The solution in Vilnius — and “a REALLY efficient way of killing locally owned restaurants.”


Close the streets and let us spill out onto them. Get those cars the hell out of the way. Governor Holcomb may wish to keep those alcohol rules relaxed for a great deal longer.

Lithuanian capital to be turned into vast open-air cafe, by Jon Henley (The Guardian)

Vilnius gives public space to bars and cafes to allow physical distancing during lockdown

Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, has announced plans to turn the city into a vast open-air cafe by giving over much of its public space to hard-hit bar and restaurant owners so they can put their tables outdoors and still observe physical distancing rules.

The Baltic state, which has recorded 1,344 cases of the coronavirus and 44 deaths, allowed cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating, hairdressers and almost all shops to begin reopening this week as part of a staged exit from lockdown.

But the health ministry has imposed strict physical distancing rules and safety measures. Shops must limit the number of customers at one time, masks will remain mandatory in all public spaces, and cafe and restaurant tables have to be placed at least two metres apart.

That posed a problem for many restaurateurs in Vilnius old town, Senamiestis, a Unesco-listed world heritage site whose narrow streets make it almost impossible to place more than a couple of tables outside – prompting the mayor’s offer.

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafes will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season and thus conduct their activities during quarantine,” said Remigijus Šimašius. Public safety remained the city’s top priority, the mayor said, but the measure should help cafes to “open up, work, retain jobs and keep Vilnius alive”.

The preceding is the appetizer. Here’s the main course; dessert can be the beer or bourbon of your choice (dutch treat, natch). Maybe just another Twitter tweeter, but with an exceedingly clear explanation of where we stand in the indie restaurant biz, and where we may or may not be going. I’ve combined her 12 tweets into a readable whole.

As someone who grew up in the restaurant industry (my dad managed locally owned restaurants for 40+ years), forcing restaurants to reopen with limited capacity for social distancing purposes is a REALLY efficient way of killing locally owned restaurants.

And when I say forcing here, what I mean is that if a state/municipality lifts the portion of the stay at home order that has been affecting restaurants and instituting these rules, they take away the restaurant’s leverage to negotiate with landlords/creditors/etc.

Or to pursue any form of grants/SBAs/PPP funding to try to retain or pay staff during this. So they don’t really have any choice but to reopen.

BUT, even at the best of times, restaurants run on helluva tight margins. They count on mostly full houses to pay bills — bills like rent, utilities, insurance, suppliers (food/liquor/linens/paper goods/cleaning products), salaries, and taxes.

A slow couple of weeks of the house being less than full means some or those bills might not get paid. Too many weeks and restaurants fold.

So when you tell restaurants to reopen at diminished capacity, you’re taking the legs out from under them, and even if they can hope to stay afloat, you’re also asking them to create systems for dealing with that limited capacity from whole cloth.

Let’s say Mom & Pop’s place has a normal capacity of 30, but now they can seat 25% of that. That’s 7 people. Maybe 2 tables. Who gets those two tables? You probably can’t have people sitting around waiting for them.

So is everything reservation only now?

Anyone who has hostessed somewhere with reservations can tell you what a nightmare they often are. You take them assuming people will only be there a certain amount of time and they stay too long. Or have more in their party. Or they no show.

But if you can’t have people trying to do walk ins, how else can you do it with appropriate social distancing? So you take reservations and tell people they have strict time limits? Then if they’re staying too long, you force them out?

They’ll take that out on servers.

In A LOT of these states, those servers are making $2.15 an hour plus tips. So if the servers have to rush people through meals to get tables turned to try to get the meal counts to make this remotely viable for the restaurant, their tips are going to suffer.

That will get passed back up to the restaurant who will then have to make up the difference up to minimum wage. To do that and have any possible hope of staying afloat, you’re probably looking at menu prices going up.

Add in the idea that Americans who have been out of work for the last two months aren’t all going to have the money to go rushing back out to eat, and this whole thing is a going to push a LOT of local restaurants to the tipping point.

(And possibly some large corporate chains, given the way some of them have also been struggling, but my experience is primarily in locally owned restaurants).

If you want to KILL small restaurant and bar businesses, this is how you do it.