If you spent years paying business interruption insurance premiums in case your ability to conduct business was ever compromised, you have likely been unpleasantly surprised to find that your policy does not cover pandemics – even, perhaps, when there is no language in your policy excluding them. Now, a number of world-renowned chefs are fighting for that protection. Thomas Keller, Wolfgang Puck, Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and many others recently teamed up with the attorney and insurance specialist John Houghtaling to file the country’s first court action to recoup losses from insurers, according to a report from Keller on NBC. They formed the non-profit Business Interruption Group (BIG) (https://werbig.org/) in an effort to help restaurant businesses, large and small, collect insurance claims on the losses they believed would be covered by their business interruption policies. (Foodable conducted this interview with Houghtaling about how restaurant operators can understand their insurance cover and navigate denied claims.) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkdA9bxoNkg&feature=emb_title&utm_source=Foodable+Report+Downloads&utm_campaign=48c90208c4-Foodable_On_Demand_19_015_copy_02_7_29_2019_9_46_C&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_402dfc13cf-48c90208c4-78342785&ct=t%28Foodable_On_Demand_19_015_Wed_9_4_19_9_3_2019_COPY%29 ) BIG has already gotten the attention of the White House, with President Trump urging insurers during a recent press briefing to pay business interruption claims if pandemics are not specifically excluded. (Follow BIG’s progress here.) (https://twitter.com/werbigorg) Meanwhile, the White House has invited number of the founding members of BIG to participate in one of 17 Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups intended to kick-start the foodservice sector.
With weeks of lockdown still ahead for most of the U.S., we’re all yearning to return to “normal.” But until there is a COVID-19 vaccine or some kind of medical treatment available that helps people manage the worst effects of the virus, we are likely looking at continued social distancing in some form. Even if restrictions ease and people are no longer quarantined in their homes, it’s unlikely they will be gathering in large groups to do the kinds of socializing and celebrating that restaurants have, until recently, been able to accommodate. But can you envision a halfway point for your business? In order for businesses to participate in the gradual reopening of the economy, they will have to adopt new practices to help ensure the safety of their employees, suppliers and customers. Will you be able to create adequate space between tables in your dining room, between servers and customers, and between employees? If so, how might this affect the number of tables you turn and staff you employ during a shift? How can you adapt your usual methods of serving food and pouring wine to allow for distance? Can your employees safely get to and from work while maintaining social distancing? Can you adopt no-contact practices for accepting and inspecting deliveries? Is it possible for you to adopt all of these measures while continuing to employ any business-model shifts you are using now to help bring in business, such as selling meal kits and specialty ingredients or providing curbside pickup? Thinking through the possible scenarios now and developing a plan can prepare you to quickly ramp up business – and avoid having to make major decisions on the fly – in the months ahead.
The restaurant industry is a community – and those community connections are providing a lifeline for businesses that need support right now. Beyond government stimulus programs, there are new resources coming about on an almost daily basis in an effort to help restaurants manage through the volatility of these months. One new resource to look to for information and basic moral support is the Coronavirus Facebook group, Coronavirus in the Food and Beverage Industry, for people working in the foodservice industry. The food and beverage market intelligence company Winsight formed the group, which had nearly 4,000 members as of this writing. At a time when it can be hard to keep track of quickly changing news and the formation of new groups aiming to provide industry support, the group is a good one-stop shop for information about topics ranging from COVID-19 news, to restaurant technology, to sources of aid for foodservice businesses. Recent posts included information on new restaurant relief funds, sources of interim employment and discussion on how businesses can maximize the Paycheck Protection Program in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
While the news headlines may be gloomy, don’t lose hope – there actually are foodservice operators who are managing to make lemonade from a whole lot of lemons right now. The ones forging a way through these stressful times are getting creative: Wingstop, which is experiencing an uptick in sales right now, is tapping into an oversupply of chicken and offering a free delivery promotion that is driving sales. Farmers Restaurant Group has shifted to a bodega concept that sells meal kits customers can schedule for pickup using OpenTable. Another operation that has nimbly shifted its approach is Front Burner Restaurants, which operates eight restaurant brands in six cities in the southern U.S. At the start of the pandemic, Front Burner had to furlough 4,000 employees, but it quickly shifted gears to create Furlough Kitchen, a non-profit concept that offers one free meal kit a day from its restaurants to hospitality workers who have been furloughed as a result of COVID-19. Through the support of community donations and anticipated federal stimulus funding, the company rehired employees working in its catering operation, as well as some of its hourly employees who take orders, post on social media and carry food out to customers for curbside pickup. Regular customers, suppliers, vendors and others in the community have been generous with donations and other support, and tips are collected into a pool that is distributed on the pay cards of furloughed employees. Furlough Kitchens currently has two locations and expects to open five additional locations from its existing restaurants soon. In a recent Restaurant Business podcast, Front Burner CEO Randy Dewitt said they are currently funded through the next 60 to 90 days. He thinks that finding a way to keep his restaurants open – even if they’re not profiting right now – should help with their eventual recovery. The community goodwill he is building in the meantime won’t hurt.
