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Mayors urged to gauge ghost kitchens’ impact while helping restaurants survive

A brainstorming session by civic leaders yielded that and other suggestions for easing local operators through the winter.
Photograph: Shutterstock

With restaurants serving as essential components of a city’s culture, municipalities should consider how the rise of ghost kitchens could alter an area’s character and reputation, a restaurateur and former mayor of Oregon’s fourth-largest city advised urban chiefs yesterday.

“They’re going to cut down the vibrancy,” Shane Bemis, owner-operator of Boccelli’s Ristorante in Gresham, Ore., told a virtual panel of mayors and the restaurant industry’s lead lobbyist yesterday. “That’s something that local governments need to talk about.”

He explained that a ghost kitchen—essentially a back of house with no front of house attached, an efficient model for cranking out delivery and takeout orders—does not provide the same level of experience that a conventional dine-in restaurant does. And that, he suggested, could detract from an area’s flavor and drawing power.

Bemis, who was a restaurateur before, during and now after his time in City Hall, also advised mayors to consider an alternative way of enforcing safety requirements imposed on restaurants: Make any local aid contingent on compliance. “Grants—it might be a good idea to have some claw-back provisions in them,” he advised.

Bemis was participating in a virtual webinar, “What Will Your City Be Like Without Restaurants?”, an event co-hosted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Restaurant Association. The session was intended to serve in part as a forum for mayors to share ideas about how they’re helping local restaurants survive the winter. Four mayors participated in the Zoom event, along with the association’s EVP of public policy, Sean Kennedy.

The mayors aired ideas that could be grouped into two categories: Ways of reassuring the public that dining out is safe and hassle-free and facilitating restaurants’ efforts to adjust to the new reality.

Chief among the latter, several participants attested, was allowing restaurants to offer alcoholic beverages for takeout and delivery. “This is a really, really big one,” said Hillary Shieve, the mayor of Reno, Nev., and the emcee of the event. “If there’s one thing you can do, this should be it.”

Kennedy noted that some restaurants have generated 40% of their revenues during the pandemic through the sales of adult beverages for off-premise consumption. “Operators have reported that the revenue has allowed them to bring back between one and two employees on average,” he said.  

Other ideas that were floated during the hour-long discussion:

  • Bring local operators together and ask them what specifically would ease their plight. “Listen, listen, listen,” said Bemis. “As this pandemic is changing daily, so are the needs of restaurateurs.”
  • With most offices still closed, provide other draws for pulling consumers downtown and into areas where restaurants abound. Grand Rapids, Mich., provided attractions over five weeks in an “outdoor activation” of its downtown, said Mayor Rosalynn Bliss. “It tripled our pedestrian traffic,” she said. “Now we’re actively looking at how we can do that through the winter.” Cincinnati shut down “literally hundreds of miles of lanes for outdoor dining,” said Mayor John Cranley. “Now we’re trying to make those lane changes permanent.”
  • Facilitate outdoor dining in any way that’s safe and doable. Grand Rapids changed its outdoor-heating guidelines with the input of the civic fire marshal to provide restaurants with a way of maintaining outdoor seating. It also changed parking rules to permit a 15-minute window for the curbside pickup of meals on downtown streets and established an internal recovery team specifically to help restaurants and other small businesses.
  • Set an example that allays unfounded public fears. Houston launched a program called “Take This to Your Table,” whereby locals were encouraged to frequent a neighborhood restaurant for a takeout meal on Thursday nights, explained Mayor Sylvester Turner. City Hall served as a model, with urban employees ordering from a variety of nearby restaurants on that night.
  • If any sort of aid is extended to restaurants, keep the program simple. “Restaurant owners are not all amazing small business operators,” said Kennedy. “The more complicated that is, the more likely an operator is going to say, I just can’t handle this.”

He urged the mayors to help the association in convincing the federal government to provide direct aid to restaurants in what he termed “the largest existential crisis this industry has faced.

“Restaurant owners, I have found, are the most tenacious and optimistic people I have ever met. But this is pushing things to an extreme,” he said. “What they’re really looking for is hope.”

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