By Losing Independent Restaurants, We're Losing Our Unique American Culture

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

On this first Friday in December, California’s governor is on the verge of shutting down restaurants in the state to all on-site dining for an undetermined length of time, relegating them to pickup or delivery only during a time of the year many rely on to get them through leaner parts of the year. These restaurants have already been hit hard by yo-yo’ing shutdown orders and nonsensical regulations, and while the state and some local government entities are promising grants and relief, the fine print is that restaurants that have already received government assistance earlier in the pandemic are ineligible for the new round of aid.

As a result, thousands of independent restaurants in the state are on the verge of closing forever. Some think that’s not such a big deal – after all, more will take their place after the pandemic, right? That remains to be seen. Why take the risk in an industry that already has a high failure rate and very low profit margins, when the government can shut you down at will and through no fault of your own?

The loss is going to be staggering in many ways, as San Francisco journalist Erica Sandberg has so perfectly described in her “Open Letter to San Francisco Restaurants.” She wrote the letter Thursday morning after reading in the San Francisco Chronicle that a new stay-at-home order might force Bay Area restaurants to close outdoor dining, but updated it after Gavin Newsom’s announcement that will effectively do that statewide. She tweeted:

Sandberg wrote:

Dear San Francisco Restaurant:

YOU are the flavor of our San Francisco. You are crucial and we are so grateful for everything you do.

We recognize the effort you put into your business during these difficult times. Your struggles are real. We notice. After you were forced to close, you carefully reopened. The requirements must have been maddening, but you did it. You built patios at your own expense. You diligently wore masks, switched menus for QR codes, bought outdoor heaters and blankets, spaced tables, monitored guests, scrubbed and sanitized. We felt your exhaustion. Not only are we your customers; we are your neighbors and friends. 

We love you for the dishes you produce and the atmosphere you create .Thanks to you, we’ve had dates where we’ve fallen in love, lingering over dessert, not wanting to leave. We’ve formed and solidified friendships over your meals and cocktails, and had unforgettable family celebrations. When we were too tired to cook, you did it for us. Your business is embedded in our conversations as memories (“Remember that great night?”) and future plans (“Yes, let’s meet there!”). You’re a source of pride. When people come to visit, we’re so excited to bring them into your business. “If only we had restaurants like this where we live,” they’d exclaim.

Now you’re shut down again. God knows you must be frustrated, depressed, scared. Possibly hopeless. Though state and city officials don’t seem tot care about your wellbeing and the vital role you play, we do. Your hosts, servers, cooks and chefs are essential to us. Their paychecks matter.

We, your customers, neighbors, and friends, support you. We need you here. Our hearts break for you.

Ironically, it’s the mom-and-pop restaurants, from truly unique spaces to reliable greasy spoons, that are dying off here. Corporate restaurants like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, KFC, Applebee’s, and Chili’s aren’t being killed by our authoritarian rulers, something their anti-corporatist voters would do well to remember the next time they’re up for election.

As Sandberg said, the employees’ paychecks matter, as do the paychecks of the owners, most of whom didn’t have Getty backing to start a restaurant out of college and most of whom have no safety net of billionaire benefactors to fall back on should their restaurant fail – unlike restauranteur Gavin Newsom, who likes to point out that he started his first restaurant right out of college so he can identify with the frustrations of restaurant owners, but conveniently leaves out that he did it risk-free.

But, as Sandberg also points out, the contribution of local restaurants to the culture of a city or region and to the moments that make up our lives, is important. There’s no better way to get to know an area than by visiting its local eateries, and national chain restaurants can never take their place.

Most importantly, the restaurant industry symbolizes the heart of the American Dream and what it means to be an American. Cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco are famous for Mexican, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese restaurants (and more) founded by immigrants from those countries. The Miami area is known for excellent Cuban food served in restaurants started by Cuban exiles. In the northeast, scores of pizza restaurants were started more than 100 years ago by Italian immigrants who brought the recipes from their region of Italy to the New World.

These immigrants share their culture and their food, while achieving the economic freedom that was so elusive in their home countries. Over time many of these dishes have become “Americanized,” as if that’s a bad thing. In my mind, that’s a good thing. It’s a representation of the melding of cultures that occurs in this big “melting pot” (ahem) we call home.

Save our independent restaurants. If you own one, refuse to comply with the shutdown orders, which have zero basis in science. If you’re “just a patron,” please call your federal representatives and beg them to step in and stop this madness. Our culture depends on it.