American restaurants and bars are in grave peril. Already battered by months of Covid-19-related restrictions, most are now facing a long winter with little or no options for in-person dining and drinking — as in much of the country, outdoor dining is at best a feat of bravery, if not outright lunacy. The end of government assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program in September, coupled with Republican resistance to any sort of full-scale aid for independent restaurants, has led the National Restaurant Association to describe the industry as “in free fall.”
On this week’s episode of the VinePair Podcast, Adam Teeter and Zach Geballe discuss why fighting to save independent restaurants and bars is in the interests of all Americans. Not only do they add cultural value, diversity, and entertainment options to communities of all sizes, but they also employ millions of Americans, and their collapse would prove a long-term drag on the country’s economy. For more information about contacting your senators, click here.
Or check out the conversation here
Adam: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.
Zach: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the VinePair Podcast. And Zach, before we enjoy your drinking this week, I’m going to give us a word from our sponsor, which happens to be a tequila I love, Tequila Ocho. Tequila Ocho is the world’s first single-estate tequila. Growing and harvesting only the very ripest of agave’s from their family owned fields in the highlands of Jalisco. One field harvested for each of their annual vintages. Where some take shortcuts, Ocho is made in the old-fashioned way and takes care to ensure maximum agave flavor in your glass. It’s true, man. This tequila is pure agave. Every expression is certified 100 percent additive-free, which is also interesting because I think a lot of people don’t realize that a lot of tequilas do have additives in them. And this underlies the purity and nobility of this magical tequila. Have you had Ocho before? It’s delicious.
Z: Yeah. Agreed.
A: It’s delicious.
Z: This ad reminds me of one of my great regrets in this industry in that I have never been to Mexico, period. But I’ve certainly never been to Jalisco or similarly to Oaxaca, because I also am super interested in mezcal. Agave in general is this category of spirit that I understand purely as a drinker, and I certainly one day hope to learn a little more about it in person. But yeah, no, it’s delicious. And, if it wasn’t the morning here in Seattle, I might well be drinking some.
A: Yeah. Yeah. I agree. Yeah. I’ve never been, either, and I’d love to go. I’ve been to Mexico City, which is one of my most memorable vacations ever. Just a really awesome place, but I’ve never been outside of Mexico City. I’ve actually never been even, you know, the stereotypical American, “well, I’ve been to the beaches.” I’ve never even been to the beaches in Mexico. Literally only been to Mexico city. But I would love to go to Jalisco. The history there in Oaxaca, especially in Oaxaca with the food, would just be a really, really awesome thing to do. So speaking of food and drinks, what are some food and drinks you’ve been enjoying over the last week? I mean, it was Thanksgiving last week, so there had to be some crazy stuff you popped.
Z: Yeah. Well, I think it’s funny, it’s been a weird sequence of quasi- or real holidays and sort-of holidays. For Thanksgiving, we had a very small gathering. So, normally for me, that weekend, I have a large family gathering on Saturday at my dad’s house. And then that’s when there’s usually 15 or 20 people and a few people in my family besides me are pretty into wine. So that’s when we’ll bring out some interesting wines. Obviously it didn’t happen this year. So for Thanksgiving itself, we haven’t done a Thanksgiving wine podcast in a while. We’ve done it before you can go back and listen to the archives, but yeah, I really only drink white wine on Thanksgiving. Those of you who listen regularly know this is true for most things. And my wife and I had brought back a Magnum of 2003 grand cru Pinot Gris from Alsace a couple of years ago. So that’s what we opened. And it was interesting, really, quite good once it, we had to decant it, ’cause it was so closed off. This is apparently a recurring theme, where Zach decants wine. But you know, that was, that was one thing. And actually, the more interesting thing of late was, as we’re recording this, yesterday was my wife’s birthday. I got a number of things for her, but a couple of things in the beverage realm that we tasted last night. One was a 1985 Kopke Colheita port. So a tawny port, not a vintage port, but from ‘85. Man, port is super cool. I love that stuff. I totally get why, even for us, it’s a 375 (milliliter) and we each drank a couple of ounces, and we will drink the rest of it over the next few days. I get why it’s not, the British culture of having port every night seems insane to me.
A: It was definitely for sure.
Z: But when you get a chance to have something like that, it’s pretty cool. Something that is as old as my wife and almost as old as me is pretty cool. And then coming back to something that you talked about on a Next Round episode, we got a bottle of Jefferson’s Ocean Bourbon, which is aged at sea. I had never had it before, and it wasn’t until I listened and edited that episode that I was even aware that it existed. And so after that I was, “Oh, sure, put it on a boat. I’ll go buy it.” And so I did, and that it was delicious, and it was briny bourbon. It was cool. I didn’t know what to expect from it, but enjoyed it. So I guess, thanks Adam.
