The pandemic hit celebrity chef Tom Colicchio like an anvil.
After launching and co-owning New York City's heralded Gramercy Tavern in the 1990s, Colicchio began building a mini empire in 2001. He opened four upscale restaurants in New York and one in Los Angeles, and then licensed his Craft brand to two plush food palaces in Las Vegas. On March 13, with the coronavirus exerting its terrible power, he shuttered his restaurants, laying off all but a handful of 300 workers.
Colicchio's subdued mood was palpable on Tuesday, as he spoke during an online event hosted by The Washington Post. The subject, of course, was the restaurant industry, which employs 11 million Americans and provides additional revenue for the agriculture, meat, and fishing industries and other businesses up the supply chain.
The Top Chef head judge and executive producer offered little hope for a rebound in the near future, even as government restrictions on social gatherings relax and restaurants begin to reopen. "I believe we have to have a vaccine--we need a treatment," Colicchio said. "The question isn't when do we open our doors: The question is when do people feel comfortable going back into restaurants."
The five-time James Beard Award winner based his opinion on the logistics of dining-room seating to accommodate social distancing, and the necessity of servers and other restaurant employees to wear facemasks. The sum of those two details is neither appetizing nor economically viable, the chef intoned.
"When we open our doors, we'll have half our seats," Colicchio said. "Restaurants can't survive on 50 percent of their seating capacity."
With the restrictions in place, he went on to say, restaurants would manage to earn just 30 percent of what they were bringing in before the pandemic. "Cash flow is pretty much everything," he said. Perhaps that's why, in a recent James Beard Foundation survey, just 20 percent of restaurateurs said they would "definitely" reopen when the crisis was under control.
"We're not only talking about big, fancy places like mine," Colicchio said. "We're also talking about mom-and-pop places."
Colicchio, along with fellow celebrity chef José Andrés, who also took part in the Post's online event, are backing the Independent Restaurant Coalition's call for a $120 billion bailout package. Colicchio called it a "stabilization package"--but regardless of the name, he says its importance is vital to the American economy and even to our culture. The chef raised the specter of empty, street-level real estate and the effect that would have on communities, whether in small towns or big cities. "We're talking about areas that will become dark, where there is not business on the ground floor," he said. "We are the anchor in communities."
Colicchio called for four months of income replacement at 75 percent from the government in order to "get open and get us through the slow period," he said.
Both Colicchio and Andrés said the current crisis should serve as a warning for the future of America's food culture. Some 38 million Americans experienced food insecurity before the pandemic, they said, and that number has risen dramatically with record unemployment.
"Are we going to aspire to go back to 38 million people who are on SNAP [food-assistance programs]?" Colicchio asked. "We need to aspire to less SNAP.... [And] we can't wait for the next pandemic to hit, we can't wait for the next hurricane to hit, before we do something."