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Where Illinois restaurants stand

Restaurant dinner table

Local eateries, restaurants, cafes, pubs, and coffee shops are the social and economic lifeblood of many Illinois communities. Following the stretch of statewide shutdowns that began in late March, University of Illinois Extension, U of I Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition (FSHN), and Illinois Restaurant Association provided support to help restaurants adjust operations as they face supply shortages, safety restrictions, and labor challenges. The collaboration offered two webinars that focused on approaches for providing an exceptional customer experience under new operational practices and provided a springboard for many local conversations around best management practices to support safe operations:

In Peoria, restaurants have been a priority business sector of focus during this challenging time. PEORIA Magazine will devote it’s entire October issue to culinary arts, and the following story was developed in partnership with the Illinois Restaurant Association to appear in the forthcoming issue.

Where Illinois restaurants stand

Guest blogger: Sam Toia

Before the COVID-19 crisis, the Illinois Restaurant Association represented the largest private sector employer in the state, with 594,000 people employed at more than 24,000 eating and drinking establishments across Illinois. The restaurant and hospitality industry has been devastated by COVID-19. Restaurants were the first ones to close, and in all likelihood will be the last industry to fully reopen and recover. In Illinois right now, restaurant sales are down 70 to 80% across the board, with 86% of restaurant operators saying it is unlikely their restaurant will be profitable within the next six months. Ninety-eight percent of Illinois restaurant operators say they have laid off or furloughed employees. Based on these results, we estimate that 321,000 restaurant employees in Illinois were laid off or furloughed at the height of the pandemic, and 70,000 industry workers remain unemployed.

Sadly, we estimate that at least 20% of restaurants will never reopen. Restaurants operate on extremely low profit margins, so their business models were not designed for low occupancy. On average, 95 to 97 cents out of every dollar a restaurant takes in goes back into the food, employees, and expenses that go with running the place. This is during “normal” times, so that squeeze of making every penny count is amplified through the roof now.

This is one of the top challenges everyone is facing. Sales are down 80% from last year, yet the rent is still due, team members need to be paid, invoices pile up from vendors, and more. And there are no simple answers to these challenges. The IRA continues to collaborate with our partners and elected leaders, as well as provide all the resources at our disposal, to help our restaurants rebuild and get through these challenging times.

“The restaurant industry has always been full of creativity, flexibility, and grit.," says Jorden Brotherton, clinical assistant professor, University of Illinois Department of Nutrition and Food Science. "Those qualities are now, more than ever, a requirement to survive. While it is heartbreaking to see so many restaurants closing their doors, I take great pride in those that have found success through change.”

Reopening Restaurants

Illinois’ restaurants have been eager to welcome customers back, and we’re doing it in a safe and smart way. Restaurants have been strictly following all necessary guidelines, and any bad actors are facing serious fines or closure. Public health and safety continue to be the top priority to keep our guests and team members safe. The restaurant industry is already extremely health-focused; that is in hyperdrive now. Social distancing, face coverings, and PPE are imperative to health and safety and to moving our state forward. We’re also very progressive in Illinois when it comes to food safety. Everyone that works in the industry must be trained in food handling, sanitation, alcohol service, and allergen awareness.

“The past six months represent the most challenging time restaurant owners and operators have ever seen," says Brotherton. "Successfully weathering extreme fluctuations in revenue, quickly pivoting to a carryout and delivery model, navigating a number of new regulations and requirements, and somehow continuing to provide customers with a safe and enjoyable dining experience is nothing short of miraculous.”

Most diners are happy to be out at their favorite restaurants, they’re appreciative, and respectful of safety guidelines and mask requirements. However, building consumer confidence back up is definitely a challenge and a gradual process. We need to keep driving home to all diners that extra safety precautions are necessary for everyone, so we can stay on a steady path and keep up our progress with reopening. Closing down again would be absolutely devastating for restaurants that are struggling to survive.

We have work to do collectively to get these COVID-19 numbers back down and build on our reopening progress. The IRA is having conversations with local and state leaders to make sure we can be creative, innovative, and flexible on outdoor dining as well - tents, heaters, bubbles, expanded footprints - whatever it takes.

“The Illinois Restaurant Association and University of Illinois Food Science and Human Nutrition Department should be commended for their joint effort to build and share resources for the restaurant industry during this difficult time,” says Jennifer Russell, community and economic development educator with University of Illinois Extension.

IRA Efforts to Support the Industry

Throughout the pandemic, the IRA has been at the forefront leading our industry. We’ve worked with Governor Pritzker and state leaders to expand outdoor dining options, allow for the sale of cocktails to go, provide additional payment flexibility between retailers and liquor distributors, offer grants to small restaurants, and more. We’ve also opened up our breaking alerts and resources to all restaurant operators and vendors around the state. Restaurants are looking for help, they are looking for guidance, and the IRA is here to provide it.

As we recognize there is still an enormous need at this time, we’ve recently launched the IRA Educational Foundation Employee Relief Fund. The goal of the fund is to provide direct financial support to industry professionals that are in need of assistance during this crisis. If you or an employee you know in the hospitality industry needs support, or if you are interested in getting involved with the Employee Relief Fund, please reach out to the Association team anytime.

What Restaurants Need

The challenges that restaurants around Illinois are facing are not unique; they are happening everywhere across the country. These nationwide, industry-wide challenges require federal solutions, complemented by pragmatic policies at the local and state levels. The IRA has been working with the National Restaurant Association and our state restaurant association partners on a Blueprint for Restaurant Revival, a plan calling for a variety of short, medium, and long term reforms and relief measures to support our nation’s restaurant and hospitality industry.

Included in the plan is the creation of a $120 billion Restaurant Recovery Fund for structured relief to help restaurants get the liquidity they need, adapt, rehire and eventually reopen. We need everything to be at the table and for our leaders at all levels to continue thinking outside the box for ways to help our industry get through this.

“Even though restaurants may have found a way to make payroll and keep the lights on through this point in time, they still need a lot of help," Brotherton says. "Continued support from federal and state governments, organizations like the Illinois Restaurant Association, and customers will be critical to their future viability.”

How You Can Help

There are a few things that every person in Illinois can do to help your local restaurants and bars right now.

  • Order from your favorite neighborhood restaurants. Go to the ones you’ve known and loved for years, or the new places around the corner that have recently started out.
  • Buy a gift card. Even if you can’t get out for a nice lunch or dinner, or aren’t ready to dine out, you can help give that restaurant a little bit of revenue that they desperately need.
  • Consider adding on a cocktail, beer, or bottle of wine to your order. These items supplement food orders and really go a long way to support a restaurant or bar’s bottom line.
  • Donate to a restaurant’s employee relief fund, or donate to a local nonprofit that is supporting the hospitality industry and it’s employees.
  • When dining out, closely follow public health guidance and house rules. Wearing face coverings, social distancing, showing up on time, staying within designated time limits, and more are all important to keep restaurants running safely and efficiently.

SOURCE: Sam Toia: Since 2012, Sam Toia has served as president & CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, a non-profit trade association representing the state’s largest private sector employer. Toia is responsible for managing day-to-day operations of the association, increasing its membership base, developing strategies to enhance its profitability, and maintaining positive relations with public officials and state and local agencies. He is passionate about local, state, and federal issues affecting the hospitality industry.