A: You’re welcome. Yeah, I actually haven’t tried it yet. I need to, it’s weird. I have a bottle of it sitting on my bar, but I haven’t opened it. And now when, when you sent me the picture of it, I was like maybe I’ll open it this weekend and try a little taste of it just because I’m super curious. I try not to have a ton of bourbon bottles open at one time, because I feel I’ll go between them. You know what I mean? But yeah, I’m super curious. So you gave me the encouragement I needed to maybe try it. So, basically around Thanksgiving, I had a few wines I really liked. I had a Kir-Yianni. They had a new Xinomavro that’s out on the market that I really liked. It was really delicious with Thanksgiving. And then I also had a bottle of Chardonnay from Eden Rift. That was really delicious, their Reserve Chardonnay. It was an absolutely amazing Chardonnay and really great with the turkey. That was really surprising, you know, California Chardonnay, but not like that California Chardonnay that we, maybe gets a bad rap, if you know what I’m saying? It was really delicious. Yeah. And then after Thanksgiving, I took some time off. So I didn’t really drink throughout the weekend. And then last night was our Bubbly Bash, so I had some sparkling wines and things like that. The only other thing that I had that was really amazing this week was, it was a few of the spirits that we tasted on Wednesday on the roof of VinePair with a few of us socially distanced, for the Top 50 Spirits of the Year list. But I’m not going to tell you what any of those spirits were, as to not give away the list, which is publishing on Tuesday. And this podcast comes out on Monday. So I don’t want to do that. But those were pretty amazing. I think that list is going to be just as interesting as our Top 50 Wines list or Top 50 Beer list. So you should definitely check it out on Tuesday when it publishes. ‘Cause I think, there’s a lot of spirits on that list that are very worth your time if you are anyone who likes whiskeys, tequilas, bourbons, well bourbon is a whiskey, gin, it’s all there. And there were some really incredible spirits that we tasted this year. So some names, you know, some names you may not know. So yeah, so I encourage everyone to, to check that it lists out on Tuesday. And then this weekend, dude, I’m looking forward to, making good food and drinking some wines. Tim and I are getting together on Sunday to do the annual Champagne tasting. I know it was gonna be tough. I was the only time we could find, right? Like that’s, that’s where, that’s how Covid is really up-ended all of this. It’s this thing where you got to figure out how you can get together with someone to discuss, because look, I understand on the part of the producers, they still are only going to send a bottle or two of each thing they’re submitting for review consideration, et cetera. So I still have to somehow figure out how I have more than one or two people taste that. And we’re not going to do it inside. Because doing it indoors is not safe. Everyone understands that. So then you’ve got to figure out, OK, well then when is it? When can we get together outside? And when can we get together outside when it’s not supposed to be terrible weather. So today was supposed to be that day. And as of 30 minutes ago, the forecast is calling, this is supposed to start pouring at noon. Well, if we’re supposed to start pouring at noon, then we need to move it to a different day. So, Sunday now is clear, but going to be super cold out.
Z: Perfect Champagne weather.
A: Seriously, adventures in trying to do anything, which I think brings us to today’s topic a little bit. We talked about this a bunch since Covid happened. But, both you and I were talking about the episode we went through today, and felt it was really important to have this conversation one more time before the end of the year. And that is a conversation about restaurant relief. I think the reason we want to have this conversation is twofold. One, to articulate what we’ve been hearing from the people we know in the industry. You know, and to share that with the people who are listening. And also to really implore the people that are listening to act, especially if you live in a state that has Republican senators, because that’s where we really see the bottleneck right now in terms of relief. Look, we still don’t know if the president will sign the bill. But if we can at least get the Congress and Senate in the next week, before they decide to leave for the holiday break, to pass some relief, I think it’s more likely that the president signs it. So let’s talk about this. So, you know, it’s hard times out there. Everyone knows that dining in restaurants is not safe. The restaurateurs know that. And I think that’s what’s important that you and I chatted out before we start this podcast: Our friends who own restaurants know that it’s not safe to be open. And a lot of them don’t want to be open. They don’t want to get sick. They don’t want their employees to get sick. They don’t like to have to have indoor dining open. But if they don’t have any other choice, the government is not giving them any other choice. And obviously, also human beings are social animals. Right. And so we obviously do want to go out. And so if a place is open, a lot of us are going to go, because we just can’t sit in our houses anymore. But we all have read the news. It’s going to get bad in these next few months before it gets a lot better, right? The vaccine is coming. We all know that now. Great Britain has already approved Pfizer’s vaccine. Fauci says our standards are higher, which I appreciate. Thank you, Fauci. But I think we’re very close to approving the vaccine as well. And that’s only the first one. But you know, December, January, February are gonna be really tough. And there are some restaurants that have the luxury of being able to close. And those restaurants, I know a lot of people in the business are very envious of. Whether they have financial backing or they’ve made a lot of money in the past and have saved really well or whatever. But most restaurants, that’s not how they’re run. They’re run on the thinnest of margins. And a month of bad sales can tank the business. That’s just the nature of a restaurant. And so these places, if they don’t have relief, are going to close. Their closure is not just a sad thing because you and I love restaurants. They’re closure is a sad thing because a lot of people are going to be out of work, and it’s going to be a much bigger issue for us to have to deal with in 2021 and 2022 in terms of how it’s going to impact the economy than just that we lost some of the amazing, you know, wine lists and cocktail programs that we love.
