining out. While diners have been able to enjoy some restaurant meals through take-out and delivery, we all have missed hearing the words, ‘Your table is ready,’ and the unique experiences that dining out provides,” said Tom Bené, President & CEO of the National Restaurant Association in a statement. 

There’s also a strong education element to the campaign, which touts the association’s new consumer-targeted restaurant safety website, ServSafe, meant to assuage diner fears about eating in restaurants. “We know safety is top of mind for returning diners — it’s top of mind for us as well — so, the ad pairs the familiar sights and sounds with new visual safety cues, including servers wearing masks and the ServSafe Dining Commitment door decal,” said Bené.

Will these efforts be enough, however, especially as the numbers of active cases continue to sweep across the United States? (As of writing today, there are over six million cases of COVID-19 across the country, and the death toll has topped 183,000 people, according to The New York Times’ tracker.)

At the same time, American restaurant owners face similar challenges as their Canadian and global counterparts. The physical distancing measures essential to combat the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic have added obstacles to the daily routines of many operators. When the pandemic first caused shutdowns, restaurateurs shifted to delivery or curbside takeout where possible, and now extra measures such as increased sanitization protocols need to be in place. 

Operators struggled to balance staff layoffs with huge impacts to their bottom line, and now that those staff are back in place, additional training counterbalances new profit coming in. As industry experts forecast grim predictions for slow or non-existent industry recovery, it will remain to be seen whether the new bipartisan RESTAURANTS Act (an acronym for Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed To Survive Act of 2020) will help fund recovery to this hard hit industry — the second largest employer in the US with approximately 15.6 million workers, according to the National Restaurant Association. “Things right now are really on the edge,” Michael Shemtov of the Butcher & Bee restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina told CNN. “Just about everyone is at the end of their (federal Paycheck Protection Program) funds …This is the moment, and so many people are waiting and watching and they’re going to make the decision whether they are going to fight or fold based on what Congress does.”

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