One of my greatest friends and my most loyal customer came inside Stomping Ground a few months after we closed our dining room for the foreseeable future. She saw with fresh eyes what I had become totally numb to: booths and tables filled with to-go boxes, art haphazardly hanging on the walls, plates, coffee cups, menus packed neatly in clear cambros, waiting for employment. The music was off. The thermostat and lights at a minimum level to save money. Steph, who has continued to support our restaurant with daily (yes, daily) trips to our takeout window, was overcome at the sight before her. Her eyes filled up with tears. My loss was her loss. My grief was her grief.
Restaurants are never just about food alone; they function as sites of social exchange, mirrors of our own culture. Going to restaurants is a collective experience about the tastes, values, and attitudes that we share. We come together to observe how we come together. Restaurants are town squares to celebrate personal and professional milestones, to find comfort in the familiar, to be delighted, to share news, to break bread. They are the libraries of personal collective memories, the patchwork of a great American quilt.
If you know me, then please forgive me as I am beginning to sound like a broken record, but COVID-19’s impact on independent restaurants cannot be overstated. More than one in six restaurants and bars (that’s about 100,000) have closed in the last year, and estimates say that up to 85 percent risk closing permanently. Temporary and permanent closures have left nearly three million people without jobs, including over 370,000 people who lost their jobs this past December alone. We are a 900 billion dollar industry employing 15 million people.
Many point to efforts of relief packages from Washington, but we can’t afford to rely solely on what happens (or more importantly, what doesn’t happen) on The Hill. Our survival will come down to the creativity and innovation of owners and employees, on a monumental shift in how restaurants operate, and on your individual support — not just with dollars, but with unprecedented patience and fierce loyalty as we continue to “adapt or die” repeatedly in this punishing climate. We are just now starting to truly understand what restaurants of the future will look like.
The choices you make now will help shape that future. Every time you eat out, you vote for a version of your community that matters most. If we don’t work to save independent restaurants, we will face a homogenization of our food landscape where restaurants like mine will not survive. Restaurants owned and operated by people who call your neighborhood home too. Restaurants that expand and grow, not to fill the pockets of investors, but to provide more opportunities for staff and create livable wages and fair working environments. Restaurants that increase your home values. Restaurants that remember your order and know your kids’ names.
For the entirety of the pandemic, restaurant employees have served as public health police. When this is over, our communities will look to us, once again, to be the restorers of civil life. Without skipping a beat, we will give you back all that you missed during quarantine – a time at home to be safe, which we didn’t have the privilege of even considering. We will do so with a smile and empathy that will often not be returned.
However long it takes for this pandemic to be over, and whatever restaurants look like, collectively we will need to sit at tables to celebrate, contemplate, and find release — to find meaning again after months (years?) circumscribed by COVID-19. It isn’t over yet, and we need to save restaurants now.
I didn’t watch the Super Bowl, but if you did, you might have caught a thirty-second commercial paid for by Cointreau (the fancy French liqueur) in collaboration with the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC). The spot encouraged game-day viewers to tag a favorite restaurant or bar on social media with a simple “Thank You” or a heartfelt “See You Soon.” More than just encouraging words, these “Love Letters” are an effort to raise awareness of the plight my industry continues to face. To share your love letter and learn more about how you can support the IRC, visit cointreau.com/saverestaurants.
If you wander down Del Ray’s, “The Avenue,” you won’t miss the farm-red building with a rustic fence bordering the patio. Stomping Ground opened two years ago and quickly became popular for its made-from-scratch biscuits and its neighborhood vibe. On weekends, excited guests line up before Stomping Ground opens hoping to be the first to get a just-out-of-the-oven biscuit or a fresh salad. Stomping Ground is mostly known for its fast casual breakfast and lunch but on Thursdays and Fridays they provide a full dinner service after 5:00pm. All meals are built from local, seasonal food that is organic whenever possible.
2309 Mt Vernon Avenue
Alexandria, VA 22301