Z: And I think a couple of important things to add here. So, the first is that it’s also not just that you and I are sad about this because we’re gonna lose out on the experiences we like to have. That’s obviously part of it. And I think it’s important to note that, it’s enough to say that having a diverse and interesting set of restaurants in bars in your city or town is in and of itself a thing to want. It’s a thing to advocate for. We can and will make arguments that are more “practical or pragmatic or economic based,” that don’t necessarily appeal to other sensibilities. But I want to firmly say that wanting to have those things in your community is, in and of itself, enough reason to support these things. It’s the same reason why all kinds of other businesses that are being affected, like the arts, also need to be supported because we don’t want our society, at least I certainly don’t want our society, I don’t want Seattle, I don’t want New York, I don’t want wherever you are to be a place where there are no interesting things, where our culture is even more homogenized and corporatized than it already is. And I think that that is one of the things that has not been fully grappled with is that it’s not like other situations. I think about this a lot, because I’ve worked in restaurants for a long time. Restaurants close all the time, and inevitably, a restaurant closes and sooner or later someone else comes along and says, “Hey, I have an idea. I have some money. I have a concept, and I’m going to put it in this place.” But we’ve never dealt with 30, 40, 50 percent more of restaurants closing or being so crippled by this year-plus of a pandemic and economic situation, that there are not going to be restaurants to replace many of these things. I walked through downtown Seattle not that long ago, a week ago, and it’s empty because there’s no one working down there or there aren’t that many people, there’s no one shopping down there. There’s no one dining down there. And that is the future for all of our cities for the foreseeable future, because there are not going to be tenants to take back over those ground-floor storefronts. This is, again, a broader conversation than just restaurants, but restaurants are a huge part of that. Restaurants and bars are a big part of what makes our cities places that people want to be. And so I just would say that the first and foremost, you’re totally right. Restaurants and bars are not prepared, they don’t have deep pockets, with few exceptions. And the other piece of this that’s important is remembering that we don’t only just need support so that people can continue to get through this period of time, so that restaurant owners can be solvent, but we also need, as you mentioned, there’s an employment crisis in this industry, and we are forcing people to make incredibly difficult choices about what they do. I am incredibly fortunate that I was laid off and did not have to for a variety of reasons, including doing this podcast — thanks, Adam — that I did not have to immediately try and find one of the very few restaurant jobs in Seattle that would have put me in contact with people on a daily basis or on a minute-by-minute basis and endanger potentially my health and the health of those around me. And we are asking millions of people to still make that choice, basically, not just because we want food and need food. I think that’s something that we are obviously going to have to deal with. But also because, as you said, restaurateurs and owners, their options were: give up, close, and say we are not doing this. Or, unless you are well positioned for takeout, and not everyone is, you have to open up and even outdoor dining is still not perfectly safe, especially for the people working who have much more contact than the average individual diner, but it’s also not safe for anyone. Our inability as a country to just fully reckon with that and grapple with that and face that is a big part of this. And obviously, you and I are not political commentators, really, but it’s clear why a lot of this is, and it’s quite clear that the opinions and the beliefs around Covid and what’s safe and what’s responsible and how we should behave are pretty clearly divided to some extent along partisan lines. And so, if you like restaurants and you like bars and you’re someone who votes Republican, those are two things that, at this point, seem irreconcilable to me, because your party does not support these entities existing except at the large-scale corporate level. And if that’s what you want for the future of the restaurant industry in this country, then man, you’re doing your job. But if it’s not what you want, if you like going to your neighborhood bar or going to a restaurant that serves more than frozen food from Cisco or whatever, you need to think about what you’re doing, and we as a country certainly do.
