Epidemic Essentials: Small Businesses in the Food Industry


by Kristi Brooks

“Fluid situation; Unprecedented times; Ever-changing event; Lockdown; and Flatten the curve,” are all phrases we’ve grown accustomed to in the past few weeks amid the COVID-19 Pandemic (Coronavirus).  As the world struggles to adjust to new protocols and executive orders, the food industry is suffering mightily.

As of Tuesday, March 24, more than 44,000 cases have been diagnosed in the United States, with all 50 states reporting infected persons and over 544 deaths.  President Trump and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued new guidelines which call on states to close restaurants, bars, and other activities where more than a handful of people could congregate.

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee was one of the first to close down hospitality businesses.  He was joined quickly by governors all over the country.  As the sickness traveled down the west coast, California issued the first “stay at home” order and many were shocked as they turned out the lights on the Las Vegas Strip casinos.

“We are here in support of the National Restaurant Association who is looking for the federal government to be able to help those small business owners — we have the financial stability, you know we have over $2 billion dollars of cash on our balance sheet.  We are not looking for financial assistance,” Sysco Foods CEO Kevin Hourican told CNBC Friday morning.  “We will weather this storm financially.  It’s that small American business owner, and there are millions of them, that we are very worried about… we are hopeful and thankful the U.S.  government can step in and help them during this time.”

Sysco is the largest food supply service chain in the United States — restaurants make up 62 percent of Sysco’s customers.

Restaurants worldwide shuttered their doors in hopes of doing their part to curtail COVID-19.  Major chains such as McDonalds, Taco Bell, and Chick-fil-A all closed their dining rooms with drive-through and take-out options still available.  For many local and small restaurant owners, the mandated closings proved to be shocking and devastating.

Gary Ensy and his family own a well-established restaurant called The Fish Fry, which, ironically, has the best steak in Paris, Texas.

“Everybody’s got to do their share to try and make sure this doesn’t spread anymore.  But it’s going to cripple the economy.  It’s going to cripple small businesses like me,” Ensy said.  “I can make it a few weeks without working – probably be okay with having a vacation.  The people that I worry about, and my main concern, is my employees.”

The Fish Fry has around 45 employees which vary from wait-staff, cooks, and hostesses.  The renowned restaurant opened its doors in 1976 and has flourished through many ups and downs in the economy.

“Going out to eat is a luxury where people spend their extra money at the end of the month.  This shut down is going to make our economy weak and people will struggle with their cash flow.  I feel that it will be months before the restaurant business is back to normal,” Ensy added.

Several phone calls and internet searches showed some of the best steakhouses in the country scrambling to operate during this pandemic era.  A call to one of America’s oldest restaurants, The Buckhorn Exchange, in Denver, Colorado was answered with the message, “We are currently not open due to the Coronavirus.  When the city of Denver allows us to reopen, we will.  In the meantime, while you may not be able to reach us by phone, please access us on our website…”

Restaurant owners were quick to express worry for their businesses but are even more worried about their employees.  Some are keeping the kitchens open with take-out and delivery being offered.  In many instances, wait-staff is being used to deliver orders in hopes they can keep employees afloat through this crisis.  While restaurants are losing money, they are fervently trying to figure out how to reduce the impact on the people they are responsible for — their trusted employees.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown and lawmakers are calling special legislative sessions to help the workers “keep the wolf from the door.”  Over 160,000 Oregonians work in the food and beverage industry and over $280 million is paid to them each month.

“These are relatively low wage jobs,” Oregon State Economist Josh Lehner said in an article by Oregon Public Broadcast.  “Which is one reason why we’re so concerned that who bears the brunt of these initial impacts of the COVID-19 are the low wage service workers.”

Washington D.C. is scrambling to get financial help for the people, although the Senate failed to pass new legislation called “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act” or the “CARES Act.”  Highlights of the bill included stimulus checks for taxpayers, suspension of student loan payments, and tax payment delays.  Perhaps the greatest piece of this legislation, however, was the help it would have rendered to restaurants, bars, and small businesses.  Small businesses could have applied for loans to be used for payroll support, including paid sick, medical, or family leave, and costs related to the continuation of group health care benefits; employee salaries; mortgage payments and rent; utilities; and other debts.  Sadly, due to the Senate striking the bill, this aid to small businesses may not be a possibility.

“We are just going to try and roll with it,” Mitchell Holdeman, owner of Garner Street Meat Market and BBQ in Detroit, Texas said.  “I don’t have time to sit down.  We are slammed on the meat market side right now.  I feel like this has been really good for the local, small butcher shops like us and we are definitely seeing a lot more traffic — people coming in to purchase beef that we’ve never seen before.  It’s been busy as folks try to transition to eating at home more.”

Holdeman went on to add that it was yet to be seen how these new mandates will affect the restaurant side of their business.

“This is new to us,” Holdeman said.  “Our dining room will be closed but you can still pick up BBQ curbside.  Right now, it’s just day by day.”

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