Louisville Restaurants Are Going Nuclear
The local restaurant landscape is about look different (even if nothing changes)
Names and links do not appear in this post.
A group of restaurant industry insiders met last week to discuss Gov. Beshear’s latest dining restrictions. The restrictions, lasting at least three weeks and as many as six, barred indoor dining. Outdoor seating is still permitted, though dropping temperatures impede many diners’ willingness to take advantage of the limited availability the way they had in the summer.
As the organizers spread word of the meeting in social media groups, two things became clear. First was that the number of attendees would be in excess of the Governor’s much-maligned orders for small gatherings. News of the meeting was thus restricted to private conversations and comments sections.
Second was that recording of any sort would not be permitted. When probed by a commenter, one organizer insisted that the rule was to prevent people’s words from being spliced and edited to convey a message contrary to their intent. Additionally, the lack of recordings would encourage a more open and honest dialogue.
According to one of the meeting’s attendants, several operators pledged to reopen on December 14th regardless of the Governor’s pending decision to extend the restrictions. I assumed the pledge would remain internal given the closed-door nature of the meeting.
But before the end of the week, a petition began to circulate. It’s currently approaching 1600 signatures. Nearly a third of its goal. Among the signatures are some of Louisville’s most celebrated chefs and operators. The purpose reads, “If Governor Beshear does not rescind restaurant closures, restaurants will reopen on December 14 at 50%.”
The contradiction at play is boggling. These restaurateurs are deciding which rules they will abide by. And doing so in a manner that they know will risk their livelihood in the long run. The state has not been shy about pulling licenses and permits. Nor have they withheld from issuing substantial fines.
So why would operators that have likened the restrictions to tyranny and claim the Governor has put a target on their back…publicly sign on to make sure there’s a target on their back?
To start, the restrictions create a competitive disadvantage with restaurants in southern Indiana. Consumers who insist on dining out simply have to take longer drives to circumvent the restrictions. And given the disparity in COVID cases, the extra travel increases the likelihood that cases originate across state lines. The same is true of population centers bordering other parts of Indiana as well as Ohio and Tennessee where cases are high and rules are lax.
Tightening restrictions on dining without implementing similar measures on retail—a week before notoriously hectic Black Friday no less—also fed the narrative that Beshear was targeting restaurants and bars. Why should one industry benefit from peak season while another suffers?
Much more pressing, however, is the lackluster support at both state and federal levels. The initiative announced concurrently with the latest restrictions aren’t enough to cover some restaurants’ rent, much less cover the cost of sales lost during the holiday season.
The failure to proactively address these issues has helped push along this desperate initiative. But there’s something worrisome about the response we’ve seen from the petitioners.
Say the Governor folds. Either he says, “yeah okay it’s obviously hurting your bottom line, go ahead and do what you want” or “damn, 5000 is a lot of people to have against me.” And say he doesn’t do anything about the violations; no fines, no put-you-out-of-business legal troubles. It’s an absurd thought, but say he does.
How do you address the diners’ confidence lost? The ones who have taken the precautions seriously but still supported you with regular carryout orders. The ones who take the Governor’s concern for public safety to heart. They aren’t your entire customer base, sure. But is it worth finding out just how much of it they are?
The same goes for your employees. How many will stick around once this is behind us? How many will make their way out of the industry before then?
Hospitality professionals know our reputation is everything. A customer’s trust is a fragile thing. When we elevate indignant messages that insist on self-regulation despite evidence that it hasn’t worked, we gamble with our reputations.
And with two weeks to spare, there’s plenty of significant reputations on the line.