Harsh Times: The restaurant industry is hard enough

COVID-19 makes it tougher

Gregg Reese | 9/4/2020, midnight
To say that the coronavirus (COVID-19) has reshaped world commerce..

During 2020 she has survived, abetted by government help in the form of an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, and others. At best this is a hit and miss proposition, as she doesn’t qualify for many loans due to one technicality or another. Dwindling revenues don’t keep pace with the monthly commitments of mortgage payments, payroll, utilities and other expenses, resulting in mounting debt.

Sign of the times

For decades anyone driving north on Crenshaw Blvd. would notice a perpetual line snaking out the door of Chef Marilyn’s, Queen of Down Home Southern Goodies (https://www.chefmarilyns2638.com/). This line was a testament to the quality of proprietor Marilyn Cole’s product, a staple of the community since 1989. She’s had her ups and downs before and after the turn of the millennium, but was riding high before March of this year, when the pandemic hit.

Hers is a concern already devoted to take out, but the sluggish economy has forced her to lay off 14 of her 20 employees.

“It could be worse,” Cole says. “A lot of people are out of business.”

Cole points to “The Living Room,” a bar and neighborhood fixture momentarily closed per Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order.

No less an authority than Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading infectious disease expert, has cautioned about mingling in close proximity indoors.

"You can get outdoors, you can interact — wear a mask, try to avoid the close  congregation of people, wash your hands often,” Fauci said before a recent Senate hearing.

California state health advisors hold that a recent surge of the virus was caused by the tendency of bar patrons to ignore social distancing, and the fact that alcohol lowers the inhibitions (and judgment) of these customers. Some of these businesses have been allowed to reopen, given the stipulation that they serve food with the beverages in a seated environment — outdoors of course.

Surviving (and thriving) in the post-pandemic world

“How do I change my business model even when folks aren’t coming inside to eat.”

—Mo Sloan of EZ-Chow (https://ez-chow.com/)

Curiously enough, newly emerged technologies in place well before the onslaught of COVID-19 may prove to be the salvation of the hospitality industry. Just as the internet and online commerce transformed brick and mortar businesses, so has it shifted the phenomenon of take out cuisine.

Muhammad “Mo” Sloan did not start off as a restaurateur. Growing up in middle America, his generation was among the first to fall under the sway of the digital deluge.

“I have been writing programs and “coding” since I was seven years old,” he remembers.

These interest sustained throughout his professional career, as he provided tech support for such entities as UPS, Humana Inc., and Papa Johns International (PJI), the pizza franchise.

“I saw first-hand how technology helped PJI go from a single restaurant in a broom closet, to a top-three organization in the pizza space.”

This motivated him to form his own startup, and EZ Chow was launched in 2015.

“I wanted to help restaurants leverage technology to grow their respective business,” he says.

EZ-Chow’s comparatively low revenue of two to three percent is boasted by its client base, which extends far beyond the confines of its physical locale of Louisville, KY and the neighboring states of Indiana and Ohio. The freedom of the internet means it’s participants are not hamstrung by the confines of geography. As such their clientele extends from New York to the West Coast.

As Sloan explains it “...the restaurant’s website (or app) is the storefront, rather than forcing the restaurant to go through a delivery marketplace.”

Of all the individuals interviewed, Mo Sloan is the most optimistic respondent.

“COVID-19 has just accelerated the need and demand for our technology and our solution. Restaurants who don’t adapt and evolve their digital strategy will go extinct, it’s a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if.’”