billie-jean has suspended service completely due to the coronavirus photo by carmen troesser

COVID-19's decimating impact on the St. Louis hospitality industry

It is hard to overstate the impact the coronavirus has had on all aspects of daily life worldwide, and the hospitality industry is one hit the hardest. St. Louis restaurant dining rooms are currently shut down in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus. For now, food can still be sold through delivery, carryout, curbside pickup or drive-thru, but that does not provide enough income for restaurants to maintain regular staff.

Many establishments began the process of shutting down before it was officially mandated by city and county officials on March 19 in an attempt to combat the spread of COVID-19 while still offering whatever service they could.

Billie-Jean and Bar Les Frères are both dark,” said owner Zoë Robinson. “My crew is all laid off. It’s devastating. It’s heartbreaking.”

After reducing seating and then shuttering her dining rooms completely, Robinson began offering a small menu of dishes from all three of her restaurants for delivery and curbside pickup at I Fratellini – a move she would never have considered before the outbreak. She has since suspended service completely.

“Our industry is in a free fall.”

– Zoë Robinson, restaurateur

Many establishments have had to pivot from regular menus, offering limited selections or creating new offerings. Louie chose to focus on pizza and pasta, since many dishes on its regular menu were not suited to carryout. The fine dining Vicia opted to offer an entirely new menu of casual, family-style meals, before suspending service completely. 

Juniper chef-owner John Perkins also closed his dining room and restricted service to delivery and curbside pickup before the mandate. He took the step of officially terminating employees (with the intention of rehiring them once the outbreak subsides), so they could apply for unemployment and other benefits. He put together packets for staff members with a termination letter, links to a variety of government agencies and the employee’s year-to-date pay info so they’d have everything they’d need to apply immediately.

“My staff couldn’t wait around for the government to get proactive. I needed to take care of my staff right now,” he said. “I couldn’t wait.”

Gerard Craft, co-owner of Niche Food Group, which includes Sardella, Pastaria, Brasserie, Taste and Cinder House in the Four Seasons Hotel, took the extreme measure of closing all his restaurants except Cinder House and not offering delivery or pickup services to ensure zero chance of transmission. Craft announced the decision in an emotional video posted on social media on March 16.

My staff couldn’t wait around for the government to get proactive. I needed to take care of my staff right now. I couldn’t wait.

– John Perkins, Juniper chef-owner

“This is affecting both health and finance, and unfortunately, the cures for both of these are in direct conflict with each other,” Craft said in the video. “This is extremely painful, but we know we’re doing the right thing.”

During the shutdown, Craft said Niche Food Group kitchens are being used to make free meals for its employees and that his team is working to focus on North Sarah Food Hub, which will deliver free meals to people in need during the crisis.

Despite the steps being taken to help alleviate the present situation, the future of the hospitality industry is very much in flux.

“Our industry is in a free fall. I don’t know how many will make it. I think we’re out [of service] for months,” Robinson said.

“If I had to guess, I think restaurants will be closed through April,” Perkins said. “We’ll come back to a restaurant scene that’s radically changed. A lot of places won’t make it.”

“I’m asking myself, ‘Do I want to stay in this business?’” Robinson said. “It’s sickening to think what could happen in just 48 hours.”

“It’s a dark night of the soul for a lot of operators,” Perkins said. “They have to ask themselves, ‘Do I want to continue in an industry that’s this fragile?’”

This is affecting both health and finance, and, unfortunately, the cures for both of these are in direct conflict with each other.

Gerard Craft, co-owner of Niche Food Group

Those who are able to reopen will face a slew of challenges, including the cost of restocking products and repairing equipment, retraining staff and bringing new employees up to speed, Robinson said. And at the end of the day, there’s the question of whether customers will return to their old dining habits.

“Once [the shutdown] gets lifted, is it like after a big snowfall when the snow melts and places get packed, or is it a slow climb back?” Perkins said. “We don’t know.”

In the short-term, Craft is urging state and local governments to step up and provide relief for the hospitality industry with emergency unemployment benefits, elimination of payroll taxes and rent and lease abatement for those affected by the closures.

Over the long haul, Robinson said, “Our industry has to change. It has to be taken seriously as a profession.” She advocates switching to the model New York’s Danny Meyer and other restaurateurs have adopted with flat menu pricing, set wages and no tipping.

While the politicians debate what, if any, relief the hospitality industry will receive, the industry itself is doing what it always does – supporting its own. Nationally, the United States Bartenders Guild has set up a relief fund that can be accessed by members and non-members alike. Olive + Oak owner Mark Hinkle has been especially active in organizing local members of the hospitality industry to demand political action. Demetrius Cain, owner and head distiller at Nobletons Distilling House, is donating 100% of the company’s net profits to support relief efforts. Numerous GoFundMe campaigns have been launched, as well as neighborhood-specific relief programs like Good for the Grove. The Gateway Resilience Fund, spearheaded by The Gramophone owner Roo Yawitz and Craft, aims to unite efforts for local, independent restaurant workers, offering direct relief payments to employees and owners of local businesses in the hospitality industry.

“My frame of mind at the moment is energy and passion to get through this,” Perkins said. “This shit isn’t going to keep us down.”

How you can help today

There are many ways to support your favorite St. Louis restaurants, bars and breweries directly. St. Louis restaurants are still able to offer carryout and delivery, which is a great place to start. If you don’t feel comfortable eating takeout, purchase gift cards to enjoy after the coronavirus has passed. Many businesses are also selling merchandise with proceeds going directly to employees who are out of work due to the pandemic.

However helpful your carryout and swag purchases are, they’re not going to be enough. The National Restaurant Association estimates that 5 to 7 million jobs will be lost in the next three months. Donate to the Gateway Resilience Fund to support employees and owners of independent bars, restaurants and shops in St. Louis. The fund is expected to raise millions to cover personal, family, living and funeral expenses incurred by the outbreak. And finally, we need government action to bail out small businesses. On Wednesday, March 25, the Senate finally approved a relief package that includes $350 billion for loans to small businesses. The House will vote on Friday, March 27. Contact your representatives through the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at 202.224.3121 to ensure that at least some of your favorite spots to drink and dine in St. Louis survive. 

Matt Sorrell is a contributing writer at Sauce Magazine.

Tags : News, Coronavirus