The COVID-19 crisis is, of course, a public health crisis. In Milwaukee County alone, 918 positive cases of COVID-19 have been reported as of Thursday, along with 18 related deaths. But it’s also an economic crisis, and few sectors have been hit as hard as the service industry. An ever-growing list of relief funds for various restaurants, bars, and venues says it all.
On Thursday night, a handful of local restaurant owners assembled, via Zoom, to discuss their fears and frustrations—and a few rays of hope—in the era of COVID-19. (Everyone expressed sympathy to those infected with the coronavirus). The discussion was organized by Opportunity Wisconsin (“a coalition of Wisconsin residents fighting for an economy that works for working people”) and Progressive Restaurants and Activists of Wisconsin Network, a.k.a. PRAWN (“they fight for Wisconsin’s more than 200,000 restaurant employees by undoing some of the damage that the Wisconsin Restaurant Association has done to both service employees and the restaurant industry”).
What follows are just a few selected quotes from the hour-long discussion.
Tony Marquez, owner of La Estacion
It has been a horrific nightmare. We go from running our businesses one day, to shutting it down the next and having to tell our employees—employees who are like our family members—that they can no longer come to work because we don’t have a job. It’s horrific. It’s scary. The tears that you see coming from their faces, asking how long is this gonna take? How am I going to feed my family? That’s what we are dealing with.
The first week, I just couldn’t sleep, having nightmares of how we were going to pay the bills. And now we’re having to reinvent ourselves, having to work harder than ever, and making less money than ever. We are hiring Uber and other companies and they’re taking 30% out of our profits, but unfortunately that’s what we have to do to stay relevant.
Melissa Buchholz, owner of Odd Duck, executive director of PRAWN
March 15 was our last day of service, and that was before any true guidance on any level from any government, federal or state. But at that point we already had kind of a palpable sense of fear among our staff, and you could tell that the dining public was sort of slowing down. It was feeling a little bit scary and really uncertain.
Our original plan was to close for two days and make a hard pivot to carryout, which was hard for us because we don’t normally do it at all. We don’t have the infrastructure. We literally didn’t have bags or to-go boxes. We had to rewrite the whole menu to something that would work for carryout. And we did that for the house and the public and for our staff with literally no information or guidance besides what anybody could find on the internet with basic Google searches or major news outlets.
Typically, Odd Duck employs 36 people, and that includes myself and my partner. Today we have 14 employees, including us, so we basically had to lay off about two-thirds of our staff so that they could access unemployment benefits.
The employees still working have agreed to donate their tips to the people who are not working, who are unemployed. We have virtual tip jars, we’re selling gift cards, we’re selling merchandise, anything that we can do to create a cash flow through this and to get some cash into our employees’ pockets. Our business, at this point, is down 70%.
I want to emphasize that we did all this without knowing if there was going to be any programs to save us or help us. We did it because it was the right thing to do, and I have absolutely no regrets that we made the decision that we did.
Becky Clancy, owner of Bounce Milwaukee
March is usually our busiest month of the year. And the first weekend after COVID-19 hit our sales were down over 80%. And it just completely knocked the wind out of us.
We knew that things would have to change very quickly. So we had to put together a plan to restructure, and the hardest part about that was we had no guidance. There was nothing coming down to give us any sort of input of what the next few weeks or months were going to look like.
We had to make decisions where we were deciding what’s good for the business, or what’s good for the employees, and it was really hard to make those decisions without knowing if the business was going to be able to survive. We decided we needed to prioritize taking care of our employees above anything else. We decided that we would give our employees pretty generous severance packages and furlough them with the guarantee that we would bring them all back as soon as we possibly could.
But it made more sense for them to be able to file for unemployment rather than having heavily reduced hours. We went to a core staff, and we used that staff to do carryout delivery orders, to pivot our business from being a place where people come to play and eat and drink to being just a carry-out restaurant, which was a huge change for us.
The other thing we did was ask the community that if they were ordering something for carryout or for delivery, to purchase a pizza or food for other families in need in the Milwaukee community. That enabled us to give our employees some more hours. We were able to take those pizzas either to families in need, or we took them to emergency rooms, or to the staff working on the front lines of this crisis.
One of the biggest frustrations that I hear from others and that we feel is that there are no models. We need clear guidance. We need programs, we need bridge loans, we need financial support, and we need financial support for our staff, and we need that to be clear. We don’t have time to slog through millions of miles of paperwork and websites. We just need to know what to do to get back on our feet to make it through this so that we can come out the other side as strong as ever going into summer.
Without significant access to programs we will not be able to rebuild as we want. Many restaurants won’t rebuild at all. We have friends who literally are saying, well, we’ll serve until we can’t and then we’re out, probably forever. So Odd Duck will be here at the end, but it probably won’t look the same. It might be a different restaurant. It might still be called Odd Duck, and we will be there and we will adapt. But there’s a period of mourning right now for the restaurant that we built, while at the same time simultaneously trying to build a new one.
Guidance from the federal government would be enormous right now. It feels like everything is sort of at sea. I’m glad that the CARES Act passed, for what that’s worth, but we’re still in a position, several days after that’s passed, where we don’t know how to apply for certain things. I keep reaching out to our bank, or our bank reaches out to us, and they’re doing the best they can, but they’re saying we don’t have the information to answer that question right now.
We feel like we don’t have protection from the federal government. The big corporations have protections from the federal government and from Wall Street. We don’t have that.
We need real guidance. We need a partnership with the federal government more than ever. We didn’t create this. We were working, running our businesses, and the next thing you know the carpet is pulled from underneath our feet. We need help from the federal government to make sure that we can stay alive.
I have friends in the industry who called me the first day when we had sales of $160. I’m saying, oh my god, what are we going to do with $160? I’m going to shut it down. A friend in the restaurant said, hey, just hang in there, don’t quit right now, charge me an extra $1,000 so you can have this money in your account and you don’t have to shut down. We love this restaurant.
There are many instances where people have made me cry here. Customers have said, hang in there, we don’t want you to go out of business, let me know if you need any money. It’s just amazing.
There’s been such an outpouring from the community, and it’s really moving. I mentioned that we did the deal where people could purchase pizza for someone else in the community. We had people calling and ordering 10 or 15 pizzas at a time, and making a payment for those, so that we could provide them to other families.
The other thing has been sharing interim job postings. There’s an entire Facebook page set up for odd jobs for people who are in the Milwaukee service industry. That’s obviously not sustainable long term, but what a great thing to get us through the next couple of weeks or months, giving people some options in a really dark and desperate time.
In the best of the times, the service industry in Milwaukee really supports one another. It’s a really collaborative city for this industry, which is actually not normal across all cities. But Milwaukee hospitality and restaurant owners, managers, and staff, a lot of us know each other. We have a big network and we’re always willing to help each other out.
We’ve seen an outpouring of support from people who want to help us as well. We had a gentleman come in—just a regular, you know who you are—who gave us a check for $500, just for tips for the staff. That made me cry. The little memo said, “Persevere friends.” I think the memo made me cry more than the contribution.
For people for us, the reality is that’s not going to be enough to sustain us or all of our businesses in the long run, but it’s beautiful. I love it. And if that’s the way we have to go out, I guess that’s a good way to go out.