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Joe Biden gets an earful about independent restaurants’ dire state

An operator and a foodservice employee provided first-hand accounts of how they’ve been economically and emotionally devastated.
Photograph: Andrew Seaman

The grim realities facing independent restaurants were sketched out for President-elect Joe Biden yesterday during a listen-and-learn session convened by his transition team to provide the incoming chief executive with a grass-roots view of the threats confronting small businesses and their employees.

The session, a six-person virtual roundtable conducted on Zoom, was intended to focus on all small businesses. But much of the discussion focused on the particulars of the foodservice industry, with two of the six participants hailing from that field. The two—Dan Jacobs, co-owner of a multi-concept restaurant group in Milwaukee, Wis., and Karen Coffey, a server laid off after 30 years of working in Detroit sports venues—turned the conversation into very personal accounts of how they’re suffering financially and emotionally because of the federal government’s reluctance to support the business.

“We are worse off than we were in March,” lamented Jacobs, who said a 91% drop in revenues had forced his company, JVR, to close all but two of its restaurants. “Since June 1, we’ve lost another $700,000 in revenues.”

He characterized the situation as “true desperation,” and told Biden that he’s not sure JVR can survive past March or April.

“This is the big one, Mr. President-elect,” Jacobs said. “If there’s one point I hope you take away today,  it’s that we as small business operators cannot help our workforce by taking on more debt. We need grant help, and we need grant help now.”

He represented the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a trade group that is pressing Congress and the White House on behalf of the nation’s independent restaurants for $120 billion in direct aid.

“We understand the necessity to shut down now and stay safe now,” said Jacobs, whose restaurants are located in a state that has limited dining-room capacities to 25%. “All I’m asking is that you give us the tools to succeed.”

Relying on outdoor dining is not a solution for operations in a cold-weather state such as Wisconsin, where the size of parties has also been limited, Jacobs continued. “As winter approached, we spent $20,000 to make our restaurant as safe as possible for our team and for our guests,” he explained. “It seems like a waste now because it’s not safe except with people who are part of your bubble.”

Coffey broke down as she recounted being laid off from her jobs at Detroit’s two major sports arenas, where she had worked for three decades. She explained that she’s not sure those jobs will still be there when limitations on stadium capacities are lifted.

“There is no place to get a job,” she said. “We don’t want to be sitting home on unemployment. We want to go back to our old jobs that we had. We want them to be safe.

“We feel hopeless. We don’t know where the hope is going to come from.”

Biden assured Jacobs, Coffey and their fellow-panelist—one an out-of-work school crossing guard—that he’s determined to push through the federal relief they all need. He indicated that his administration does not intend to wait until the inauguration to push Congress to pass some sort of aid package. News reports indicate that his advisors are working behind the scenes to push through a measure.

“The full Congress should come together and pass a robust package now,” the Democrat said. “We’re working on passing a package now.”

Addressing Jacobs, Biden commented, “We’ve gotta provide for you the ability to open, and open safely. You should be in a position where you could get the ventilation changed, all the dividers put up, all the social distancing done.”

He noted the problems that arose with the federal government’s first major relief package for small businesses, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

“I don’t want you giving up hope,” Biden said to the panelists. “Hang on. We’ll get through this. We can fix it. We have to go back and make up what we didn’t do for you all.”

But, the president-elect added, “It’s going to be hard as hell for he next 50 to 70 days.”  


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