Here's who we're leaving off our holiday gift list

Insurers, landlords, the SBA, mask deniers, Mother Nature and the guy who wrote "Fancylike" are all those that should receive coal this year.
Photo illustration by RB Staff

That jolly fat guy at the North Pole supposedly keeps comprehensive lists of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. Lesser known are the secret dossiers he maintains on the louts who won’t be getting as much as a used toothbrush this year because of how they treated the restaurant business.

Now, thanks to a few cafeteria credits crossing the palms of a shady elf known as Knuckles, we’re able to reveal this year’s Really Bad list. Here are the parties who deserve nothing more this holiday season than a reindeer snort.

Insurance companies

Any responsible businessperson knows to protect their enterprise from the unknown by popping for business continuity insurance. So when the mother of all business interruptions hit last year, restaurant operators figured their only problem in collecting would be how to Purell the check after endorsing it.

They learned this year just how wrong that assumption was. Insurers pointed out the tiny print that says infectious diseases aren’t a covered business interruption. Besides, dining rooms were closed in 2020 and ’21 because of government orders, not an inability to operate. 

If the carrier couldn’t use those loopholes, there was the fallback argument that disruption insurance is intended to help a business rebuild after suffering physical damage from a calamity like a hurricane or a fire. As the insurers successfully argued in court, most of the restaurants looking for reimbursement hadn’t suffered so much as a broken window.

Collecting was brutal and fruitless. So, we hope, will be the insurers’ holidays.


Many restaurants were able to defer rent payments last year, and a number of local governments offered leaseholders the added protection of a temporary ban on evictions. Then came 2021. Landlords wanted their money, since they, too, were badly in need of revenues.

You can’t blame them for protecting their businesses. Forgiveness of the back rent was far from an ideal choice. But operators just didn’t have the money to make good on their IOUs—or, for that matter, to pay the current month’s rent. Longstanding relationships deteriorated, turning one-time partnerships into classic landlord vs. tenant struggles.

The U.S. Small Business Administration

As administrator of the two big-budget federal programs aimed at helping businesses of restaurants’ scale, the SBA should have emerged as the industry’s equivalent of Captain America. Instead, problems with the Paycheck Protection Program and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund undercut that shot at hero status.

Operators blasted the agency’s erratic communications on matters no less profound than the survival of their businesses and being able to pay employees. With the RRF program and its purposely biased system for allocating $28.6 billion, the SBA noted that it was just following the mandate set for it by Congress. But, still, operators lamented that they often didn’t know the status of their aid requests, only to find the requested money in their accounts the next day. Or that they were not actually going to get the funds they were initially promised.

The PPP illustrated how awry a well-intentioned program can go under time pressures. Operators complained that they didn’t know if their applications for potentially forgivable loans had even been received, much less processed. Others groused that they’d followed the rules and been awarded a grant, then had to return it because of the public outcry over their legal receipt of aid.

Still, the two programs channeled nearly $1 trillion in aid to restaurants and similarly sized businesses.

The guy who sang “Fancy Like”

The soundtracks to commercials are supposed to be catchy. But a tattoo would have been easier to shake off than the infectious country tune Applebee’s used for its commercials last summer.

The earworm from singer Walker Hayes tended to play in listeners’ heads so incessantly that many groused bitterly on social media about the hold it had on them. To make matters worse, the song became a bona fide hit, soaring to No. 1 on the charts, after Applebee’s started using it. It was harder to avoid than pitches to extend your car’s warranty.

The tune was a smash for Applebee’s, even though some listeners were ready to smash their TVs.

Mother Nature

The industry should have sacrificed a few goats to the weather gods back in January. Perhaps that would have spared operators from a year where wildfires raged in one section of the country while torrential rains flooded other regions. Meanwhile, business was chased away in Texas by a freakish heatwave that overtaxed the state’s electrical power grid, triggering extensive blackouts that persisted for days.

All told, the Atlantic half of the nation was hit with 21 storms through early November—less than the 30 flooded restaurants and homes in 2020, but still enough to stick Mother Nature with the fruit cake this year.

Mask refuseniks

Customer disputes are a part of the business. But local mask mandates elevated the strife literally to lethal levels in 2021. Restaurateurs were stunned by the fierce resistance some patrons showed to wearing face masks inside a restaurant, occasionally to the point of being violent. At the receiving end of the tirades were employees trying to explain through their own masks that they were just following the local rules. Some ended up with serious injuries for doing their jobs.

No wonder survey after survey showed that customer conflicts were a significant reason for the mass resignation of restaurant employees during the year.  

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