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Survey paints grim future for state restaurants without federal aid

Published: Dec. 14, 2020 at 5:15 PM CST
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APPLETON, Wis. (WBAY) - A recent survey of restaurants shows a potentially grim future for the industry without any federal support.

“Unfortunately the brutal nature of the pandemic - we’ve been seeing this coming and the survey results really are not a big surprise,” said Wisconsin Restaurant Association (WRA) CEO and President Kristine Hillmer.

The National Restaurant Association recently conducted a survey of 6,000 restaurants.

Statewide results from that survey that found 88 percent of Wisconsin restaurants had lower sales in October this year than in October of 2019, 86 percent have laid off or furloughed employees, and 46 percent of restaurants in the state are considering temporarily closing until the pandemic passes.

“Even though these are temporary closures I really fear that they’re going to be permanent,” said Hillmer.

Hillmer says that’s a big concern for local economies considering the ripple effect a restaurant closing can cause.

“You have to remember the broader supply chain, as well as the farmers and anything that goes into supporting that restaurant,” said Hillmer. “They will be devastated as well.”

Hillmer says the lack of federal support doesn’t help.

Thirty-seven percent of Wisconsin restaurants surveyed believe it’s unlikely they’ll be in business six months from now if there is no additional federal relief.

“It is incredibly frustrating to see the gridlock in Washington D.C. and no additional funds or no relief package,” said Hillmer.

“It will definitely be a struggle if there’s no more stimulus within the next few months,” said Alex Shea, Co-owner and Head Chef at Marks East Side. “As the survey said, a lot of people think they would close their doors. Hopefully that wouldn’t happen over here but nothing’s off the table right now. It’s a constant fight for survival.”

Shea says it’s been a learning curve, but they’ve found some positives in this pandemic.

“We have that Friday Fish Fry drive-thru which has been exceptionally that’s been working really well for us there, so we do appreciate the community support on that,” said Shea.

But Shea says it’s still nowhere near their normal.

“One day doesn’t make the week, and we still have the expenses that are lined up,” said Shea.

Though Marks East Side has cut hours, limited their menu, and even laid off or furloughed some employees since the start of the pandemic, operating costs haven’t really gone down with revenue.

“Having the people do the curbside and stuff, we greatly appreciate that and if they’re not ready to come in we do appreciate the community support and coming out, but it’s just not the same as having them inside... costs don’t go down directly with the sales going down, it’s been a little bit of a struggle on that side,” said Shea.

Hillmer says those who don’t feel comfortable dining in yet should opt for curbside or at least call the restaurant directly about delivery options first.

“There’s nothing wrong with third-party delivery, as long as it’s under control of the restaurant and that’s why we ask you to go to their website, give them a call, and they will tell you the best way to get their food,” said Hillmer.

Also, for those who do feel confident dining in, pay attention the the restaurant’s health protocols.

“Please follow them. I get not everybody likes wearing masks and I get all of that,” said Hillmer. “However, when I know restaurants have heavily invested into safety protocols and are really in survival mode, really trying to make it past and through this pandemic. But when a consumer comes in and just blatantly disregards any of the rules it’s really not helpful.”

Beyond hoping customers’ comfort with dining-in grows as the vaccine is distributed, Hillmer says long-term support is needed to avoid a bleak future in the restaurant industry.

“We need the federal government to do some additional CARES act dollars and really give some relief to our industry, or you’re looking at 40 to potentially 50 percent of restaurants nationally are going to go out of business,” said Hillmer.

But for now, it’s a waiting game.

“Holiday season is going to be critical for these restaurants and then making a decision on what’s going to happen after the first of the year,” said Hillmer.

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