by Emma Loewe
As Americans trade in dining out with friends for eating in with Zoom, the restaurant and bar industries have taken a major hit. Nearly 60% of the 700,000 people who lost their jobs last month worked in food service, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Labor. Celebrity chefs like Tom Colicchio and David Chang are speculating that by the time lockdown orders soften, it will be too costly for many smaller, independently run restaurants to reopen their doors. Their future largely depends on the government stimulus plan, but there are things that we as eaters can do to help support our favorite local haunts too.
We reached out to the people on the front lines of the food and beverage industries—farmers and chefs and restaurant owners—to ask about what they need most from us right now.
Here's what they had to say:
"We've gone from serving people together in our spaces to serving people separately in theirs."
Everything has shifted for us completely overnight. Since the crisis hit, we've pivoted Rhodora and June into wine retail shops, Rucola is now offering delivery, and Purslane has gone from catering weddings to providing delivery and will soon be sending weekly meals and groceries to people's homes. We've gone from serving people together in our spaces to serving people separately in theirs.
A big fear is that this crisis will drive independent restaurants out of NYC and they will be replaced with larger chains that are equipped with more upfront capital to withstand high rents and tough times. It's entirely possible New York could lose the independent restaurants that are the life force of our city. No one knows yet what will happen to small businesses everywhere, but the support of our community will greatly help us all move forward. For anyone looking for a way to support us right now, the best thing to do is to engage and show your favorite restaurants your love, whether that's by ordering delivery, buying gift cards and merch, or donating to employee relief funds if you're in a position to do so.
"Donate where you can, order from restaurants you love, and tip your delivery drivers well."
It has changed everything. We've had to close restaurants, lay off teams, and switch to a delivery-based model for those restaurants still open. We've found new ways to connect people to vegetables at home, and on the front lines. We developed the Dig Acres Farm Box to deliver fresh produce and pantry staples to people all over NYC. We launched Family Meals to make it easier for families of four to six to order a healthy and wholesome dinner. And we created Dig Feeds to provide access to food for those most in need. So far we've donated over 82,000 meals to hospital workers and food banks, ranging from raw vegetables to pouches of fresh baby food to fully cooked meals.
Donate where you can, order from restaurants you love, and tip your delivery drivers well. We are all in this together, and we have to support one another right now so the restaurant industry still exists on the other side of this thing.
—Adam Eskin, Founder and CEO of Dig Food Group "Continue to buy local even after our lives get back to normal."
Local Roots has been in business since 2011, and the increase in customers in the past three weeks is nearly equal to the increase in customers we've had in the past nine years. Before COVID, 95% of our customers picked up at one of our markets hosted at bars or cafes; now about 90% are opting for delivery. But the higher operational costs due to delivery plus the precautions we are taking to be extra safe mean that we're not necessarily making a ton more profit. We're also working every waking hour—but we're just happy to be able to feed our fellow NYers and to support our partnering farms that we've known for nine years. Our farmers hit a massive setback when their restaurant accounts closed, and their dependency on the Local Roots customer base is a huge reason we keep going.
The most impactful way people can support small food businesses is to continue to buy local even after our lives get back to normal. This will help ensure the economic stability of local, small farms who are growing nutrient-rich foods.
—Wen-Jay Ying, Founder and Director of Local Roots in NYC
"I hope if and when the dust settles, folks maintain some of the habits they developed during these months: buying local, cooking at home, and spending more time together eating."
The pandemic is shaking up the global food distribution system in ways that are just starting to be understood. But small and mid-size regenerative farmers selling direct to customers have a built-in resiliency, both ecologically and socially. Here at Caney Fork Farms, our restaurant sales pretty much vanished overnight, but demand for our CSA has almost outpaced our capacity. (We currently have a waitlist for our vegetable share.)
I hope if and when the dust settles, folks maintain some of the habits they developed during these months: buying local, cooking at home, and spending more time together eating. These are all things that many in the food and farming movement have been advocating for decades. I would like to see a future in which local food and farmers are appreciated for the essential services they provide, even when it's 'safe' to go to the supermarket."
—Zach Wolf, Farm Manager at Caney Fork Farms in Carthage, Tennessee
"Consider all the great suppliers that don't usually fall into at-home dining: cheesemakers, craft brewers, bakeries, shellfish farmers, local distilleries."
As a winemaker, I've been glad to see beer, wine, and liquor stores classified as essential businesses in most states with stay-at-home orders. While it's great for the industry that retail sales have seen a spike due to quarantine stock-ups, unfortunately we small wine guys are largely left out of that equation. We don't have the brand recognition or merchandising dollars to be carried by the distributors who deal with big retailers that are flooded right now.
Boutique wine brands are what the beverage industry calls "on-premise brands," meaning the majority of what we produce is consumed where it's purchased—that is, at a restaurant. (Restaurant accounts comprise over 85% of my revenue.) While some restaurants have done a great job shifting to takeout and delivery, wine is rarely on that new menu, so I'm depending largely on online sales and have added the incentive of free shipping.
So my ask? Keep supporting your favorite restaurants via takeout, delivery, and GoFundMe donations to worker relief funds. But also consider all the great suppliers that your at-home dining doesn't typically consist of: cheesemakers, craft brewers, bakeries, shellfish farmers, local distilleries. Safely seek out the small artisanal grocery shops when you can. We all want to be around to make your restaurant experience great again on the other side of this.
—Mary McAuley, Founder and Owner, Ripe Life Wines Craft Winery in California
"Farmers are essential workers and cannot stop farming to practice social distancing. We run the risk of losing our entire year's crop and potentially our livelihoods."
The COVID crisis is presenting a challenge to small farms that sell fresh fruits and vegetables, including those that sell to restaurants, farmers markets, and schools that are currently shuttered. Farmers are essential workers and cannot stop farming to practice social distancing. We run the risk of losing our entire year's crop and potentially our livelihoods as well. So we carry on: The food from the Rodale Institute St. Luke's Organic Farm goes to support the local hospital system, which needs healthy, organic food more than ever for the influx of patients they're treating during this crisis.
Support farmers who have been affected by purchasing their CSA shares, visiting their stands at farmers markets, or ordering produce direct from farms online. This crisis is putting a spotlight on how crucial our food system is and how tenuously it hangs in the balance.
—Lynn Trizna, Project Manager at Rodale Institute's St. Luke's Organic Farm in Pennsylvania
"As long as public gatherings of any size are restricted, caterers like us will need to swiftly shift gears in order to survive."
As a small farm-to-table catering company located in Manhattan, we were hugely—and quite suddenly—affected by the pandemic. In early March, all events and orders for the next three-plus months were canceled. As long as public gatherings of any size are restricted, caterers like us will need to swiftly shift gears in order to survive. So I decided to utilize what resources we had to continue employing my staff and contribute to the front-line medical workers and first responders at NYC hospitals. My company, Portable Provisions, partnered with two other small food businesses, Milk Money Kitchens and Black 6 Project, to create the Food for Impact initiative, which donates fresh, healthy, sustainably packaged meals to health care workers. The produce we serve is sourced exclusively from small family farms (in order to continue providing them with a small stream of revenue during this difficult time).
The community support to help sponsor us has been incredible, and since we started two weeks ago, we have delivered 600-plus meals within a network of 10 hospitals and counting. The power of community is more essential than ever, and by contributing to initiatives like Food for Impact, purchasing gift certificates, and booking future events with caterers, people at home can help businesses like ours pull through this uncertain time.