On March 26, President Trump signed the CARES Act stimulus legislation into law. The law provides support for restaurant and foodservice owners and workers in the form of payroll incentives, employee benefits, emergency grants and tax relief. (The National Restaurant Association provided a summary of the CARES Act’s benefits to the industry. https://restaurant.org/Articles/News/CARES-Act-provisions-whats-in-it-for-restaurants ) But will the benefits go far enough? Chef Tom Colicchio says no – particularly in the case of independent restaurants. Colicchio is founder of Crafted Hospitality and a visible member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), a newly formed group that is aiming to help save local restaurants impacted by COVID-19. The CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program, a key part of the new law, lets owners of restaurants with fewer than 500 employees apply for a loan of up to $10 million or two and a half months of payroll, whichever is less – and Colicchio said in an interview with Forbes that he thinks it is unlikely the industry will be back on track in that time frame. He is now working with the IRC to advocate for a six-month income replacement program worth $440 billion. Restaurants of any size could benefit on the condition that they continue to fully employ all restaurant staff, as well as pay rent and suppliers to keep money moving through the supply chain. The coalition is aiming to build a strong, united voice that can address lawmakers about what support the restaurant industry needs right now. In addition to providing daily legislative updates, it provides people on its mailing list with a social media toolkit, calls to action that can help operators mobilize their communities and networks, and key messages to use when speaking to the media to help get the word out about what independent restaurants need right now.
Goodwill is going an extra-long way right now. To be sure, the restaurant industry is hurting and crucially needs its own support, but the efforts that operators are taking to show appreciation for healthcare workers and other first responders are earning an extra dose of gratitude from their communities. Social media is packed with images of items ranging from donuts to salads to ice cream that are being donated to healthcare workers. Other brands are making headlines for offering free delivery or discounts to people working on the front lines – and even to many other workers who have been laid off in recent weeks. If your restaurant is among those offering generous promotions right now, tap into your local media and regional neighborhood groups to help spread the word: They are likely assembling lists of operators who are showing some goodwill to their communities. You can also show some extra care to customers who are already part of your loyalty program by making it easier for them to earn points on their favorite dishes and pushing redemption dates ahead on the calendar to when times improve. Even if you’re not operating near capacity right now, you can look at this time as an opportunity to pay it forward somehow and build a rock-solid base of loyal customers – because you’d better believe that the people you go out of your way to help at difficult times like this will be supporters for life.
During times that feel difficult and unprecedented, it helps to look for silver linings. Right now for many people, one of those silver linings is feeling an increased sense of pride in our communities and a closer connection to them – even as we have to keep our physical distance. Neighborhoods are coming together to provide help for the vulnerable, and that includes people isolated at home and businesses working hard to survive. While the restaurant industry has long been adopting a local approach to suppliers, times like this prove the value of simply being a good neighbor as well. A recent NBC news story from San Diego reported that a couple launched a GoFundMe account to help two groups important to them: healthcare workers on the frontlines of coronavirus treatment and local restaurants that are part of the fabric of the city. The account collects donations from the public and the funds can be used by healthcare workers at San Diego hospitals to buy takeout or delivery food from the city’s restaurants. The account, which launched on March 16th, was just $1000 shy of its $15,000 goal at the time of this writing. Consider tapping into the ingenuity of friends and supporters of your restaurant in your community. Many are looking for ways to be useful during these times and want to help you work through them. Make it easy for them to support you by purchasing gift cards on your website – or by sharing the website https://supportrestaurants.org/, a global initiative that allows people to buy gift certificates for their favorite restaurants below face value but redeem them at face value.