The restaurant industry employs 15.6 million people across the United States, according to the National Restaurant Association. As the coronavirus pandemic forces food service businesses across the country to shift their entire model or close, those jobs—which are unstable even at the best of times—have suddenly become some of the most tenuous. The restaurant and bar industry accounted for close to 60 percent of all jobs lost nationwide, with 419,000 job cuts reported in the month of March alone, per a briefing from the US Department of Labor.
With little notice, many dine-in restaurants have had to make the switch to delivery-only, while simultaneously experiencing shifting guidance from government agencies and medical professionals. Both for restaurants that have closed and for restaurants that are still able to operate, the future is certainly unclear. Government aid so far has fallen short, especially for small businesses.
David Chang, chef and founder of the Momofuku Restaurant Group, and Momofuku CEO Marguerite Mariscal discussed the heightened instability the restaurant industry is facing right now in an interview with VICE co-founder Shane Smith for the newest episode of VICE's "Shelter In Place" series.
"There's a good chance Momofuku may never reopen again, or the restaurant that you love to go so much in your neighborhood will never reopen again, if we don't support the supply chain and the purveyors and the farmers and the workers all surrounding it," Chang told Smith.
"People are going to realize just how important the food industry is and the workers that have been neglected for so long. I think they're going to realize, 'Holy shit. We didn't realize how much we depend on the food industry.'"
And when restaurants reopen, Chang and Mariscal speculate that the future of American dining will look very different, from new methods of preparation to stricter guidelines on sanitation and dining-room capacity. As Chang points out, for many small, independent operators, that's if they reopen at all. Even Chipotle, he added—which had $880.8 million in short-term investments and cash at the end of 2019, per Bloomberg—can't last forever with such lowered sales: "That's almost a billion dollars they're gonna have to burn if they have to remain closed. So even Chipotle isn't immune to this. That's an insane statement."
It's the large corporations that have the biggest cushion, though, and as the White House announced earlier this week, it's those food corporations who will be working with President Trump on strategies for reviving the restaurant industry. (The Food & Beverage group includes Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and YUM! Brands.)
As Chang told Smith in the interview, "That's unfortunately the future that I feel that we're headed to: It's whoever has the most cash that can survive this."