A: I know. The thing that really struck me last week, ’cause I talked to a bunch of friends who own bars and restaurants around the country was this mantra, that’s the slogan that kept saying, closed restaurants, open schools. And a lot of the people who I talked to are like, do you think we want to be vilified? They don’t want it like this. They don’t want to be the villains here. They all know that this is a problem. And most of them are reading the news as well and are listening to the experts, because they are trying very hard to keep their staffs safe. And they are disinfecting as much as possible. I would argue that in some cases, right, restaurants are some of the cleanest places right now. But they don’t have a choice for a variety of reasons. Either have a landlord that is unwilling to allow them to not pay rent for the next five to six months if they have to close. So that means they, they risk literally just having to walk away from a space that they’ve completely built out. That they’ve paid to build out. I mean, think about that as a listener, if you don’t own a business, right. You put money that you earned into. The booths that, the tables, the decorations, the high-end kitchen equipment and the back, the bar, all of that. If you get evicted, the landlord, her landlord takes possession of, right. So it’s thinking about you moving into an apartment and instead of just bringing in your furniture, you also did full renovations, you bought a brand new fridge, you bought a brand new stove, you wallpapered and, look, some people maybe do that, but that’s pretty rare for renters. We usually move into a rental unit and we bring our furniture and if we get evicted, usually we still, a lot of people can get their s*** out. Right. So if you, all of a sudden, you show up to your restaurant one day and the landlord is taking possession of it. And there is a lock on the door. So all that money that you put in to ensure that the vibe is exactly what, you know, your customers want and what you’re to be fair judged on by all the restaurant reviewers, the independent Yelp critics, all of that. You lose. So they’re being told by their landlord that they don’t care, they want their rent paid. You may be told by vendors that they don’t care, they want their bills paid. And if, you know, you were to reopen in the next three to four months there, you’re going to be put on some sort of payment plan, or they’re not going to deliver to you anymore. So maybe you had an amazing vendor of wine, maybe, one of the distributors you worked with, produce, et cetera, saying, look, we’re not going to deliver because you couldn’t pay your bills. Even though that’s not your fault right now. And then you also have employees that rely on you to be able to pay their own rent, because they’re also not getting any relief. So it’s this really crazy system. And I think for a lot of us, especially who are listening to the podcast who are lucky enough to have jobs where we’ve been able to work from home, this is something that we have to try to understand better because it’s not a choice. I was able to easily make the choice to say as much as I love the VinePair office, and we had done the exact same thing I’m talking about where we had just renovated the office and we had moved in only two and a half months prior to the Covid lockdown. I can handle the entire staff working from home. I don’t love being on Zoom meetings every day. It’s not ideal, but I can handle it. I think if you’re one of those people who listened to the podcast regularly, then you also have been able to do that. There’s a lot of things about working from home you probably don’t love, either. There’s a lot of things that you probably also do enjoy. But if you work in a restaurant, there’s no way to work from home. Also, we don’t allow it. Could you imagine the chef saying, “Oh, I’m going to go work from home and do delivery from home.” And all of a sudden that health department’s, “Ah, that’s not OK.” So, it’s not something that anyone wants to be vilified for, and they all want to close. I think that interview that I did with Ruffian two weeks ago, you hear them all talking about that. They want to close. They just want support to do it. That’s why they’re being so loud about it, is they really want our elected officials to support them in the closure. They don’t want to just have to close and take the risk themselves and potentially lose everything, just because they know that that’s for the good of society. And I think that’s, what’s so, so frustrating for me. And I think for you, too, Zach is, everyone who I know that is in the restaurant and bar industry, they know this is for the good of all of us, for the health of all of us — for not only people that they love, but for everyone else. But we can’t just leave them high and dry because they want to help. We have to help them, too.
