Anyone who’s ever run a restaurant in Buffalo knows what it means to be at the mercy of the universe. They can do everything right. The dining room spiffy, the walk-in full of prepped proteins, the head line cook given a ride to work– and then the weather people warn of snow.
No matter how exquisitely calibrated, since the Blizzard of ’77, a sizable demographic only hears "Going outside can kill you."
So have a little mercy today and the coming days for your local restaurateur in a time of coronavirus. Because in a time of uncertainty and speculation, here’s one prediction I would put my 401(k) against: Even if no case is ever discovered in Western New York, restaurants will be badly hurt by the bug.
Like the human beings it threatens, coronavirus will threaten the weak and infirm. With profit margins in many, if not most, restaurants in single digits, it won’t take much for on-the-bubble operations to join the choir invisible.
The threat may come from without, like the well-meaning communicable disease experts on television saying if you really want to avoid getting sick, stay home.
“I had somebody come in to our restaurant last week with a mask on,” said an Amherst restaurateur who requested anonymity, not wanting coronavirus associated with the restaurant in any way. “Now, I didn't ask him why he had that mask on, because I didn't feel it was appropriate. But you know that people are scared.”
A case linked to a specific restaurant would be the kiss of death, businesswise.
What if, restaurant gods forbid, your place was quarantined by health authorities or forced to shut for another reason. This week, a restaurant consultant warned operators to check their business interruption insurance, including covering key employee salaries. Unfortunately, lots of places can’t afford that sort of coverage.
Or it might come from within, when three servers are home sick and the dishwasher shows up with sniffles and you have to send him home, too.
Before Western New Yorkers heard of Wuhan, health department regulations already forbade any restaurant worker with respiratory illness from coming in contact with food on its way to be served. Now, instead of shuffling the cook with sniffles to work in the dish pit, cautious operators will just send them home.
That said, many restaurant workers are not many paydays away from eviction, repossession or another avalanche of misfortune triggered by a cash shortfall. Many have little money to spare on optional expenses, like health insurance. Paid sick days do not exist for most restaurant workers.
This has the potential to worsen tensions and fray relationships that may already be tenuous. One Buffalo restaurant operator, also requesting anonymity to avoid the association with coronavirus, said he hasn’t taken extraordinary steps yet, he's “holding my breath” and is praying for coronavirus to pass Buffalo by.
Managers are redoubling sanitation training, with sanitizer surface wipe-downs, hand-washing refresher courses, and taking an active interest in employees’ health.
“As hospitality professionals, we should always err on the side of caution, like if an ingredient seems a little off, don’t send it out to the customer,” the Buffalo operator said. “The same should apply to our staff – if they’re not feeling good, don’t come in.”
If need be, he will ask staffers to take their temperatures with a digital thermometer before shifts to rule out silent fever sufferers. “If it’s in town, how can I stay open and keep everyone safe, my customers and my people? That's what I keep coming back to."
So when your family sits down and makes a plan for how to handle any changes, throw your local restaurant on the map, or the one you want to keep around, at least.
Restaurants are made of people. Take care of them, and they’ll be there to take care of you.