Fare Share: Missive to Washington advocates for restaurants' survival

John Barker
Guest columnist

During the holidays, people across the globe write letters to their family and friends, near and far, and often include a gift and/or holiday card.

This December, the Ohio Restaurant Association, on behalf of the state's restaurant, food-service and hospitality industries, wrote an urgent letter to U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Ohio Sens. Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown and other members of Congress.

John Barker

It wasn’t filled with cheerful holiday greetings or lightly dusted snow-covered cabins designed by Thomas Kinkade. Instead, it painted a grim picture of Ohio’s restaurant industry, once thriving at 23,000-plus locations and 585,000 employees, and made a plea to Congress to address a new federal relief bill and approve targeted proposals.

If the restaurant industry is to survive even a shadow of what it once was, the time to act is now.

After being allowed to reopen patios and indoor dining in late May, Ohio’s restaurant owners and their teams safely have operated food-service locations for more than eight months. They have operated with limited capacity due to dine-in restrictions, social-distancing requirements, curfews and stay-at-home advisories.

With winter weather in our midst, the escalation of temporary and permanent closures is occurring at a rapid rate. We believe about 20% of all U.S. restaurants already are closed due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

This includes Ohio’s Iron Chef, Michael Symon, who shut down the celebrated Lola Bistro in Cleveland, and many more across the state.

Suffering year-over-year sales losses of 20% to more than 70%, along with mounting additional restrictions and weak consumer confidence, means the restaurant industry as we once knew it will cease to exist. This is especially so for independent family, casual and fine dining, plus breweries and bars, which rely on table service and hospitality.

“Mom-and-pops” and independents are the heartbeat of America’s economy, making up about 43% of the restaurant industry's market share. Smaller restaurant chains make up another 20%.

Did you know 51% of the food dollar in the U.S. is spent in restaurants? Grocery stores aren’t the only places that feed Americans. Restaurants are a lifeblood to our economy and food chain.

These numbers are not just data points to consider for a statistical survey. They represent your friends, neighbors and families that live in your communities.

These are real people with real stories, and they are going to lose everything if they don’t get help. Can you imagine our neighborhoods with significantly fewer restaurants, coffee shops and ice cream parlors?

For these reasons and much more, we’ve implored Congress to return to bipartisan negotiations to complete a new federal relief bill and a second round of the Paycheck Protection Program.

This is what we’re asking of our elected leaders to help everyday hardworking Americans:

• Authorize an additional round of PPP funding with a 20% revenue-loss threshold for any three-month period in 2020, with similar caps as the first round and consideration for businesses that opened in 2020.

• Ensure restaurants can deduct business expenses paid with PPP loans.

• Provide a tax credit for investments that enhance the safety of customers and employees.

• Expand the Employee Retention Tax Credit.

We appreciate the eight weeks of financial support Congress had provided earlier this year.

However, the pandemic and state-mandated government shutdowns have ravaged most operators in our industry for much of the year.

With the holiday season upon us, the restaurant industry, the second-largest in the nation and Ohio, is calling upon Congress to rise up and take action. While everyone is looking forward to a new year in 2021, we need Congress not to drop the ball on keeping Ohioans employed.

So add another letter to your holiday greetings list. Write letters to your members of Congress and urge them to help restaurants now and in the future.

And, as always, dine in restaurants if you are comfortable, order carryout and use pickup windows.

Let’s all do our part to ensure Ohio’s well-earned reputation as a “foodie” state continues for years to come.

John Barker is president and CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association.