St. Louis Restaurants Face a Recipe for Disaster

As COVID-19 spread, restaurants have transitioned curb-side delivery in their fight to survive.
As COVID-19 spread, restaurants have transitioned curb-side delivery in their fight to survive. TRENTON ALMGREN-DAVIS

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Joel Crespo (left) with his partner Brian Hardesty. - JOHNNY FUGIT
Joel Crespo (left) with his partner Brian Hardesty.

Joel Crespo’s bleak assessment comes from the lack of substantive help the restaurant industry has so far received as it struggles to balance doing the right thing for public health and following government directives with basic survival. Though government officials have paid lip service to the pain that those in the hospitality industry are experiencing, there has been little in the way of actual assistance. At the time of this writing, the federal government had yet to pass legislation aimed at addressing the crisis and was still debating the best way to do so. Cash payments to households, an airline bailout and expansion of unemployment benefits have been discussed, but nothing has yet to go into effect, let alone get into the hands of those who need it. Crespo cannot help but feel frustrated with what he sees as inaction.

“There are concrete things that can be done – Small Business Administration (SBA) loan relief, rent relief, expansion of unemployment – but there is no direction,” Crespo says. “We live in a world where people are two paychecks away from being homeless, and restaurants are the equivalent of that. We’re facing an existential crisis and things need to happen fast. We can’t wait for federal aid six months from now. We’re wondering if we’re going to have a restaurant in two weeks.”

Crespo’s cries for help and guidance are echoed by two of the St. Louis restaurant community’s most prominent voices: chef Gerard Craft of Niche Food Group and restaurateur Mark Hinkle of Olive + Oak and the Clover and the Bee. Both have been lobbying state and congressional officials to take immediate action that they believe could give restaurants and related businesses the lifeline they need to keep from going under during this business disruption. Craft’s efforts have included lobbying at the federal level to have all restaurant employees placed under the Family and Medical Leave Act umbrella to ensure that their jobs are protected, then give all of those employees paid leave. He has also asked for sales tax relief for those who remain open for takeout and delivery and SBA loan relief. Hinkle echoes these proposals and has also asked Missouri Governor Mike Parson to declare a disaster so that SBA disaster loans can be made available to the state’s small business community and to issue a temporary moratorium on eviction for non-payment of rent for residential tenants.

On March 19, Parson took one of those steps, directing the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency and the Missouri Department of Economic Development to seek assistance for small business through the SBA’s Disaster Loan Program. This will allow small business impacted by COVID-19 to take out loans up to $2 million at an interest rate of 3.75 percent. As of this writing, the program has yet to take effect.

“We’re saying look, if you want to bail out airlines, fine, but restaurants are the economy these days,” Craft says. “The hospitality industry as a whole – commercial developers look to restaurants because there is no more retail left, airlines are using us in in-flight magazines or they have menus by some great chef, and local restaurants are in airports now. Food and hospitality have become such a huge part of our economy, and we could quite easily lose 50 percent of Missouri restaurants in the next two months if you don’t do something. It could happen easily. You can only weather this for so long. For most, not at all.”

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