Why Does Washington Ignore Restaurants?

In California alone, since Covid-19 shut down the industry, 900,000 restaurant jobs have been lost. If the situation continues as is, with mandatory orders to keep dining rooms closed indefinitely, 16 million people could lose their jobs in the restaurant industry, closing potentially 4 out of 5 independent restaurants. Let that sink in. 

So, when the stakes are so high, why isn’t Washington supporting restaurants? Why haven’t the House and Senate voted to pass the RESTAURANTS Act of 2020? Why does the new proposed HEALS Act do so little to help restaurants in the face of PPP loan restrictions and unexpected PPP-related taxes?

The sad truth is, this isn’t anything new. The restaurant and hospitality industry, despite employing more people than any other private sector industry in the U.S. has long been ignored by government, and not just Washington. State and local politicians have remained blind and deaf to the needs of this industry, all the while, being sure to stomp at some local favorite joint when they’re out on the campaign trail.

When Covid-19 hit the US, State and local governments didn’t hesitate to force restaurants to shut their dining rooms to protect people from the spread of the virus. Sadly, these same leaders didn’t act so swiftly to offer financial support to protect the very restaurants and workers they put out of business.

I can’t honestly say I’ve been surprised by the (non)reaction of governments across the States and on up to Washington. I didn’t expect they would give a damn about independent restaurants and their workforce. And too bloody bad I wasn’t wrong.

But why? Why is it that the largest private industry in the country is treated like the economy’s ugly, unwanted step child who does all the worst chores but gets none of the love? Why does Washington, why do the States, pander to and prop up industries that pump way less fuel into our economy than restaurants do? 

This question has dogged me much of my adult life, as my mom was an independent restaurant owner who, despite having a successful fine dining restaurant in Los Angeles, was still “nickeled and dimed to death” (as she would say), with barely a profit to enjoy for her hard work, when large companies never, ever pay their fair share. And then, after paying and paying into the system, restaurants were never helped through any of the economic crises this country has clawed its way out of.

AIG? Sure, let’s lend ‘em $85 billion. General Motors? Of course, let’s toss them a 50 billion dollar bone.  The airlines? Hell yeah! Here’s $25 billion to keep flying through the pandemic! And let’s not forget all the historic bank and Wall Street bailouts. The TARP funds of 2008 alone officially totaled $700 billion, but in a scathing reveal by Nomi Prins entitled It Takes A Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street, the total is more in the neighborhood of $14 trillion (yes, trillion, that’s not a typo).

When you think about it, most of the banks who got bailouts, and you can see them all here, pretty much landed in the shit because of their own dodgy practices. Lending money to people who couldn’t afford that particular house, then jacking up interest rates to levels people couldn’t keep up with, so they defaulted. But with restaurants and Covid-19, these businesses didn’t do anything wrong, they’re victims, not criminals.

In the 2008 financial crisis, restaurants took a big hit, and yet they weren’t in line for any bailout money. Interestingly, when you look at the media coverage during 2008-09, when outlets like Forbes, TIME, and CNN gave a bit of attention to what was happening in the industry, pretty much all the references are made to chain restaurants and large restaurant groups. Not much mention at all of independent restaurants and their struggles. 

Yet, still, while a chunk of billion-dollar chain restaurants teetered on the brink of bankruptcy due to declines in sales, and franchise owners faltered in the face of zero available credit, this industry which accounted for 8% of the economy in 2008, didn’t get so much as a year’s worth of Happy Meal’s in bailout funds. 

When you consider that the 2008 Forbes article cites 40% of Americans’ discretionary spending went to restaurants before the financial crisis – mostly fast casual – that’s a huge chunk of spending that decreased when Americans realized they didn’t actually have any money to spend. Well, the average American, that is. And yet, no bailout for even the big chains, let alone the independent restaurants.

Besides financial bailouts in troubled economic times, there’s the political pandering during election cycles. It’s mind-numbing to think of how often politicians parade on and on about how they’re going to help teachers, truckers, and auto workers (not that they don’t deserve the help, and not that they even get it!), but rarely, if ever, do political candidates give any lip service at all to restaurant workers. 

Again, and again, I’ve wondered why. Why isn’t the restaurant industry a bigger force with a louder voice in Washington? Why isn’t this industry even considered a “voting block” when – if we turned out in full force on election day – we could determine the outcome of any race?

Is it because we don’t have a strong union to flex our collective muscle? Not really. Banks don’t have a strong union. Is it because we go about screwing average people by getting them to buy dinners they can’t afford and sneak in extra hidden fees for those dinner? Don’t think so. Last I checked anyway, industries like big pharma, tech, and banks can screw people as much as they like and they still get perks and pandering. Perhaps it’s because our presumed lobby presence in Washington isn’t actually fighting for what’s best for, as my mom would say, “the little guy.”

With the $120 billion RESTAURANTS Act of 2020 sitting and collecting dust in the halls of Congress, I wonder. Are enough Yelpers and Insta influencers speaking up for the RESTAURANTS Act? How many of them have actually called their representatives to tell them to support the RESTAURANTS Act? How many of them have urged their collective millions of followers to call their reps and demand passage, doggedly and repeatedly? 

If all these millions of people who love restaurants and chefs have time to write and read reviews, to snap, edit, post, and like pics on Insta, took a fraction of that time to call their representatives, the lines on the Hill would be ringing off the hook with support for independent restaurants. And maybe, just maybe, restaurants and their workers would get the help they need. I sincerely hope that foodie influencers will use their influence to help the restaurants who have been giving them free meals for years.

This industry is hospitality. It’s where people celebrate, come together, and go by themselves to not feel alone sitting at a bar eating dinner. It’s the people who work on New Years Eve, Christmas, and Mother’s Day, who are always there for the community.

And yet, when this industry that’s all about gathering, that employs so many hard-working people, that conjures colorful images of beautiful food and lively crowds of happy faces, desperately needs its community, and its government, to actually lift a finger to help, all I can conjure as I write this is the image of tumbleweed blowing down a dusty, empty street. 

But it’s not too late, you can still call your representatives in Congress and the Senate! That’s exactly what I just did before asking you, yet again, to please, do the same.

Check out the new ad from the Independent Restaurant Coalition (voice-over by Morgan Freeman!) urging you to please, call Congress to support restaurants!!

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