About Restaurants being Saved by Tax-Payer Money
Last week I wrote about the “haves and the have nots” of the restaurant industry created by the ineffective (and often litigious and controversial) distribution method of the 2021 Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a $29B grant program underwritten by taxpayers and distributed by the SBA.
My post was only been read by 100 people or so, and I’m super appreciative that many showed up. But in the back of my mind are the thousands of comments made by readers of other such articles and posts that consider the pros and cons of tax-payer funded bail outs, including the RRF. Many of the comments are scathing and rail against saving restaurants and other for-profit businesses. Without taking the time to go back and quote them exactly, I’ll paraphrase them all to my best ability in my own words here:
“Why the f&ck would my tax dollars go to save for-profit businesses that couldn’t survive the pandemic? What about all the money they made over the years prior? What about the savings they could have amassed? Why do we need to save food businesses that are located in areas that no longer have people who need them? If restaurants were built to feed the hordes of downtown workers at their lunch break, and there are no more downtown workers taking lunch, why throw good money after bad?”
When the June 1, 2020 riots took place after the George Floyd murder, one of our Boloco restaurants was vandalized and so I wrote about it. I wasn’t complaining about our poor fortune, but instead I was observing the situation and eventually came to a place where I felt like I understood why people were taking their anger to the streets and causing damage and even endangering lives. Because I wrote about it in that way, a few close friends of mine who know I covet at-times painfully honest feedback told me they assumed my “seeking to understand the violence” also meant I was “condoning violence.” Nothing could have been further from the truth. The assumption, however, was that when I didn’t condemn the violence, which I didn’t and don’t, I therefore supported the violence.
In a similar vein, just because I wrote about the “haves and the have nots” of the 2021 RRF program does not mean I necessarily support tax dollars being handed out to restaurants now or at any time. If I believed that my restaurants, or any restaurants, were vital to the ongoing interests of the City of Boston or the Town of Hanover, NH, I suppose I would feel differently. But that’s clearly not the case.
Restaurants in many of the urban centers of this country right now often look pretty silly, frankly. There they sit, lights on, food prepared, staff cleaning but also leaning, waiting. And waiting.
The other night I was strolling along Boylston Street in Boston and at peak dinner hour, other than the brand-spanking new Chick-Fil-A (that just so happened to replace our former beloved Copley Square Boloco), even the hippest, hottest restaurant spots were dead or closed altogether. As many former retail shops were also permanently closed with For Lease signs on the windows. The remaining businesses aren’t in demand right now, and to be honest there are just way too many of them! Most of us in the business have known this for some time. When we opened on Copley Square in 2011, not one of the ones you see pictured here existed. We felt like trailblazers joining Wendy’s and Finagle a Bagel on what the experts said was questionable real estate (it was by far our best location out of the gate, for the record).
So back to the RRF, I’m not actually sure if it should be replenished. And as I’ve said previously, if that means the end of Boloco in most or all of Boston, then so be it.
When I wonder to myself about how tax-payer money possibly designated for the RRF and similar programs could better be spent, I think about, as one example only, investing in technology that more efficiently connects food workers to training for the very few additional skills they actually need to qualify for jobs in health care which also badly needs workers. Now is the time. Workforce Development Organizations and skills training providers like JVS, Tech Goes Home, English for New Bostonians, or ABCD all need to continue engaging with their thousands of alumni and more dollars funneled to them and their counterparts could fuel former food workers into better careers with higher current income, better benefits, and room for growth and more education.
Why don’t restaurants have money saved up, people ask? Well, the big chains do. They are flush with cash and they will end up just fine. So there will be food to feed the masses if and when most of them return.
But most independents don’t because the business economics, on average, are quite simply brutal. Rents in Boston are at nose-bleed levels and landlords still haven’t reset on this one so the economics aren’t set to change anytime soon either. Not to mention skyrocketing supply and labor costs. I applaud the higher wages employees can demand today, but it doesn’t mean every restaurant can actually pay them and stay afloat. We are already seeing a real reckoning with reality.
If the United States wants restaurants to exist exactly as they did prior to the pandemic, then replenishing the RRF is one way we have a chance of getting back there – and the amount to do so is no less than $60B if it is to be distributed in the same manner it was in late May 2021. But if we think now is our chance to change the landscape for the millions of workers who didn’t want to be working for those restaurants in the first place, its a perfect time to rethink how tax-payer money gets used on their behalf. Personally, I don’t think our politicians are capable of that kind of strategic thinking, though they are certainly good at administering unnecessary complexity in some of these programs. To fully pivot from the blunt solutions of the past to future-focused strategies (which might even help make the “great resignation” from restaurants permanent) requires letting go of so much of what we take for granted today and seeding a new vision for tomorrow’s workforce. Leading with skills training and development funding, perhaps while paying workers to learn instead of toiling away on the fryer day after day, seems a far better use of today’s tax-payer dollars. And that’s just one example…. there are surely countless others.