Michael Holloway

Restaurant Owners Talk About Hardships

Pandemic shutdown hurting employees and government not helping enough, say owners.

By - Apr 5th, 2020 01:12 pm

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Restaurants, bars and hospitality groups have all been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have been reduced to a skeleton crew of employees and are offering strictly delivery or takeout, while others have stopped all service entirely.

Several members of Wisconsin’s service industry teamed up with Opportunity Wisconsin and the Progressive Restaurants and Activists of Wisconsin Network (PRAWN) to hold a virtual press conference shedding light on some of the hardships they’ve dealt with as well as the measures that they believe need to be taken in order for businesses in the service industry to make it through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Having to tell our employees that are like our family members that they cannot come to work because they no longer have a job — it’s horrific,” said Melissa Buchholz, owner of Odd Duck restaurant, executive director at PRAWN and steering committee member at Opportunity Wisconsin. “The tears that come from their faces as they ask, ‘How long is this going to take’ and ‘how am I going to feed my family’ is what we’re dealing with.”

Odd Duck had its last day of full service on March 15th.

“It felt like a funeral march, it felt like when this closes tonight, we might never be the same,” said Buchholz. “We had to make a hard pivot to carry-out, which was hard for us because we don’t have the infrastructure or even bags or to-go containers. We had to rewrite the menu.”

Becky Cooper-Clancy, owner of Bounce Milwaukee, Tony Marquez, owner of La Estacion in Waukesha and Whitney Eagan, a sales coordinator at the Drury Plaza Hotel joined Buchholz in the briefing. Each participant shared their individual experiences with attempting to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cooper-Clancy held off on furloughing her employees for as long as possible, allowing them to stick around to help with take-out orders. Bounce implemented a community meal program, giving customers who purchased take-out or delivery food the option to buy pay-it-forward pizzas that were then distributed to families in need and health-care workers. But that too eventually came to a halt.

“After a week or so we realized that things were changing rapidly and the city was basically going to shut down, so we moved all of our staff to furloughed and gave them generous severance,” said Cooper-Clancy.

As the only non-business owner on the panel, Eagan shared a perspective from the employee’s side.

“It was like a snap of your fingers; your hotel is doing really well, it’s really busy and I have a lot of meetings booked up for the year and all of a sudden within 48 hours I had my entire March, April and May cancel on me,” said Eagan. “Your heart just kind of sinks into your stomach because you know there’s not anything you can do to prevent those cancellations.”

These decisions and situations mirror similar scenarios playing out across the country. More than 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment in the past week according to figures released Thursday by the Department of Labor.

Many feel that the lack of guidance from the federal level is inexcusable.

“We are not sure what’s going on, we’re not sure when we can open — how are we going to make up the loss of time and money?” said Marquez.”Whatever money they’ve approved, I’m not even sure it’s enough. We need a partnership with the federal government now more than ever.”

Buchholz notes that all precautionary actions were taken with no idea on what the future held for her business.

“Our business is down 70 percent. We all did this without knowing that there would be any programs to help us, we did it because it was the right thing to do,” said Buchholz. “Without significant access to programs, we won’t be able to rebuild, and so many others won’t make it through.”

Another topic of discussion was how President Donald Trump’s tax cuts in 2017 have affected small businesses. Correlations were drawn between how the government is currently handling the COVID-19 pandemic with seemingly favoring major corporations over small businesses that would arguably be hit harder.

“We heard a lot about how businesses were going to be cut a break in 2017 with the tax cuts, but if there was a significant tax change for us, it wasn’t significant enough for us to notice,” Cooper-Clancy said.

Buchholz added that there is also a common misconception about the amount of money restaurant owners make.

“The reality is, we hustle so hard and there’s not a single person in the hospitality industry that doesn’t bust their butt off on a daily basis,” she said. “We do it not because we get to make a lot of money, we do it because it’s something that we’re good at and its something that we like.”

Currently, one of the few options that displaced service industry workers is the $1,200 stimulus check. Eagan is worried that it will hardly be enough.

“I pay $895 in rent, so once I get that $1,200 it’s going straight to my rent for the month,” said Eagan. “There’s maybe a little money left over for groceries or for some gas. Just like everyone else, I feel like there is no one from the federal government saying, ‘These are the steps you need to take.’”

But while the participants on the panel all agree that the government has thus far seemingly failed to take necessary action, they say the Milwaukee community has stepped up to help.

“We’ve seen outpouring of support from people that want to help us as well, you’ve seen some of the funds going on for people, for their staff members and we had a gentleman come in — a regular — and give us a check for $500 just for tips for the staff, and that made me cry, and in the memo it said ‘for serving your friends,’” said Buchholz.

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