As the weather gets colder in many places, mom-and-pop establishments are under even more strain. You can take some simple steps to help them survive.
By Bonnie Tsui
Even with outdoor dining this summer, many restaurants across the country have closed or remain on the brink of disaster — especially smaller, independently owned neighborhood businesses. Loyal patrons have rallied to support their favorite local restaurants, but as the pandemic drags on, business owners have had to hustle hard to stay afloat.
With colder weather in many places discouraging outdoor dining, things are set to get even harder. Dorcia White is the general manager at Everett and Jones, a family barbecue business her grandmother founded in 1973 that now has three locations in the San Francisco Bay Area, with the biggest location in Jack London Square in Oakland. That branch has reopened with takeout service, but at a significantly reduced level. “We’re in a downtown area, so we rely on lunchtime crowds, the tourists, the bowling alley, the people going to the movies,” Mrs. White said. “That’s all gone.”
Mrs. White and her team recently launched direct online orders from Everett and Jones’s two Oakland locations, available on the website. “We had to do that because with the phone, you will miss calls,” she said.
Mom-and-pop restaurants, which often don’t have an online presence, now find themselves at a disadvantage to well-funded national chains, says the cookbook author and culinary historian Grace Young. She has been filming a video series called “Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories,” which documents how the pandemic has threatened the existence of storied Chinese establishments in New York. “It’s been heartbreaking to witness what’s happening to independently owned Chinese restaurants across the country, thousands of which have closed permanently,” she said.
So what can you do to help your beloved neighborhood restaurants and food businesses to weather the storm? Here are some concrete tips:
1. Eat as much takeout as possible.
Set aside a specific day to give yourself a treat and keep a local restaurant alive. Some restaurants are making frozen-food dishes and other pantry items — frozen enchiladas, dumplings, family-style meals — that will keep longer than any given night’s dinner, so be sure to ask even if they don’t advertise them. Many restaurants are also offering takeout drinks and cocktails.
2. Order straight from the restaurant.
While convenient, delivery apps like DoorDash and UberEats take a significant percentage of sales — up to 30 percent — and it is impossible to maintain a successful business model while using them exclusively, said Mrs. White of Everett and Jones. Instead of firing up an app, call your favorite restaurant and put in your order over the phone, or order directly from the restaurant’s website, if possible.
3. Pick up yourself, and pay cash.
If you can walk to the restaurant and pick up the food yourself, do so, and pay with cash. Is there a friend or family member you can help who can’t go out? Pick up a hot meal for them, too. In addition to getting some extra exercise, you’ll save the business the fees — usually about 2 percent of a purchase — charged by credit card companies.
4. Tip well.
A large restaurant may be able to afford servers to cater to people seated outside, but a smaller restaurant might only be able to staff a cook and a front-of-house person to pack and take orders. Many customers are tipping less, or not at all, because they perceive this to be a lower level of service than they are accustomed to when going out, said Alice Liu, who grew up in Manhattan’s Chinatown and helps run Grand Tea Imports, her family’s multigenerational tea and import business. Remember that restaurant employees are working hard to provide you with a dining experience during an unprecedented time, and at a higher risk of exposure to themselves. A healthy tip is a way to show your appreciation.
5. Shop at markets and stores in your community, too.
So much of a neighborhood like Chinatown depends upon foot traffic. You can buy groceries and fresh produce, gifts and kitchenware as well as restaurant meals. Think about other items you might normally buy elsewhere or online, and consider purchasing from the individual small businesses around you.
6. Purchase gift cards.
Ask your restaurant if it offers gift cards or gift certificates. Many businesses now allow online or emailed gift certificates where they might have accepted only paper options in the past. It’s a good way to support a restaurant while giving a welcome pick-you-up to someone else.
7. Ask how you can help.
If you have time and skills to donate, offer them. Community organizations have been helping restaurants build their outdoor dining infrastructure with volunteer programs; consider joining a program like New York’s Assembly for Chinatown. Ask if you can help by setting up GoFundMe donation pages or building simple online presences for these businesses, for whom technology can be an obstacle. “As customers, you can encourage mom-and-pop owners and see if you can help them navigate things online or on social media, especially in Chinatown or older, non-English speaking communities,” Ms. Liu said.
“Technology is one thing that can really help you in this time,” added Mrs. White.
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