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Commentary: Restaurants do more than serve food, they build community

Commentary: Restaurants do more than serve food, they build community
May 20
14:49 2020

By Claire Calvin

I am a small business owner and resident of an incredibly resilient city. I own three restaurants in Winston-Salem – The Porch, Alma Mexicana and Canteen Market & Bistro. 
Independent restaurants are the economic engine for so many other local businesses – family farms, vendors, suppliers, and service companies. Chipotle is not hiring your neighbor’s graphic design firm for a new logo or a local attorney for legal advice. 

We support the state and local tax base, donate to local charities and schools, and invest our time and money into improving the community. Collectively, we employ our neighbors who in turn pay rent, buy cars, shop, go out to eat, and otherwise participate in our local economy. 

And, of course, we feed people in ways both physical and emotional. These past few weeks, while our dining room and two of our three restaurants have been closed, our kitchen at The Porch has continued to make and sell food for take-out and delivery, and that has felt so amazing to be able to provide a service to the community in these dark days. 
Every person and every industry will have much work to do in the next year to rebuild and restore some sense of normalcy, and the challenges to each are unique and complex. Some industries will be more disrupted than others, but all will face new and difficult problems. 
For independent restaurants, the challenges are many and survival depends, in large part, on how federal agencies, state and city governments proceed. Like airlines, hotels and entertainment venues, independent restaurants – particularly ones primarily sustained by dine-in sales – are still in free fall. Simply re-opening is not a solution that will address the needs of most restaurants, so if we care about saving them at all, we need action that specifically targets the issues they face.

As states begin to move away from total lockdowns, there will be many bumps in the road, and no one knows exactly what will happen. We’re all in uncharted territory, and we must observe and learn from others. 

In the past weeks, I have been working long days in the restaurant trying to keep our business afloat doing take-out and delivery, and before and after work reading as much as I can to learn best practices on re-opening safely from around the world, talking to restaurant owners and industry leaders around the country who are trying to re-imagine their businesses, and creating one scenario after another for our own restaurants. I am exhausted, mentally and physically, and I know that the next 12 months will require even more of all of us. 

I am willing to do the hard work ahead, and I expect the same from our government leaders. “Allowing” restaurants to reopen without financial help, stringent regulations and public (government) support is unconscionable and it will bankrupt small businesses.

Many years ago, I was asked to write about my “why” for getting into the restaurant business, and I remember that I wrote the line “This was never about food.” It is about building community, and food is the tool we use to do it. The work we do is about building up and serving the collective community and the people in it. We use food to gather you to our spaces, but then we get to watch magic happen when you all are there with us in that noisy, chaotic and living space. 
Please join with us in the hard work it will take to bring back that magic. I really do believe we can get there and beyond, but we need you all to make it happen.

Claire Calvin is a founding member of Triad Food & Beverage Coalition and owner of The Porch, Alma Mexicana, and Canteen Market & Bistro. Reach her at clairecalvin@nullgmail.com.

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