The past year has been a rough one for the restaurant industry all over the country. However, as Covid rates spike in California the state’s government has shut down indoor and outdoor dining once again with what is likely to deal a serious blow to an already struggling industry.
As a longtime San Francisco resident, I remain concerned about the well-being of the city’s restaurant business, from fine dining to my favorite Thai restaurant in the Tenderloin. It represents thousands of people’s livelihood and hundreds of others’ lifelong investments.
So, I recently reached out to Laurie Thomas, the executive director of the San Francisco-based Golden Gate Restaurant Association—who is also a member of the SF Economic Recovery Task Force—to talk to her about what she thinks is next on the horizon. All responses have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Liza B. Zimmerman (L.B..Z.): What sector of the restaurant industry has been hardest hit this year?
MORE FOR YOU
Laurie Thomas (L.T.): Fine-dining and full-service dining as this sector never was set up for a lot of to-go, takeout and delivery. Fast casual, by nature of its business model, usually was set up with much less staff, and has been quicker to make, more portable offerings available.
Many full-service and fine-dining establishments had to learn how to modify their menus and set up relationships with the delivery companies, in order to attempt to-go, takeout and delivery during the pandemic.
Also, fine-dining restaurants have extra challenges in that the business dinners disappeared with conventions canceled, little to no travel and no one in downtown San Francisco and SOMA area because of all the shutdowns (as we can’t have anyone in offices for example in SF other than essential workers right now), there are no customers. Also, outdoor dining is harder for fine dining.
The bottom line is if you have a fine-dining restaurant, or even a family, full-service restaurant, you are not in a good position these days.
L.B..Z.: What percentage of SF restaurants have closed thus far?
L.T.: The best way to tell will be next year when we see how many active health permits are in place. At the start of 2020 there were about 3,900 active health permits (for brick-and-mortar cafes and restaurants). Some of these permits (like 35) were for things like Starbucks, but still, it’s a good estimate.
Back in April I saw an estimate that number had dropped to about 3,550.
The best data I think we are seeing is the credit card-spend data that the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce released showing that something like 52 percent of restaurants were not transacting any business: and that was a few months ago when we could do outdoor dining and 25 percent occupancy inside.
I think that potentially tens of thousands of employees in SF were just furloughed.
L.B..Z.: What percentage of restaurants do you expect to close in the next six months?
So, this I truly believe, comes down to if and when Congress can pass a relief package. Without significant, reachable relief there could be an 85 percent failure rate. But we will have to see what happens as every restaurant is different kind of like a marriage. Only those involved really understand how strong or not it is!
L.B..Z.: What can people do to support their local restaurants?
L.T.: Lobby congress and tell them that we need specific relief for restaurants: ideally, for independent restaurants. I’ve been part of the Independent Restaurant Coalition and been fighting for specific relief. If we can give billions to airlines, why not to independent restaurants that are the fabric of society and employee so many people?
Purchase takeout and delivery from your local restaurants. Do it directly instead of through a delivery app, if possible, because they take a huge cut in commission and other fees from the restaurants.
Patronize places that can do outdoor dining, or indoor dining. Be safe. Wear a mask whenever staff approaches the table (it is a pain, but is really what is required to keep staff safe).
L.B..Z.: What steps has the GGRA taken to support them?
L.T.: We put forth a proposal for the ”Shared Spaces” program early in April. This is a key program that allowed restaurants to seat customers and serve them food and drink, outside of their establishments on sidewalks, in parking spaces, in private parking lots, in public areas and in the streets!
We worked with many departments across the city to help make this happen as it enabled restaurants, bars and retail to start this back in June. It was originally going to be in place until the end of December, but it has been extended through June 30th if you apply for a renewal. The Mayor of SF has stated she wants to try to make this program permanent. I’m participating in meetings (have another one today!) on how to make this happen.
We have waived membership dues for any members that could not afford them. We have opened the paywall on our Facebook members page to any restaurant members that want to be on it and we use this for pushing out information as well.
L.B..Z.: What types of events and services have moved online (like the industry conference you used to do)?
L.T.: We created a bi-weekly webinar series that involved numerous chefs and restaurateurs and city officials that went over many topics.
We did cancel our annual industry conference in 2020, but are actively working on one for June 2021 (stay tuned for more details post the Christmas holiday break).
L.B..Z.: What are some of the ways that people in the restaurant industry have reinvented themselves?
L.T.: I hate this question. We are trying to survive, not do some marketing rethink. There are very few ways to do this by redoing your menu to make it work better for takeout and delivery. Offering meal kits is another way to approach this.
Trying to be a grocery store was attempted but that’s a super low-margin business too and hasn’t worked realistically for many. We’ve been more able to sell alcohol and wine to go. We’ve automated more of the dining process by using QR codes for linking to online menus to not use paper, some folks have more automated ordering, etc.
L.B..Z.: Has SF been harder hit than other cities and towns by the pandemic in the last year? If so why?
L.T.: I think the answer is yes, but not as bad as say NYC. We have had a very conservative approach as our Mayor initiated the SF state of emergency on February 25th. Within 48 hours we saw conferences canceling and the big tech companies telling people not to come into the office. This saved SF from the first round of horrible cases that NYC experienced.
The city is trying, but there just hasn’t been enough financial relief for our workers or our business owners. It is devastating.
L.B..Z.: How will it be different next year?
L.T.: I cannot answer this yet. We need federal relief now and then again in April. We need to see how the vaccines are rolled out. In SF, I know we do not expect most of the conferences to come back in 2021. We do not expect tech and other workers to ever come back fulltime to downtown. We are hearing at best folks will come to the office two to five days a week.
L.B..Z.: Do you think that the general public will go back to dining out as much as they did previously when this pandemic is over?
L.T.: I do, but it will depend on who your customers are. Older customers will definitely be much more cautious. The 20 to 50 age group will certainly return and be up for indoor dining. What will happen with business dining is unclear until we see who will come back to the office and if the ability to zoom across our country will keep business travel to a minimum for a year or so.
L.B..Z.: Or will customers want stay home more as they are used to it and have learned to cook?
L.T.: I know everyone (including me!) is so sick of having to cook, clean and eat at home! We are over this!