CHICAGO (NewsNation Now) — The restaurant industry employs about 9% of the American workforce — or at least it did before the coronavirus pandemic.
While legislation for federal funding to help restaurants survive is stalled in the Senate, hundreds of women restaurateurs have come together to tap into the entrepreneurial spirit that made them successful.
They hope it will help their businesses make it through the challenges brought on by COVID-19.
For three decades, Ruth Gresser has been providing people in the Washington D.C. area a friendly face slicing pizza and a tasty meal at Pizza Paradiso.
“Many of us got into this business because of a passion for food, and a passion for hospitality, and nurturing and caretaking and bringing joy,” she said.
But the virus has ravaged the restaurant industry and this mainstay, is no exception.
“The last eight months have been very difficult,” Gresser added. “I have owned my business for — next month will be 29 years — and we have consistently grown over the period of time and watched the industry grow and to expand in a way I think none of us ever imagined. And in March everything changed. And in the course of 10 minutes, we basically went from a staff of 170 to a staff of about 25.”
Overnight, Pizza Paradiso became a delivery-only business. Gresser started handing out free pizza to anyone in need. But for a woman who for years has been mentoring other women in food, doing outreach in her community, and considers her staff family — this was the hardest thing she says she’s been through.
“There’s been a lot of loss over the last — I’ve lost count of the months. I’ve had a personal loss, a death in the family because of Covid. I’ve lost a lot of long-term staff, and we’re a pizza place, but we’ve been a lot more than a pizza place over the years,” said Gresser.
In Chicago, another woman is trying to figure out how to keep the restaurant she’s owned for 17 years afloat.
“It has just completely decimated us. It’s brought us to our knees,” said Rohini Dey, owner of Vermillion. “Actually, I take that back, because we are not on our knees — all of us are fighting in some way or another, but some of us have closed already, and the predictions are that well over 80% of us will end by the middle of next year if we don’t get relief from the government.”
So Dey organized. She invited 15 other women restauranteurs in the area to have discussions online where they could wash out ideas, get to know each other better, and share resources and contacts. She called it, “Let’s Talk.”
“It’s been an immense source of strength to all of us,” said Dey. “Is it going to change our fortune and enable us to survive and have we like made it over the hill? Absolutely not. But are we in the battle together, and are we better for it? Yes.”
The informal moral support group eventually ballooned to 250 women restauranteurs in ten cities, including Gresser in Washington, D.C.
They coordinate tasting menus, lobby for federal relief, and help each other through negotiations.
Competitors have become collaborators, reaching many more customers than they would have individually.
“We all are in dire straits, but we are all here to make the size of the pie bigger by being unified,” explained Dey.
They are hoping Congress approves $120 billion in funding for independent restaurants. Folded into the “Heroes Act,” the bi-partisan “Restaurants Act” passed in the House of Representatives, but stalled in the Senate.
“We are caught in the middle, and to us, that is absolutely unacceptable, because had we been the airlines, where we were just a monopoly of two or three massive players, then legislation would have been much more rapid,” said Dey.
It’s a heartbreaking, but not uncommon story during the pandemic.
“One day we were open and literally two days later, we were shut down, so it was pretty intense for us,” said Dina Samson, owner of Rossoblu in Los Angeles.
The previous PPP loan from the federal government combined with the balmy Southern California weather and spacious patio is what allowed another “Let’s Talk” member, Samson, to keep her trendy Los Angeles eatery alive.
But that funding was intended to get these restaurants through a couple of months. Now, nine months in, the thought of having to furlough her employees again — and the ripples effects of another closure — is hard to take.
“It affects so many people because it’s not just us. It affects all our vendors,” explained Samson. “It’s the farmers, it’s the wineries, it’s the beermakers, it’s the liquor makers, it’s linen people, it’s the people that clean the restaurant. Ugh. It’s endless, the number of people that are affected. And it’s really bad, where everybody wanted us to pay our bills, and it’s like, we couldn’t, we don’t have any money either. So we were all in this terrible spot together.”
Of the more than 70 million jobs lost in April at the start of the pandemic, one in four of them were in bars and restaurants, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“We have a team that’s been here a really long time,” said Samson. “So we kind of pivoted to help feed them, because who knew when they were going to get their next check because the unemployment system was so inundated with requests.”
With surplus for vendors, in addition to feeding her team, Samson fed 150 hospice and foster care families.
But for women trying to keep a business alive — and balance that with the demands of homeschooling and child care — it’s a hard one to strike. Which is why their support system has become invaluable.
Through the heartache and the stress — and facing the possibility that their beloved businesses might not recover — a break in the clouds from other women who have knowledge and a willingness to share it.
“That’s the one kind of shining moment of it all, is that I think we finally came together as an industry,” said Samson.