Our communities are nothing without local restaurants. Our favorite hometown haunts serve as meeting places to chop it up with our family and friends, act as sources of pride we eagerly show out-of-town guests, and create smells and flavors that live forever rent-free in our sense memory. So it’s important we recognize that local restaurants have had it particularly hard during the pandemic.
COVID-19 has all but flattened the foodservice industry. And it’s affecting our communities in a big way.
For context, the restaurant industry is the second-largest private-sector employer in the entire country, proving jobs for more than 15 million people (pre-COVID). According to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), in 2019 alone the industry raked in $863 billion in revenue, that’s money that often stays in local economies. But restaurants rely on the patronage of their regulars. The reason the people behind your favorite taco joints, Chinese noodle houses, or mom and pop burger shops remember your face and favorite order is that they need us as much as we need them.
Especially now. And occasional takeout orders aren’t cutting it.
According to the NRA, COVID-19 is responsible for the permanent or long-term closure of 1 in every 6 restaurants. That accounts for nearly 100,000 restaurants, 3 million employees, and close to $240 billion in sales, and none of that takes into consideration the emotional loss that comes with a restaurant shuttering — from the employees to the owners to the patrons to the community at large. Undoing the damage done to communities by the loss of locally-owned eateries during COVID will be a years (if not decades) long project.
While the continued danger to the restaurant industry is undeniable, many chefs, restaurant owners, and ambitious employees have found ways to survive — pivoting their businesses in order to keep afloat while doing the very thing they’ve always done: tapping into the power of their local communities. The innovators featured below are just a few of the names (there are others) that caught our attention this year, defying the odds when it seemed like everything was working against them. They helped support their communities during the darkest days of the pandemic, and now we’re here to shed some light on their efforts (and delicious-looking food).
Wesley Avila — Guerilla Tacos, Los Angeles CA
California, and Los Angeles in particular, has been subjected to the strictest lockdown measures in the entire country. So when the state went deep into lockdown in April, local chefs needed to pivot fast. Guerrilla Tacos owner Wesley Avila did just that with his Mini Emergency Taco Kit. Avila dubbed the kit “a true Angeleno Survival pack during these crazy and uncertain times” — designing it with the purpose of keeping people indoors and fed, rather than risk ordering take out day after day.
The $85 kit consisted of 4 pounds of meat, two pints of two different salsas, tortillas, onions, cilantro, rice, and beans — enough to produce 30 Guerrilla-quality tacos. Avila did this all while not making a single dollar of profit, using the money instead to help support and provide the cooks, staff, and people who make Guerrilla Tacos possible with health insurance.
The strategy seems to have worked, as Guerrilla has since made Sweet Potato Kits fitting for Thanksgiving Dinner, and a Tamale Kit, bouquet, and basket for the coming holidays.
Help support Guerrilla Tacos here.
Sarah Stegner, George Bumbaris — Prarie Grass Cafe, Northbrook IL
When COVID lockdowns forced Stegner and Bumbaris to close the doors of the Prairie Grass Cafe to indoor diners, not only did the restaurant quickly shift to a curbside model with a rotating daily menu, but they offered meal kits for spring holidays, donated meals to front line workers at local Chicago hospitals, set up a Cooking Tips Hotline answered by Chef Stegner herself, and found a way to support the farmers they normally rely on by setting up a directory so that families would be able to buy directly from farms (which suddenly had a surplus of produce with nowhere to go).
Whether you needed meat, specialty vegetables, fruit, or even hot sauce, Prarie Grass did their part to help their supply chain and community, even sometimes acting as a delivery hub for good themselves.
Help support Prairie Grass Cafe here.
Jamie Malone — Grand Cafe, Minneapolis, MN
How do you continue to feed a community and make ends meet, while simultaneously trying to keep people safe? It’s a conundrum that every chef has had to battle with for the better part of this year. When COVID lockdowns forced Grand Cafe chef Jamie Malone to close her doors, she found a way to keep her kitchen staff afloat by turning her elegant French fare into a take-home experience designed to provide meals for a week at a time, helping to encourage folks to stay at home and thereby limiting their exposure to the outside community.
Sadly, the pivot wasn’t enough to keep the Grand Cafe alive, in November it was announced that the restaurant would not be reopening its doors at its original address. But that hasn’t stopped Malone from innovating.
“The pandemic has created opportunities to rethink and reimagine restaurants, take stock of what works and what doesn’t,” Malone told Eater Twin Cities, “Now is our chance to… create a better world for restaurant workers. I believe a smaller space with more dynamic revenue streams is the best way for our team to move forward.”
While the Grand Cafe may have closed its doors permanently, Malone and her team continue to provide Keep It Grand meal kits, keeping her restaurant alive in the kitchens throughout her community.
Help Support Keep It Grand here.
Deborah VanTrece — Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours, Atlanta, GA
Deborah VanTrece has always put the safety of her staff and customer base first, so she opted to close her soul food restaurant’s doors even before it was mandated by Georgia’s Governor, Brian Kemp. Georgia has had some of the laxest COVID safety measures in the country, but that doesn’t mean business has been easy. COVID has disproportionally affected BIPOC communities in devastating ways and as a black-owned business in a space predominately populated by white restaurant owners and chefs, Twisted Soul has the deck stacked against them.
VanTrece knows what she’s up against, but refuses to let it slow her down. Through Twisted Soul Cookhouse she’s offered meal kits, a pay-what-you-can concept to burn through an inventory of leftovers and support those struggling financially, Fish Fry Fridays, and even a pop-up concept she calls “A Different Kind of Chick,” a curated mini menu of chicken entrees and sandwiches designed specifically for take-away and delivery eating.
Despite all these shifts, VanTrece is still struggling. She told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that sales are down 50% compared to pre-COVID days and she’s waiting for action from Congress and keeping Twisted Soul afloat by any means necessary. The holiday season is traditionally the restaurant’s busiest season, and with the pandemic worse than ever Twisted Soul is still finding ways to feed families, offering up a massive holiday meal package that feeds a family of four.
Help support Twisted Soul here.
Neighborhood Provisions — Arlington, VA
This isn’t one chef or restaurant so much as it’s a collective of local chefs and beverage specialists put together by the DC-based Neighborhood Restaurant Group that offers deliverable pantry staples and prepared meals for families in the Virginia, DC, and Bethesda, Maryland areas. Whether you need fresh baked goods, local produce, prepared meals, fresh-cut meat, or even cocktails, Neighborhood Provisions has set up a vast directory to help you find everything you need, including a regularly rotating menu of restaurant-quality meals, while still working to support local chefs and restaurant owners struggling to get by.
Support Neighborhood Provisions here.