Acclaimed chef Jeannie Pierola was riding high as she celebrated the new year. Her new restaurant, Counter Culture, had just opened and the food cognoscenti were buzzing. Her flagship, Edison: Food + Drink Lab, was so busy that there was no good time to begin a long-planned renovation; new stoves sitting in storage for nearly a year would just have to gather more dust. And business was steady at Swigamajig, her casual Sparkman Wharf dive bar and fish kitchen.
On March 9, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay’s 4.5 star rave review for Counter Culture was posted online, but by the time the print issue with her smiling visage on the cover in crisp chef’s whites hit the streets everything changed.
“We closed on March 18 (her birthday) but our business,” tells CL while her pitch rises as she elongates a lilting word, “literally . . . fell apart on the 10th or 11th. We had to lay off 130 people; we had three restaurants go to zero income in 24 hours.”
Unfortunately, Pierola also reports that despite having insurance to cover losses from a government mandated shutdown, she’s having to file suit after a quick, blanket denial of her claim. She barely got started with the peak season, which runs from February to Mother’s Day, and calculates the losses at over $600K.
Sadly, Chef Pierola is not alone. The statistics are not pretty. The National Restaurant Association says two out of three hospitality industry employees have been laid off or furloughed, totaling more than 8 million workers. Four in 10 restaurants are closed with an expected loss of $240 billion in 2020.
TV celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern predicts that without significant intervention, the pandemic is a 60-80% extinction event. A federal restaurant stabilization project is the key.
“We need to keep them open for what is going to be an awful recession or a depression. It’s going to be a long time before consumer confidence is there,” Zimmern warns. “PPP is an eight-week band-aid for an 18 month problem. At a minimum, the restaurant industry needs an extension to 24 weeks.”
He notes that banks and airlines have been saved by bailouts and that there are 500K independent restaurants generating nearly a trillion dollars in sales in America, representing 4% of GDP—only the U.S Defense Department is a bigger employer.
“We want recognition as an industry,” Zimmern adds.
Today the entire ecosystem which restaurants support—the farmers, producers, distributors, local communities, and others—is facing a severe crisis. The local industry, however, sticks together.
Pierola reports that “I’m on a group call with about 30 chefs and restaurateurs from the area. You just hear them echoing the same thing. Everybody’s freaking out; it’s been a really tough journey.”
The Restorative, which I profiled last month, reports that business has slowed as more Dunedin restaurants opened, but it is now seating some diners and is confident that, combined with the takeout menu, it will pull through.
Pierola says Counter Culture’s “takeout was slow starting, but people are embracing it. It’s getting employees back to work and that feels good.”
Pierola is lucky that the dining room at Counter Culture is the “polar opposite” of Edison and says, “The tables are spread out. It’s very easy in the dining room to put people six-feet apart.” Plus, she adds, that “people are gravitating toward the patio for sure and they’re definitely drinking!”
Even so, she’s only been able to re-employ about half of the pre-pandemic staff. Ever the optimist, she reports that “we’ve been planning a remodel at Edison since probably a year-and-a-half ago. We never had the downtime. It’s so weird that it took a freaking pandemic to free us up to do it.”
The shutdown presented an opportunity to implement the plan.
“I can’t say enough about our landlord. He’s really invested in helping us get open. I can’t wait for people to see what Edison’s gonna look like; we are really refreshing the entire space,” Pierola says, adding that the back door at Edison has been turned into a full patio. “The furniture comes tomorrow. I’m ready to slow roll it.”
Edison’s capacity is normally 140 people.
“If we can do 40 to 50 people on the weekends that will keep us going,” Pierola explains. “The real game plan is just surviving and getting to the other side. I feel very blessed that all of our landlords are trying to be helpful. All we can do now is be kind and patient. I’m not known for a great amount of patience. Survival is a mental test.”
The economics of running a restaurant are an amorphous puzzle.
“It requires discipline and an awareness of history of how your sales work,” Pierola says.
Sadly, there’s no history for a pandemic. Slow is 30% and 50% is survivable. Full tilt gives you some money to put away to get through the summer.
“It’s otherworldly to recognize that all over the globe people are going ‘there’s this virus’ . . . what do we do?,” Pierola asks.
Even as the Bay area celebrates a limited reopening, it must be mindful of how a pandemic unfolds.
“The vast majority of what’s going to happen is yet to come,” warns Michael Osterholm, esteemed University of Minnesota epidemiologist who predicted the current situation as early as January 20. “We’re going to have a lot of additional interaction with this virus that we’re not gonna want to have.”
Support our local restaurants, but as you do please show respect for others and wear a mask. Wash your hands often, especially before and after a public meal. And be vigilant to keep physical distance to protect yourself and others.
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