Restaurants across the country are scrambling. They're getting as creative as they can to continue doing business, even while most of them are physically closed to the public, just to be able to see the light of day when the country is ready to resume normal life.
One recent initiative, a "dining bonds" collective, offers a kind of investment model in which would-be customers buy gift cards or certificates, or "bonds," at a discount to redeem at a higher value when the restaurant reopens. For example, a customer would purchase a $100 bond for $75 to use in a few weeks but would give the restaurant cash immediately to use for its basic daily operations.
"The restaurant community is searching for ways to get some immediate income so they can pay the staff members that are still working on a daily basis to put out food for takeout and delivery," said Steven Hall, co-founder of the dining bonds campaign and president of Hall PR.
The initiative launched March 16 and has had varying levels of success, so far, among different restaurants. The 1933 Group, which operates 10 bars in Los Angeles, has raised at least $2,000 in dining bonds since it began promoting them, and while that's not a game changing sum, it provides some relief to the company.
"Each restaurant's economics are different," Hall said. "$2,000 definitely helps on a daily basis, it will allow them to pay some sort of invoice or salary, and that's what we're trying to do — even if it's 'pocket money.'"
Others, like Atlanta's fast-casual chain Gusto, began promoting the dining bonds March 20 and has raised $20,000.
Dozens of restaurants of every kind — from Michelin star restaurants to mom and pop delis — have signed on to the program. To join, a restaurant need only offer the dining bonds at an amount and discount of their choosing. Hall and the other initiative's co-founder, Helen Patrikis, another PR vet and founder of HP-PR, created a map of participating restaurant they hope will be a one-stop shop for restaurant profiles, GoFundMe campaign, and other relief funds.
"We've seen some good traction — it hasn't been overwhelming, but there has been a decent amount of support from both folks that are regulars in either location, who will also support it by spreading the word," said Ryan Burke, president of Public House Collective, which operates New York City's Rum House and Ward III. "We're starting to see redemptions from out of town and abroad. People are coming together as a community just to support our locations."
"I'm not sure the dining bonds thing is really going anywhere," said Sara Jenkins, a chef who runs the Italian pasta restaurant Porsena in New York's East Village and Nina June, a Mediterranean-style restaurant in Rockport, Maine. "It's a good idea but I certainly haven't seen any activity from it."
For most restaurants, they're probably not enough to sustain all the expenses that go with them: rent, insurance, gas, electricity, permits — just to stay in place. Like so many others, Jenkins had to terminate all of her staff, except for her chef and manager, because the restaurant isn't getting enough income.
Many New York restaurants — 75 percent, sources estimate — probably won't have a chance at reopening.
"It's a service industry — if there are no guests, there's no revenue," Burke said. "An initiative like the dining bonds — I think it goes a long way toward helping. But it can't be a source of replacement revenue. That'd take tremendous amounts of goodwill that we'd rely on from the general public."
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, along with his counterparts in New Jersey and Connecticut, mandated a tri-state restaurant and bar shutdown beginning March 16. Take-out and delivery are still allowed, but Porsena ended those operations on Monday. Jenkins said she was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with delivery app platforms for reasons ranging from basic health safety precautions to their "usurious fees," which she acknowledged most (GrubHub, DoorDash, and the like) are currently deferring but would expect to recoup at some point.
Delivery was never a significant part of Porsena's income, she added.
"I'm getting this feeling that delivering food is not what I should be doing," Jenkins said. "That's a really hard thing — as chefs, that's what we do. 'It's a disaster, let's eat!' Then everybody feels good, everybody needs to eat. It's what we do to feel better about it. And yet, in this situation we need to not just socially distance, we need to not be out and about or encouraging people to be out and about."
She added that getting food to consumers of delivery apps probably isn't "the best use of her capabilities," and that she's more interested in projects like Feed the Frontlines, an initiative started by Luca Di Pietro, founder of Upper West Side restaurant Tarallucci e Vino.
Like dining bonds, the success of Feed the Frontlines also relies on the generosity of patrons. The idea is to buy meals through Feed the Frontlines, which pays participating restaurants to provide the meals for New York City hospital workers. One meal costs $25, which includes the cost of the food itself, wages, and delivery.
"It feels more necessary to be helping people with nothing, whether they're food insecure people or our medical staff that's about to be slammed to the walls," Jenkins said. "It's kind of a pay-it-forward model. It has managed to keep their head above water and keep some people employed, but I don't think anyone thinks they'll get ahead by participating in this."
Most in the restaurant industry are extremely concerned they won't be able to reopen at all, she added. That could pose a problem for customers and would-be customers that invest in gift certificates they won't be able to use later.
"We're asking people to think of it more as an investment in the fact that they will reopen," Hall said. "Just as an arts organization would ask not to take refunds of tickets purchased so they can use the money to pay the artist. We're looking at these in the same way: If it doesn't reopen please look at it as the fact that you tried to help them and you invested in the fact that they possibly could."
Jennifer Vitagliano, one of the owners of The Musket Room, a semi-fine dining restaurant in Nolita, said most gift cards her restaurant issues go unredeemed anyway.
The Musket Room closed its takeout operation Monday, making a "safety call" but is working on getting its delivery service going, which is going to take some innovation and creativity from the high-end Michelin-star establishment with 10-course set menus.
"We totally just throughout the playbook of what we normally do," she said. "We're not trying to create multi-course experiences in a takeout box, we're just trying to kind of give everyone a culinary hug if you will."
The Musket Room has utilized the dining bonds website as a no-brainer way to promote sales of discounted gift cards to give New Yorkers something to look forward to. Vitagliano said they haven't set up a GoFundMe page, calling it a "prisoner's dilemma," where seemingly every restaurant in the U.S. and in New York have created one with little likelihood that anyone will meet their fundraising goal.
According to the NYC Hospitality Alliance, a trade group that represents New York restaurant and bar owners, 1,870 restaurants, bars, and nightclubs have laid off or furloughed 67,650 employees in the five days from when the state-mandated those businesses' shutdowns, as of this Wednesday. There are 27,000 restaurants in the city, according to the Department of Health; they employ 320,000 people.
The National Restaurant Association estimated this week that the entire industry would lose $225 billion in the coming three months and shed five to seven million employees.
"A lot of people are banding together in the community to figure out how we fix these business models so we can take care of our employees in this time and we're not working on razor-thin margins where most of our money goes to rent," she said.
When the city goes back to normal, it might not be normal at all, and for restaurants that survive, it won't be business as usual. Burke said the restaurant landscape has "irreparably changed." Vitagliano, who's more optimistic about the reopening of her restaurant, anticipates many restaurateurs leaving New York and looking to openings in secondary markets that are "more business-friendly."
No one is certain what would ensure a reopening, but everyone agrees there isn't one funding mechanism; that it would take a combination of grants, the pending stimulus bill, donations, and other creative fundraising opportunities. It could take a year to 18 months to get the ball rolling again, Burke said.
"The restaurants who are fortunate enough to have figured out how to get the support they need, to put themselves back out there and put their team back to work — they're all going to be different restaurants," Vitagliano said. "We're going to have to figure out how to get the price point down, get more people in the door, bring tourism back to New York."
"A big part of the reopening story will be the story."