Z: Well, and I think it’s also important to note that we also don’t want to create a system where the people who are benefiting most are the ones who are being most irresponsible. One of the problems that we’ve seen in a lot of places is that the people who are being really diligent about protocols, about safety, about limiting capacity, about observing proper distancing, are the ones who are … in the end, restaurants are designed around being full. Bars are designed around being full, and no one’s business model is designed to be successful at 25 percent capacity, even with takeout, even with whatever else. And it’s the unscrupulous operators, the ones who say, “You know what? I’m willing to risk a fine, I’m willing to pack people in.” And as you said at the top, you know, there’s a lot of people who are willing to take the risk or ignore it. So, for one again, it’s a bad system that encourages that kind of behavior. That’s just not good governance. The incentives should not be such that the people who are being most irresponsible are also the ones who are in some cases being more profitable. But the other piece of this is, you made the point and I just want to reiterate it is, it’s not just that restaurateurs and owners and operators are looking out for themselves. But it is really true that for a lot of people there, because we no longer have unemployment support beyond whatever your state currently provides and because we don’t have any other, certainly in this country, health care for almost everyone is connected to their employment. And if you lose your health care, it can be very hard to find care or a program outside of your employer. It’s not impossible these days, but it’s still not easy in a lot of cases. And restaurateurs and businesses that rely on people being there in person have had to make the decision, they’ve had to try and keep people on, and I think in some cases that’s been really noble to try and keep people gainfully employed, because as you said, people that work in restaurants have bills to pay, too. And they can’t work from home for the most part. We talked a bunch on this podcast and in our Next Round episodes about how there have been, we want to be able to have, as consumers, we want to be able to still get good food delivered to our door. We want to be able to have cool drinks made for us and delivered to our door. We want to enjoy these things, and we want to enjoy them now, when the only way to safely enjoy them in most cases is at home. But also, projecting forward, the last piece of this that I think is important is not only is there an issue with keeping these places open now, but the other reason why it’s so important to keep them open in some fashion and solvent in a fashion now is that when we do get a vaccine or vaccines, fully approved and distributed and life can go back to something that looks like what it did before Covid came, those restaurants will not be able to spring back to life magically. There’s going to be a ton of costs involved there. Hiring people is expensive, rehiring or hiring new staff and training them is expensive. I’ve been doing a bunch of interviews with wine directors around the country, and so many people have sold off so much of their inventory because one of the first mandates from ownership and probably rightly so, it was like, look, we’re not buying any more booze. You’re selling exactly what we have on hand, whether you’re retail channels, on- premise, if you’re open in some capacity, and so many of these places, it’s funny to think about in some sense, but it’s also kind of sad. Talking to James from Popina, he’s sold through most of his inventory and if you want to go back to that place in next summer or fall and enjoy a great wine list, where’s he getting the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace those wines? He’s probably not sitting on that. So if you want those experiences back, we want to rush back and have the restaurant experiences and bar experiences that we’ve all dreamed of and missed, those places need to not just be technically open, but they need to have capital to go back out because otherwise, where’s all that going? Where’s all that wine going? Where’s all that beer going? Where’s all those spirits going? They’re going to the huge corporate players that are already lined up — whether they’re existing restaurant conglomerates or they’re so-called vulture capital firms and stuff like that. People are going to go to restaurants. We all know this, as soon as it’s possible. And the question is, are we all going to be going to restaurants that are owned by people who actually live in our communities who operate one or a few restaurants? Or they can be owned by massive national chains that, whether they are operating under brand names that we recognize, or just have bought up a ton of distressed properties and are operating. This is going to fundamentally change a lot about restaurants and bars and, and that is maybe let’s say neutral at this point. But it doesn’t take a lot for it to go bad. And I’m deeply concerned that the owner-operator is going to be a thing of the past. And a lot of places are very rare because opening restaurants is capital-intensive and who’s going to have the capital? It’s going to be the people who’ve been just fine during all this.
A: So I mean, you know, look, all this is to say, if you’ve made it through the last, you know, 20 minutes with us, please, this week, please reach out to your elected officials. Write them a note. You can find their emails easily. You don’t have to call, although calling is great. And just say, hi, I’m your constituent, and I’m asking you to pass Covid relief. That’s what it is sitting right now in Congress. There are negotiations ongoing, and I’m asking you to pass this relief before you leave for the holidays. I just am asking you to pass coronavirus relief before you leave for the holidays, please. It’s not as much as we need, but it’s a start, right? It’s around $900 billion. We need trillions, but this is billions, but it’s a start. Right? So please call and just say, “I’m asking you to support coronavirus relief. And we would very much appreciate it.” And with that, Zach, I’ll be back next week. We’ll talk a lot about tequila and other really fun things. But we felt like this was, with one more week left to go before really a lot of the elected officials are going to leave and really only come back for a true lame-duck session before the new administration comes into office, we thought it was really important to put out this podcast and remind everyone that, elected leaders work for us. The best way to remind them they work for us is to contact them, so please do that. And Zach, I’ll talk to you next week.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now for the credits, VinePair produced by myself and Zach. It is also mixed and edited by him. Yeah, Zach, we know you do a lot. I’d also like to thank the entire VinePair team, including my co-founder, Josh and our associate editor, Cat. Thanks so much for listening. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.