How big business can help local restaurants survive

May 26, 2021, 12:00 PM UTC
A closed restaurant in Newark, N.J., on May 9, 2020.
Donell Woodson—Getty Images

Boarded-up storefronts and citizens without enough to eat point to a continuing COVID-induced crisis in our cities. Seventeen percent of restaurants in the U.S. had closed permanently or long term by Dec. 1 of last year, the result of months of low sales and public health capacity restrictions. And the economic toll means 42 million Americans, including 13 million children, face the specter of continued food deprivation this year.

Our urban neighborhoods are landscapes of small shops and entrepreneurs. We fear lasting inequality and irreparable damage to these businesses and to the health and food needs of vulnerable citizens in cities across America. The $28.6 billion Restaurants Act in the American Rescue Plan offers hope, but our restaurants need more if they are to survive through the crisis. They need ongoing support from their communities—not just customers but, crucially, large local employers focusing their investment capacities beyond philanthropy.

We have seen private actors already lift their communities, from Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert’s long-term championing and financing of economic stability projects in Detroit to snowboard manufacturer Burton retooling its Burlington, Vt., facility to make face shields for Northeast hospitals. In Newark, N.J., where our businesses are based, we’ve been part of a similar story.

Audible moved its global headquarters to Newark in 2007 to be part of the city’s renaissance. A decade later, Marcus B&P began serving comfort food and cocktails in a long-vacant Newark department store. Newark’s comeback from decades of disinvestment had gained significant momentum before the pandemic, with nearly $6 billion of development in the pipeline. Our businesses will be in Newark after the pandemic, but we fear other businesses and our most vulnerable residents will not be as lucky.

This is why we joined forces last April to launch Newark Working Kitchens (NWK), a nonprofit designed to help keep restaurants open and their cooks, servers, and staff working to prepare and deliver meals to Newark’s low-income seniors, families, and homeless. NWK is a model that can work in any city with a committed base of corporate anchors willing to invest in smaller businesses.

Here’s how it works: Every $10 donated to NWK buys a meal from one of our 30 restaurant partners, who each receive orders of hundreds of meals per week through the program. We work with Mayor Ras Baraka’s administration and community organizations to bring those cooked meals to people who cannot or should not go out to find food. We will have delivered over 1 million meals by June. 

It is hard for either of us to convey the deep sense of purpose and pride that emanates daily from the restaurateurs and employees turned into frontline crisis response workers, or the camaraderie the effort has created among social service professionals and volunteers. The majority of these business owners and employees are people of color, women who head their households, or immigrants.

As rising vaccination rates deliver a long-awaited message of hope, many residents in comeback cities like Newark, where one in four residents lived below the poverty line before COVID-19, could be left behind as their health and incomes continue to be threatened by an uneven recovery. The need for consistent nutritious meals will remain high, as will be the need to keep restaurants in the urban core afloat during the economic recovery. Doing so may mean the difference between a transitory recession and a sustained depression in cities like Newark.

Other organizations are also connecting restaurant workers to those in need. Washington, D.C.-based social enterprise organization, DC Central Kitchen, has turned its job training cafe into a food production site, hiring graduates of its job training program to prepare meals and deliver them to schools, shelters, public housing sites, and senior living centers. And groups like World Central Kitchen, an NWK operational partner, have empowered local restaurants nationwide to cook meals for communities in need.

We urge private sector decision-makers and government officials to consider how programs like these can sustain jobs, businesses, and lives in their own communities. Hope is on the horizon, but as the narrative shifts to reopening and a “return to normal,” that reality will not be possible for many who have lost jobs, lost businesses, or face tremendous debt. We cannot forget them.

Don Katz is the founder and executive chairman of Audible and the founder of Newark Venture Partners. 

Marcus Samuelsson is an award-winning chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, philanthropist, and food activist. 

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